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South African research funding to be ‘redefined’

Infrastructure resources must be shared, says Gansen Pillay

A senior National Research Foundation official has warned that the South African research funding landscape is set for a shake-up after dual crises.

“Given the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 and the significant budget cuts to public research funding agencies, we are challenged to redefine how research is best supported,” said Gansen Pillay on 21 September. 

Pillay is the NRF’s deputy chief executive officer in charge of research and innovation support and advancement. He made the remarks during the virtual launch of a book on research infrastructure in South Africa that was published earlier this year.

South African research funding, as elsewhere on the continent, remains beset by “many systemic challenges” that will be exacerbated by the crisis, Pillay said. He listed them as weak coordination, limited funding, outdated and limited infrastructure, and lack of basic equipment and skills.

Pillay said the NRF wants to strike a balance between fundamental and applied research that can have societal benefits. Research Professional revealed earlier in September that numerous top science positions in the country will be re-advertised as part of an innovation drive.

Research infrastructure funding will also be affected. Pillay said that it is “imperative in a fiscally constrained environment that the country not duplicate resources … A rethink of the rationalisation of research infrastructures within institutions is absolutely necessary.”

Infrastructure programmes at universities took cuts because of the country’s emergency Covid-19 budget, but Blade Nzimande, the higher education and science minister, said ongoing projects would not be affected.

The book, published in January, argued just what Pillay suggests. It also said more needs to be done to ensure that research infrastructure supports South Africa’s science transformation efforts.