South Africa has adopted a new policy to drive science, technology and innovation. The last White Paper on the subject was issued in 1996 and had not been changed since then. The new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation is designed to overcome some of the failures of the first one.
These included inadequate or non-existent collaboration between the relevant stakeholders like government, the private sector and research institutes and the public. Another issue was inadequate monitoring and evaluation of how the White Paper was implemented, whether the targets it set were met and what impact the policy had on the economy and the country's innovation systems.
The new policy aims to address these and other gaps. It promises to enhance the culture of innovation in society and the government, improve policy coherence and budget coordination, develop local innovation systems and expand the research system.
Overall, the policy is a solid, well crafted document. It compares favourably with similar policies found elsewhere on the African continent: in fact, I would argue that only Rwanda's policy is on a par with South Africa's.
South Africa's new policy is good, but there are gaps. The White Paper doesn't outline how science, innovation and technology can improve ordinary people's lives. Nor does it spell out what will be done to ensure that legislation is created using evidence-based research and science. And, given the ongoing debate around the importance of decolonising science at South Africa's universities, it seems strange that the policy doesn't address this issue.
The African landscape
Not all African countries have national science, innovation and technology policies. The United Nations' Environmental and Science Organisation has worked with selected countries to develop these. Such policies are important because they help to improve science management at the national level and shed light on policy options for the governance of science systems.
Unfortunately, many African countries' policies don't come with implementation plans. They also tend to focus on more traditional scientific fields such as basic physics, chemistry and agriculture, which are not relevant to modern economies. They do not talk about emerging scientific fields like the bio-economy or artificial intelligence.
Rwanda's policy is the best example for other African countries. It was drafted in consultation with experts from around the world and is accompanied by an implementation plan. It also comes with a good action plan and a proper monitoring and evaluation framework. And it is relevant to the country's overall development agenda, as well as being forward thinking and taking the current global discourse on science, technology and innovation into account.
Gaps in the policy
South Africa's new policy is solid, but some important issues have been overlooked.
We know that scientific research and knowledge can yield innovations that benefit the public. These innovations can boost a country's economy and improve people's lives, including their health. This means that science advice - researchers and scientists working closely with legislators to inform policy - is extremely important. South Africa has generally done well in this area. But the policy does not spell out clearly what will be done to improve and build on this in the next ten to 20 years.
In addition, South Africa faces huge social issues. These include crime, poverty and inequality, and food insecurity. The White Paper does not mention how science, technology and innovation is going to be used to tackle these issues and improve people's lives.
The policy also doesn't outline concrete steps to ensure the government spends well on research and development.
Finally, the White Paper ignores an important element of South Africa's history. In South Africa, as in most other African countries, the science system is in many ways a colonial product. For instance, botanical gardens and science museums were generally built during the colonial era.
In the past few years there has been much debate in the science, technology and innovation sector about decolonisation of science and what this might look like. The White Paper is silent on these issues, which is an unfortunate oversight. This might have added value to the debate and offered a clear road map for dealing with this issue.
Bringing policy to life
Now that the White Paper has been adopted, it will be important to ensure that it is properly implemented and monitored. This will help stakeholders to trust that the policy is not just another document.
It will also be important to keep the discussion going. The national debate on science, technology and innovation should include everyone from industries to researchers to government - and, of course, ordinary South Africans. And the government should focus on "decentralising science", improving innovation and scientific information sharing at the grass roots level. All of this will ensure that what's set out in the policy document is taken seriously and properly implemented.