Catalysing R&D – The need for more government funding

Wondwosen Tamrat

The research output of many countries is significantly affected by the amount of money dedicated to research and development (R&D).

Though greater investment does not always guarantee excellence, research shows that there is a strong correlation between the level of research excellence a country attains and the amount of money it dedicates to research and development.

The ‘critical mass’ of overall R&D expenditure needed to achieve research excellence in any country is most often set as above 1.5% of GDP.

Notwithstanding recent efforts and promises to change the situation, Africa’s participation in global knowledge generation remains negligible compared with the rest of the world. Figures from the World Bank show that Africa produces below 1% of global scientific knowledge, despite being inhabited by 16% of the global population.

According to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics (UIS), estimates for 2019 Africa’s funding of R&D is 0.42% of the continent’s GDP, which is far below the global average of 1.7% and the lowest in the world.

Despite the wider rhetoric about improving the continent’s capacity and contribution, only a limited number of African countries have demonstrated improved investment in research and development.

At continental level, a decision was made by the African Union’s Executive Council in 2006 to establish a target for all member states of 1% of GDP investment in R&D in order to improve innovation, productivity and economic growth. Although improvements are being witnessed across the continent, data from the UIS show that only South Africa, Kenya and Senegal are close to meeting this target, with about 0.8% of their GDP dedicated to R&D.

Research challenges in Ethiopia

Among the variety of factors contributing to the low performance of research in Ethiopia, the major ones have been identified as limited funding and the limited capacity of the system to supply qualified researchers at national and institutional levels.

Regarding the latter, Ethiopia’s performance in PhD training has been improving over the past decade. The enrolment of PhD candidates has improved from 789 in 2010-11 to 3,994 in 2017-18. The number of graduates per year has also risen from 21 in 2010-11 to 237 in 2017-18, with consistent variations over the years.

While the steady increase in the number of PhD graduates can have positive implications for increasing research output, a commensurate improvement has not been observed in terms of research funding.

Ethiopia’s Science and Technology Policy of 1993 might be considered as the first expression of the government’s commitment to spend about 1.5% of the country’s GDP on R&D, although this has never been realised. To the dismay of many, the level of investment in R&D has, in fact, shown a significant decrease – from 0.61% in 2013 to 0.23% in 2017.

This development unavoidably interferes with the country’s ambitious plan of improving its research and innovation system.

Plans and ambitions

Ethiopia’s five-year education sector development plan issued in 2015 states that the higher education sub-sector will seek whole government approval for an improved budget allocation model for universities.

The purpose of this endeavour will be providing ‘greater autonomy to each institution, allowing a more responsive research agenda and increasing the share of funds allocated to research to be in line with international standards’.

The sectoral plan further outlines the need for the introduction of a performance-based research system that links the delivery of quality research to the delivery of funding and the establishment of a research funding body that operates on the principles of competition, relevance and positive action.

While these plans appear to be in line with the ambition Ethiopia has towards improving its research output, they have not yet been realised. What is more, the issue of funding appears to have received little attention when it comes to concrete action.

In fact, a close reading of the document further suggests that, in addition to failing to meet its envisaged goals, the government lacks commitment towards the funding of R&D activities, with most of the funding assumed to come from the individual efforts of institutions themselves. A similar expectation is reflected in the higher education proclamation which encourages institutions to establish research and innovation funds and allocate sufficient funds for research focusing in particular on technology transfer and innovation.

According to the 2015 fifth education sector plan, the percentage of research funds from annual recurrent total budgets of higher education institutions is planned to increase from the current 1-2% to 5%. The percentage of research funds secured from industry and international sources is similarly planned to increase to 50%.

Although encouraging higher education institutions to generate funds for research purposes is a necessary step to take, especially in view of other competing demands that constrain the government, without active involvement of the government, the goal of meeting the current ambitious national plans will remain elusive.

To begin with, the existing levels of university-industry relationships in Ethiopia are highly constrained due to a variety of challenges, both on the part of universities and of industry. Unlike most developed countries where R&D funding is substantially drawn from the private sector, Ethiopia’s private sector is currently too weak to serve as a major source of research financing.

Reliance on donors

According to the 2024 Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy of Africa (STISA 2024), the continent not only invests the least in R&D but also more than half of the investment is obtained from abroad.

Most of the research funds for projects and PhD programmes at Ethiopian public universities such as Addis Ababa University – the country’s flagship university – are obtained from international partners such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA-SAREC), the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC), the British Council, European Union, World Bank, UNESCO, Department for International Development (DfID) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

It should also be noted that an overreliance on external sources can have negative consequences on important issues such as setting priorities and sustainability which are critical to the success of the national research endeavour. Likewise, research outputs of institutions and the training of highly skilled researchers through PhD programmes may not always be dictated by national ambitions and institutional needs since they can be influenced by the desires and capacity of international partners.

In view of these challenges, it is hardly possible to achieve government plans and ambitions for the country’s research universities based on a strategy that is defined by limited financial funding from local sources.

Government funding

There are encouraging moves within the higher education sector in terms of policies, structures, institutions and institutional activities that can propel Ethiopia’s current research output to the next level in the future.

However, these efforts will not bear meaningful results unless institutions and the private sector increase their expenditure on R&D and the government raises public expenditure dedicated to the same purpose.

In the absence of strong commitment from the government to increasing its current level of funding and initiating diversified forms of domestic funding for R&D, not only will the country fail to meet its ambitions but the positive gains being made in research output and especially in building critical human resources will not be utilized in a meaningful way.

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