One of the major challenges facing South Africa is the ongoing need to accelerate the rate of transformation of the research and innovation system. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reported less than 30% of researchers globally are women.
The National Research Foundation (NRF) promotes and supports research through, among others, the development of human capital. From the provision of funding to students and researchers to the awarding of SA Research Chairs, the NRF is committed to realising equitable participation of women in science, technology and innovation.
The mandate of the NRF is linked to that of higher education where issues such as knowledge production and access to knowledge all form part of the transformation agenda. We recognise that the NRF has played a key role in supporting many programmes and interventions that have driven change in the research landscape over time. The NRF’s own transformation agenda focuses on four main areas, namely transformation of the equity profile of postgraduate students and researchers; the knowledge enterprise; the relationship between science and society; and the organisation itself.
Over the past three academic years (2016 to 2018) the NRF invested a total of R1.8 billion, supporting a total of over 23 900 female postgraduate students, of which an average of 78% were Black, for their Honours/BTech, Master’s, Doctoral and postdoctoral studies. Of the total number of postgraduate students supported during this time, female students made up an average of 57% of the cohort against an annual target of 55%. The NRF is committed to supporting women to advance their careers.
The NRF has developed a range of funding instruments aimed at supporting emerging female researchers, including Postdoctoral Fellowships, the Thuthuka initiative, Sabbatical Grants for Completion of Doctoral Degrees, the Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP), the New Generation of Academics Programmes (nGAP) and the Professional Development Programme (PDP). To contribute to an enabling environment for researchers who are female, NRF funding allows for paid maternity leave for postdoctoral fellows and extension support for Masters and Doctoral students. The Thuthuka initiative encourages flexible employment for women by providing research grants for women holding part-time employment contracts while raising a young child.
Over the past three years, the NRF invested R1.6 billion in the form of research grants for female researchers, supporting a total of over 5300 female researchers. During this time, R113 million was allocated to female researchers under the Thuthuka programme, constituting 61% of the programme’s total grants recipients.
The SA Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) was established in 2006 by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the NRF. The main goal of the Research Chairs initiative is to strengthen and improve research and innovation capacity of public universities for producing high-quality postgraduate students and research and innovation outputs. The SARChI programme began with 21 Chairs in 2006 and grew to 157 Chairs by mid-2015. In 2015 a call was announced for 42 new Chairs exclusively for female researchers.
Today, there are 238 Research Chairs, of which 107 (45%) are held by women. The NRF is also giving attention to the importance of gender balance in advisory boards, peer review panels, and increasingly on the question of implicit/unconscious bias. The mainstreaming of gender in the assessment of research excellence standards offers an important competitive advantage for strengthening the scientific endeavour through more effective deployment of the human capital of all genders and increasing the international competitiveness of the higher education research workforce in general.
DR MOLAPO QHOBELA NRF Chief Executive Officer