The time is ripe for South Africa (SA) to reconsider its strategies for advancing basic science. With global challenges and especially those on the African continent, it is urgent the Research Development (R&D) funding is re-considered in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply-chain disruption and various other issues relating to science and technology.
Across the globe, there is a clarion call to improve science policy and the first step towards this should be input from young female scientists about their challenges and overall experiences. While SA is home to much innovation and many world-class scientists, productivity is lacking because of insufficient financial resources, research assessment, grant processes and cultural conventions. Policies are seen as more suited to applications discovery, favouring short-term results over bold exploration.
What really matters for basic-science researchers
For basic-science researchers, it is not only funding that matters, but fun and the joy of discovery. Yet the usual support and assessment structures in the scientific environment reward regular output, not unpredictable exploration. At almost every university across the globe, academics are evaluated on the number of papers they produce during a review period and requirements are seen as rigid. Globally, scientists face the same issues with counted publications which translate into numerical scores required for promotion. The rationale is to promote fairness and discourage favouritism, but the actual result is that academics must pursue low-risk, short-term projects which can produce enough papers in the period.
Second, it is not only the size of grants that matters for basic science, but the stability of funding. To pursue innovation, scientists need time as much as money, yet most funding programmes for individual researchers run for just one to three years, not long enough to drive a risky project to fruition.
Scientists are of the opinion that because evaluations are annual, it leaves little time for dreaming big dreams. Even if universities wanted to shift evaluations to allow longer-term projects, requirements are locked in by government policies evaluating institutions each year and funding them through competitively awarded contracts. Across the world, universities rarely have block grants or similar tools to stabilise researchers’ funding.
Policies and predictable financial return
Most research infrastructure was constructed to foster applied research. Many of its conventions still favour this approach, even if the funds are designated for a curiosity-driven, knowledge-seeking endeavour. The existing research strategy also heavily favours small pilot projects over larger, riskier ones. It is more focused on securing returns and minimising losses than on maximising possibilities.
Yes, scientists understand that science is financed by taxpayers, meaning the research community should be accountable for spending. However, there should be financial and cultural returns on investment over all projects over the long term. But basic science suffers if it is expected to provide clear, consistent, predictable gains.
Doubling or even tripling funding for basic science won’t bring a Nobel Prize to and the African continent if motivations of basic-science researchers are not fully enshrined into policy.