The CEO Notes

Building African institutional and individual research capacity

Social science in Africa

The social sciences in sub-Saharan Africa operate under conditions that are seriously under-resourced. The fact that there is still sustained and vibrant social sciences research in countries which, with a few exceptions, have little government support, poor institutional facilities and many other challenges says a great deal about the resilience and resolve of the scholars concerned.

This analysis by Professor Johann Mouton of Stellenbosch University in the 2010 World Social Science Report gives serious food for thought. It is an indication that many governments do not appreciate the role of social sciences in understanding and shaping our world and daily lives. But without the social sciences, most public policies would simply not exist and many individual and collective decisions would be difficult, as indicated clearly by the report, under the theme ‘Knowledge Divides’.

Mouton says the science institutions in many sub-Saharan countries have been systematically eroded and destroyed over the past three decades through international economic policies as well as by the devastating effects of domestic policies and events. State funding of social science research in sub-Saharan Africa is the exception rather than the rule.

His study of the role of international funding in SADC countries indicates that the majority of social scientists in the region depend on international donors, and exactly how dependent academics in the region are on donor funding. The study, to which 600 academics responded, showed that 42% of all respondents (South Africa excluded) indicated that they source between 70% and 90% of their research funding from overseas, compared with only 6% of South African respondents. The HSRC, the premier social science research council in South Africa, seems to buck this trend, as about 28% of our total funding comes from international sources.

The study also showed that significant proportions of scholars in all fields either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their research agendas were consistent with their countries’ development goals. For scholars in the arts and humanities, this percentage was 75%, for the economic and management sciences 87%, and for the social sciences 83%, suggesting that donor funding was not driving their research agenda on a large scale.

Social science in South Africa

When it comes to publishing in international peer-reviewed journals, South Africa produced about half of all output in the social sciences and more than three times more than Nigeria, the second most productive country. When output by universities is analysed, it reveals the domination of South Africa, where eight of the top ten and eleven of the thirty most productive universities are located.

As for state funding, South Africa is an exception to the rule that state funding of social science research in sub-Saharan Africa is minimal. The department of science and technology (DST) identified the humanities and social sciences as one of five main priorities for the country. For the effort of government to put social sciences and humanities high on the agenda, social scientists in South Africa, and especially at the HSRC, which reports to the DST, can only be highly appreciative. Another sign of the importance the government places on social science research that contributes to the country’s development was a proposal by Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the DST, to increase the proportion the government contributes to total funding of the HSRC from 50% of its income to 65%.  

This will go a long way in reducing dependence on external sources and will build on the government's grand challenge on humanities, as described in South Africa's national research and development strategy, for reducing poverty and boosting the country's competitiveness. As I said recently in response to Jonathan Jansen's critique of the HSRC on the issue of external funding, the HSRC is a key player in original social science research in South Africa, with its research output rivalling that of the very best among the universities as measured by the number and citation rates of articles published in international scholarly journals. HSRC researchers produced 144 peer-reviewed articles last year, of which 96 were published in internationally accredited journals. In addition, it published 86 books and book chapters. The vehicle for publication of books is the HSRC Press, which is the largest non-commercial academic press in our hemisphere, thus making it possible for us to contribute to local and global knowledge on social sciences.

While I believe that the largest proportion of funding for social science and humanities research should come from government, I also think that it is crucial for social scientists to compete globally, and they can do so more easily if they compete for funding internationally. This competition generates energy to excel against peers in other countries and it encourages collaboration with scientists globally, which might not be possible with only government funding. Comparative studies often arise as a result of sourcing funding internationally. The HSRC has become a global research organisation partly due to undertaking research funded by leading international social science funding agencies.

With respect to the infrastructure to undertake research, the HSRC is well-endowed with several properly equipped buildings, good IT infrastructure, an excellent team of highly motivated scientists and support staff, and a government that regularly uses the results from studies we undertake. In a climate survey, one of the pull factors for scientists wanting to join the HSRC is that our work is high profile and a benefit to society. Each year, the HSRC trains up to 80 masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students to become social scientists.

As Mouton concludes, building an individual and institutional research capacity remains the main priority for the social sciences in the region, and at the HSRC, we do just that.

The 2010 World Social Science Report is available on

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