[OUDTSHOORN, SOUTH AFRICA] Countries in southern Africa are producing so few scientific publications and patents that the region's social and economic progress is threatened, and it could fail to meet its Millennium Development Goals, says a study.
The South African Development Community (SADC), comprising 15 countries, produced only around 0.7 per cent of the world's share of scientific publications between 2004 and 2008. In comparison, India produced 2.9 per cent and Latin American countries 4.1 per cent of the world's output in the same period.
About 79 per cent of SADC's publications came from South Africa but the country spent less than 1 per cent of its GDP on research and development compared with 3–4 per cent by more developed countries.
The next most productive country, although 14 times less productive than South Africa, was Tanzania, but Mozambique and the Seychelles showed the highest growth at almost 80 per cent, while output from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe has declined since 1998.
"There is still a view in South Africa, and other African countries, that research is a luxury that only the West can afford," Anastassios Pouris, author of the study and director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, told SciDev.Net. "One only has to look at countries like China or Singapore to know this is not the case."
A focus on traditional disciplines in southern Africa — agriculture and animal and plant sciences — also hampers innovation, which is more likely in fields such as engineering and molecular biology, reports the study, published in the August issue of Scientometrics.
While science and technology are recognised in SADC's regional development plan as key drivers of socio-economic development, not enough is being done to implement these plans, Pouris said. "Real, sustainable growth comes from innovation," he added.
"Every government department in every country in Africa should be committing a percentage of its budget to innovation and research," said Pouris. "One minister in one government department is not going to help much."
Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, said that such comparative statistics provide an important benchmark and a reality check.
"While South Africa is a 'giant' in the SADC region, there is room for much improvement," she told SciDev.Net .
Johann Groenewald, a sociologist at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, said his country's poor showing is "not surprising". He blamed it on following the World Bank's recommendations to prioritise schools at the expense of higher education, which have been dropped two years ago.
But he added the study might not have accounted fully for social sciences. UNESCO's 2010 'World Social Science Report' found a 112 per cent increase in publications in social studies and humanities between 1987 and 2007 in Sub-Saharan Africa, with about half of all output coming from South Africa.
Scientometrics doi: 10.1007/s11192-010-0260-2 (2010)