The CEO Notes

Growing our own timber

The availability of highly skilled scientific human capital is critical to any nation’s scientific and economic advancement. Yet, in 2000 the situation looked rather bleak. Over a ten-year period, from 1990–2000, the total output of scientific articles by researchers in South Africa remained relatively constant, and while the percentage of scientific publications by authors over 50 years old increased from 20% to 47%, articles published by the 30–49 age group declined from 75% to 52%.

In addition, in the year 2000 the majority (92%) of scientific publications were authored by white authors, while black African, coloured and Indian researchers wrote only 2.6%, 1.1% and 4.4% of the articles respectively. If on top of this one reviewed the number of potential researchers coming out of university, it became clear that whereas the number of doctoral students increased from 799 to 819 from 1996–2000, this has not translated into increased scientific publications by scientists in the 30–49 age groups.

At the HSRC it was no different. To remedy the situation, the HSRC started an internship programme in 2003 and slowly the situation started improving. On 26 October 2007, a new researcher development programme was established, commemorating the international award-winning writer, quintessential teacher and tireless fighter for the revival of African consciousness by naming the programme the Es’kia Mphahlele internship programme. The publication rate of black researchers in books and chapters improved considerably, to the level where in 2008, on average every researcher in the HSRC produced such an output. This did not happen by accident, but it required a concerted effort on the part of the HSRC to ‘grow its own timber’.

The intention was to offer young scientists cutting-edge opportunities that are rarely available in similar organisations and to contribute to a broader transformation of the South African society by developing scientists who can take positions in the HSRC or in research organisations and assume leadership positions.

Inspiration to continue this task also came from the new Human Sciences Research Council Act, 2008 (Act No. 17 of 2008), which came into operation on 5 December 2008. It specifically provided for the organisation to help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences. The financial support of the Department of Science and Technology for this initiative provided an impetus to increase the numbers of trainees and create a sustainable programme. The additional support of our development partners, who supported HSRC projects that developed young researchers, also contributed to increasing the numbers of trainees.

A further impetus to this ambition was provided by the Grand Challenge of Human and Social Dynamics, as presented in the Ten-Year Plan for Innovation by the Department of Science and Technology. It required the organisation to contribute to the Grand Challenge of Human Capital Development and Knowledge Generation.

Through its researcher trainee programme, the HSRC committed itself to offer support at various levels, including Master’s degree, PhD and post-doctoral fellowships, and to bring new researchers into the science system. These strategic commitments cut across the work of the HSRC.

Agreements with the Department of Labour have provided specialised research capacity support for research interns, and higher education institutions provide for shared capacity development.

This work is now paying off. During the 2008/09 budget year, the HSRC had provided opportunities for 30 Master’s and 30 PhD interns studying towards their degrees under the mentorship of our most senior researchers and research managers. The organisation also nurtured ten post-doctoral fellows from South Africa and other parts of Africa.

During the last financial year, research interns either authored or co-authored eight peer-reviewed articles in professional journals, and submitted another four for publication; authored or co-authored eight books or chapters in books, published four articles in non-peer reviewed journals (another two have been submitted), presented 20 conference papers, and contributed to ten research reports.

The HSRC is indeed pleased to be part of this noble task of cultivating and mentoring young researchers who, with their endeavours, contribute to a deepened social knowledge and the advancement of our country.