The study aimed to look at the priority areas of South African terms of technology development and the impact thereof. In terms of publications, a bibliometric analysis of selected research priority areas in South Africa was done using the Web of Science database for the period 2001 - 2015. The performance of the country in the areas of biotechnology, energy, astronomy and palaeontology in terms of the publication output in these areas is compared using two classic scientometric indicators, the activity and attractivity indices. These are important priority areas as highlighted in various government policy documents and the aim was to identify if outputs in these fields are corresponding with government policy. The study also identifies leading institutions in the country in terms of publication output, while the performance is also benchmarked against that of the other BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) group of countries, as well as Egypt. It is found that South Africa has a relatively high output in research areas in which it enjoys geographical advantage, such as astronomy and palaeontology, and compares favourably with comparator countries in all areas reviewed. In terms of the institutional profile, and based on publication outputs over the period considered, the University of Cape Town is a leader in energy, the University of Stellenbosch in biotechnology, the University of the Witwatersrand in palaeontology, and the National Research Foundation in the area of astronomy.
The study then evaluated the priority areas in terms of patents. It was found that South Africa is the most prolific producer of patents in the African continent. This study assessed the inventive activity through patents registered by South African researchers worldwide, using the WIPO database. The focus of the study was on research priority areas documented in the South African government policy documents. The research priority areas considered were ICT, nanotechnology, biotechnology, climate change, energy and health. Patents in the areas were compared with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries and Egypt. The comparison was done using the revealed technological advantage, sometimes referred to as the specialisation index. It was found that two African countries have not increased their patent share significantly and are yet to find their specialisation. It was found that while South Africa is doing well in terms of patenting in general, with patents showing an upward trend, the profile of inventions being patented are not necessarily aligned with the priority areas as documented in government policy.
Another question that remained was how South Africa is progressing in developing emerging technologies, with nanotechnology and nanoscience as a case study. This is one of the country’s priorities and a fast-growing scientific research area internationally, and is classified as an important emerging research area. In response to this, South African researchers and institutions have also increased their efforts in this area. A bibliometric study of articles, as indexed in the Web of Science, considered the development in this field, including the growth in literature, collaboration profile and the research areas that are more within the country’s context. It also looked at public institutions that are more active in this arena, including government policy considerations as guided by the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Strategy launched in 2005. The study found that the number of nanotechnology publications have shown remarkable growth ever since. The articles are spread through many journals with Electrochimica acta having the most articles, followed by Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. These publications fall within the traditional domains of chemistry and physics. In terms of the institutional profile and based on publication outputs over the period reviewed, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is a leading producer of publications in nanotechnology, followed by the University of Witwatersrand - both institutions are based in Gauteng Province. There is a high level of international collaboration with different countries within this field, the most productive of which is with India, then USA, and thirdly, China, as measured through co-authorship.
Finally, R&D efficiency, as expressed by the publication and patent outputs in scientific fields compared with the overall investment in R&D, was studied. The study focussed on the two important fields in South Africa; nanotechnology and biotechnology. In addition to this, South Africa’s R&D efficiency in all scientific fields was compared to that of the other BRICS countries. Data on R&D expenditure was used as input in the R&D process to achieve this comparison. The study found that, within South Africa, nanotechnology has been doing well on both patent and publications produced per US dollar spent on research development. The efficiency in terms of publications in this field started to fall slightly in 2013, to be equivalent to that of biotechnology. In context of the BRICS countries, it was found that South Africa has the highest R&D efficiency as measured by both patents and publications. This may offer some lessons to its bigger BRICS partners in terms of best practice in keeping the cost low and productivity high despite a relatively small science system.
Relevant literature reviewed in this research includes the use of bibliometrics methods for science and technology studies. The priority areas and the country-specific issues are also discussed, with particular emphasis to challenges in developing countries. While the study focussed on developing countries, the BRICS grouping, mainstream literature provided a useful background, especially with respect to designing the methodologies for the data collection. The conceptual models discussed in this study – the TENs and the Triple helix – all emphasise the multi-agency approach to innovation, with the government being just one of the actors in the innovation ecosystem. The low level of industrial involvement in development of the priority areas, as indicated in patenting and publication trends, indicates that this one important player is missing in the system that should include all the players, which are the academia, industry and government. Strategies should be put in place to incentivise private sector R&D investment to raise the GERD that is currently very low when compared to other countries.