Botswana’s science policy gets mixed welcome

The policy aims to increase investment in R&D Copyright: Flickr/IITA Image Library

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[GABORONE] Botswana’s new science, technology and innovation policy has drawn mixed reactions, with some parliamentarians and researchers praising the policy, and others dismissing it as too weak to stimulate the development of the country’s science sector.

The policy, passed by the parliament last month (13 August), paves the way for the establishment of three science and technology bodies — council, fund and directorate — to oversee for the country’s research and development (R&D).

"It’s a key policy that we have been waiting for," said Joseph Mbaiwa, an associate professor at the Okavango Research Institute, in Gaborone. With new funds available, R&D could be scaled up for positive impact on the lives of the citizens, he added.  

Presenting the policy in parliament, Johnie Swartz, minister of infrastructure, science and technology, said it will create a robust national innovation system involving policymakers, researchers, industry, international collaborators, technology end-users and other stakeholders.

It will also provide a supportive legal framework for science, technology and innovation programmes for economic development.

The existing Department of Research Science and Technology will be transformed into the Directorate of Research and Technology, which will deal with issues of legislation. It will primarily be responsible for creating policy and a legislative environment to facilitate inclusive participation in science, technology and innovation, according to Swartz.

The policy will ensure a gradual increase in R&D investment to a target of at least two per cent of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) in four years’ time.

According to Lesego Motoma, director of the Department of Research, Science and Technology, a government R&D survey is underway, but the most recent figures put the country’s investment at 0.43 per cent of GDP.

Isaac Mabiletsa of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), one of the main opposition parties in Botswana, argued that the new policy was not clear on its desired outcomes, and that the government was known for doing a lot of paperwork without implementation.  

"We need something that is more aggressive," he said.

Mabiletsa added that Botswana has huge agricultural and mining sectors, but that the policy was silent on how research will be used to turn raw materials into home-manufactured products rather than keep exporting them to developed countries.

Isaac Masonde, director of research and development at the University of Botswana, said the policy was "a positive step forward, although it is coming too late in the day when people are already set in their ways of doing science".

According to Masonde, the policy looks good on paper but will fail without the institutions and socio-economic environment necessary for its success.

"R&D funding [has been] too low to stimulate innovation either in the tertiary [education] institutions or across the national economy," Masonde added. "The country also lacks structures for moving innovation, such as patent lawyers and high quality laboratories."