NEWS & ANALYSIS

The ANC vs the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Belinda Bozzoli says the budget of the Dept of Science and Technology has been cut to the bone

Budget Speech: Department of Science and Technology

Belinda Bozzoli, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology

9 July 2019

Our Deputy President did not know what the Fourth Industrial Revolution was when asked about it last year. But it remains on everybody’s lips. The President last week addressed a high-level summit on the subject, and numerous task teams, conferences and workshops have taken place.

Knowing our esteemed President we might expect another summit fairly soon.

For the sake of the Vice President, let’s say that the first IR was based on steam, the second on mechanization, and the third on information technology. So what is the fourth? Basically it entails the penetration of very advanced technology and IT into spheres of life never before imagined, from the body and the home, to work and cultural and social life.

Anything from Robots to Nanomaterials and Genetic manipulation may be included.

A vast change in the structure of societies and economies worldwide is well under way whether we like it or not.

This is not going to be easy to deal with given the state of our economy. We already have sky-high unemployment – but it has been estimated by the World Economic Forum that up to 40% of white- and blue-collar jobs in South Africa are vulnerable to extinction as this revolution proceeds, and that a range of previously inconceivable, mainly very highly skilled, jobs will emerge.

A recent Russian survey of such future jobs includes nanomaterials designers, environmental counsellors, neural interface designers and genetic consultants. Many new jobs will be creative rather than mechanical.

The progression of this change is unavoidable. You can’t “decide” to engage or not engage in it. Just as the IT revolution – cellphones and computers for example - invaded our society, so will these changes. Your best bet is to try to stay ahead of it, and engage it on your terms.

Only one Department in government actually knows and understands something of this – the Department of Science and Technology. Overseeing the country’s highest levels of Science and Innovation done in Universities, the CSIR and other agencies, this Department is, by comparison with what we see elsewhere - a well-run gem. It provides funding for Universities and others to work in a substantial number of the fields of the future, including large data analysis, robotics, nanotechnology, new materials, advanced astronomy, climate science, bio-innovation, the hydrogen economy, various aspects of the environmental sciences, and dozens of others. We have many top researchers, some world class, who do this work.

It does not fund genetic research or microbiology or any others of the most advanced medical and biological sciences as this is done through the Medical Research Council. But it is the mainstay of South Africa’s modest efforts to develop and sustain its own science base – to work against a situation in which we are, indeed, colonised by the knowledge and knowhow of more advanced economies.

But it is one of the most neglected Departments in government.

A paltry budget of R8bn annually for research and development covering the whole country barely equals the budget of just one of our major Universities. And this budget has been shrinking, in real terms, every year for the past several years. In an era of very widespread populism, research is treated as a luxury rather than a necessity, and is even resented by some as a waste of money.

The National Research Foundation and the CSIR, each of which funds and stimulates research of the highest order for the entire country, each survive on a basic Parliamentary grant of roughly R1bn per annum. Their base shrank by 4 percent in real terms this year. Their dependence on private funding reduces their ability to pursue the frontiers of knowledge. Top researchers now get less funding than they did five years ago and the amounts dedicated to advanced areas of work are often paltry – in the millions rather than the billions. Research entities are demoralized and new young researchers come forward in depressingly small numbers. Infrastructure remains dated in many places.

The Department has valiantly sought to keep the national research effort going under difficult circumstances. However they are now saying that fundamentals will have to be cut as the budget has shrunk below a sustainable level.

The Department of Science and Technology is merging with the massive behemoth which is Higher Education and Training. Higher Ed has more than ten times the budget of Science and Technology (over R100bn). Unlike Science and Technology it has little or no expertise or funding related to future concerns. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the travails of student funding and has little time or inclination to go further.

It cannot yet provide most of the skills needed for the future.

So the question arises: how will the more forward-looking Department of Science and Tech be treated in a merger with the stagnant and bureaucratically overburdened Department of Higher Education and Training. This will be a litmus test of the seriousness with which the government really takes their commitment to the future, whether we call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution or not.

If it is it just a fad, a fantasy, a buzzword there to distract us from the terrible state of our economy and society, then Science and Technology will remain a small and struggling blip on the screen. The ineffective and floundering bureaucracy which is Higher Education will prevail and Science will suffer. If there is a serious commitment to the matter, then the budget for advanced Science will rapidly escalate, in keeping with the need for us to stay on top of, rather than succumb to, future trends.

As it stands the phrase “Fourth Industrial Revolution” seems more like a buzzword than anything else, and in this Department at least, the Government is failing to put funding forward to back its rhetoric. It’s time for us to use our money to support and develop what we already have rather than ill-informed fantasies.