Writes Dr Molapo Qhobela
Professor Belinda Bozzoli got it wrong in her opinion piece, misleadingly titled New assault on academic excellence – research grants cut amid funding shortage. The piece disingenuously focused only on one funding instrument that is aimed at incentivising researchers and ignored the main instruments for funding research and human capacity development used by the National Research Foundation, says DR MOLAPO QHOBELA.
Bozzoli suggested that the NRF is mounting an assault on academic excellence, while the truth is in fact to the contrary. Disappointing is the fact that the piece is written by a former chairperson of the NRF Board and a former A-rated researcher who has an intimate knowledge of the NRF and National System of Innovation (NSI).
Despite her knowledge, Professor Bozzoli inaccurately draws conclusions about the NRF’s entire funding of research based on changes to a single funding instrument called the Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers (IFRR) programme.
The mandate of the NRF and indeed the NRF’s strategy directs the organisation to focus squarely on academic and research excellence. To this end the NRF has been unwavering in its commitment to supporting research and academic excellence. In the period 2016/17 the NRF provided research grants totalling R1.2-billion to established researchers, including rated researchers. This included investments in 191 Research Chairs, 16 Centres of Excellence (CoEs) and the National Research Equipment Programme.
In addition to research grants that support research excellence, the NRF has invested in human capital development in order to strengthen our NSI and strengthen our country’s ability to produce globally competitive research. Just in the period 2016/17 support to both postgraduate students and emerging researchers amounted to R1.197-billion. This investment benefited 14,173 postgraduate students during the 2016 academic year.
Given the levels of investments the NRF has made in supporting academic and research excellence as well as growing our scientific workforce and providing world class research infrastructure, it is contrary to reason to suggest that the NRF has mounted an assault on academic and research excellence.
Where we are in full agreement with Professor Bozzoli is with respect to the need for more resources for the science system. This need is evident in the fact that the Science Vote and the Parliamentary grant to the NRF has declined in real terms by an average of 3% since 2013/14, and in 2016/17 the NRF parliamentary grant declined by 6.1% in real terms.
The Incentive Funding for Rated Researchers (IFRR) programme was never created as a primary vehicle for funding research. It is one of a range of schemes meant to encourage researchers to subject themselves for rating through the NRF’s peer review based evaluation. A rating serves as a valuable tool for benchmarking the quality of our researchers against the best in the world.
Given the purpose of the IFRR, the individual monetary awards are allocated on a non-competitive basis and are relatively modest and are not meant to support fully-fledged/ large sized research projects. Therefore, this funding is intended to supplement other research-related activities. This point seems to be understood by Professor Bozzoli who acknowledges that “by any standards of the true cost of research, this is not a huge amount of money”.
So why is the NRF revising its funding model for IFRR? Over the past 10 years, more researchers have subjected themselves for ratings and therefore the number of rated researchers has increased from 1,684 in 2008 to 3,689 in 2017. With the increase in the number of rated researchers the cost of maintaining the IFRR programme has increased. In the same period of 10 years the budget for the IFRR programme increased from R72-million to R158.5-million. This growth has become unsustainable in the context of declining resources in real terms.
Given the economic situation facing the country and indeed the NRF, the most judicious and prudent strategy for the NRF is to prioritise its research funding programmes while at the same time maintaining its incentive programme, albeit at a revised level. As it occurred with regards to the changes in the funding model of the IFRR, any proposed amendments to our funding programmes are always discussed with the leadership of universities prior to implementation.
This re-prioritisation will enable the NRF to invest funds to support young exceptional researchers with Y and P ratings, increase the funds available for the competitive research grants and increase the value of postgraduate student bursaries. This is important since the changes address not only matters of financial sustainability, but also the sustainability of the research system into the future. It is thus important for all of us, including the Honourable Professor Bozzoli to support the Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor, on the need for South Africa to spend 1.5% of its GDP on scientific research and development.
The NRF will continue to uphold and support research excellence in fulfilling its mandate of supporting and promoting research and human capital development for societal benefit. DM
Dr Molapo Qhobela is the Chief Executive Officer at the National Research Foundation.