Tuesday 22 September 2015

Is South Africa producing enough scientists?

One of the most pressing questions facing South Africa is whether our educational system is producing enough graduates in the sciences field to fill the country’s needs, particularly, engineers, scientists and researchers. These are of course critical vocations to the country’s infrastructure maintenance and to creating enough future infrastructure to support its needs. They are also critical to research and innovation and to ensure that South Africa can sustain and grow the industries that require scientific professionals.

Running out of scientists

Various analysts have expressed concern over a dual challenge that faces South Africa. In the first place there is the so-called “brain drain” where highly qualified people in the sciences are leaving the country to take up opportunities elsewhere. Much has been discussed about ways to retain these skilled personnel but the fact remains is that due to the rand’s low value relative to the world’s major currencies like the dollar, pound and Euro, South African firms are not able to equally compete with overseas companies that can pay much higher salaries in rand terms.

The second concern was highlighted by science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor. The government has identified a disproportionate number of our scientists are nearing retirement age. More explicitly, over half of South Africa’s existing scientists are due to retire in the next decade. On the face of it, this brings the stark reality that the country needs to produce more scientists to replace the retiring ones.

Over half of the scientific papers produced for scientific journals are now coming from this older demographic – compared to only one in ten a couple of decades ago. This clearly shows that there has been a dramatic slowdown in the number of developing researchers and scientists. It is possible that younger scientists are simply not producing as many papers but the more likely scenario is that there are not enough younger ones.

Skills transfer challenges

Much more worryingly from an educational perspective is that not only will these scientists be lost to the scientific community, they will also be lost to the educational sector. There will be a significant decrease in the number of scientists available to teach and consult in tertiary education institutions. This means that not only is our pool of scientists growing smaller but also our capacity to refill that pool through education and skills and knowledge transfer will suffer as well. The simple fact is that over the past decade the number of postgraduate enrolments in the sciences has not grown fast enough.

The bottom line is that South Africa needs to tackle this multi-faceted problem as soon as possible. It needs to replace the scientists who will be leaving their professions, while simultaneously having enough science educationalists to train the next generation. At the same time it needs to attract more young people to the scientific disciplines, which leads to a further need to engage interested learners in these disciplines when they make their subject choices at school. The school curricula needs to be of a high enough standard to properly prepare our next potential scientists for their university studies.

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