President establishes Presidential PhD Initiative to boost innovation

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Tuesday that government has established the Presidential PhD Initiative through an initial R1 billion investment from the National Skills Fund in efforts to boost science and technology.  

“The first phase aims to expose our country’s brightest young minds to cutting-edge thinking and research by negotiating opportunities at world-leading universities and research centres,” he explained.

President Ramaphosa announced the initiative during the inaugural Presidential Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Plenary in Pretoria. 

The President told the attendees that the studies will be to large scale and established research programmes in public research facilities and industry.

The initiative will build critical skills in artificial intelligence research, advanced biotechnology, fuel cell development, battery storage, and next-generation mining. 

The country’s first citizen has since called to extend a call to the private sector and international partners to assist in growing the investment for the Presidential PhD Initiative fund to R5 billion by 2030. 

He said collaboration is needed to ensure synergy between programmes across the national innovation system. 

“We must harness education, science and innovation to protect our natural environment, drive inclusive economic growth and enrich all areas of human endeavour.” 

The country’s Commander-in-Chief described the first plenary as an important initiative that brings together government, academia, civil society and industry to collectively drive South Africa’s National System of Innovation (NSI). 

In November 2022, the Cabinet adopted the STI Decadal Plan to guide the first 10 years of implementing the 2019 White Paper on STI.

“Science, technology and innovation are essential for economies to thrive and for societies to prosper. 

“In the new world of work, in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, science, technology and innovation determine which countries move forward and which are left behind. Our country has several strengths.”

Citing the 2022 Global Innovation Index published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, he said South Africa ranked above the upper-middle-income group average in three areas. 

These include market sophistication, knowledge and technology outputs, and creative outputs.

According to the index, South Africa also improved the number of patents by origin, citable documents, intellectual property receipts, high-tech manufacturing and high-tech exports. 

“However, our performance is mixed for the factors that drive innovation, such as education expenditure, expenditure on research and development and access to information technology.”

The President also highlighted significant strides in higher education including the number of students graduating from public universities from about 60 000 in 1994 to around 230 000 by 2018. 

“The share of graduates in science, engineering and technology fields has been increasing compared to graduates in the humanities.”

He also acknowledged that the State needed to significantly increase investment in research and development. 

In 2021, gross expenditure on research and development (R&D) in South Africa was 0.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), far below the targeted 1.5%.

“By comparison, in 2022, the United States spent 2.6% and South Korea spent 5% of their respective GDPs on research and development. 

“This is a situation that we are determined to turn around. Through greater cooperation between government and industry, we can reverse this trend.”

President Ramaphosa is of the view that the potential of science, technology and innovation to modernise and expand the productive sectors is vast. 

He cited the Mandela Mining Precinct and the South African Mining Extraction Research, Development and Innovation initiative, which are aimed at revitalising our mining industry. 

Shifting his focus on vaccines, he said Afrigen Biologics, a South African company part-owned by the Industrial Development Corporation, is working on a new tuberculosis vaccine using mRNA technology. 

Meanwhile, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently allocated US$5 million to Biovac to develop mRNA vaccines using a local platform. 

“This grant enables our researchers and scientists to strengthen the pharmaceutical research and vaccine production ecosystem so that we can address both current and future health challenges.” 

He said he views innovation as the driver of sustainable job creation and small business development and tackles the realities of climate change. 

“From these examples, it is clear that we are certainly progressing, but not at the pace we should be,” he admitted. 

“For science, technology and innovation to serve South Africa’s economy and society effectively, we need to aggressively and strategically invest in education and skills development because this is the lifeblood of a modern economy.

“We know that nations such as Japan, South Korea and Germany have science, technology and innovation in the service of their societies, with commendable results.”

However, Nzimande qualified that when they talk about STI, they refer to both the natural and social sciences and humanities. 

“For it is only possible to understand, let alone solve the major developmental and existential challenges of the 21st century through invoking the insights of trans-disciplinary knowledge.” –