SA’s poor maths, science skills hampers innovation

While the country has established a good foundation in research and development, the continued poor performance in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) remains South Africa’s number one hindrance to innovation.

This is according to the latest South African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators Report that was launched during a webinar on Thursday.

The report, commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), outlines South Africa’s performance in various areas linked to science, technology and innovation, which have a significant impact on the economy.

Other indicators covered by the report include business sector investment in research and development in South Africa, venture capital investment, and the output of high and medium technology manufacturing as compared to previous years.

The NACI’s Chairperson, Dr Shadrack Moephuli, acknowledged that the national system of innovation has various challenges that persist despite several interventions both from government and the private sector and even from some individuals.

“For example, according to the 2019 TIMSS, the country’s average scores are below the minimum benchmark level of 400 for both mathematics and science in Grade 5, that is 374 and 324, respectively, and Grade 9, 389 and 370, respectively.”

“That’s not something to celebrate,” he added.

Meanwhile, he said the pass rate declined for all the science technology, engineering, and mathematics-related subjects except for mathematical literacy.

This is because there was a slight increase in the percentage of learners passing with 30% and more from 80.6% in 2019 to 88% in 2020.

“The National Advisory Council on Innovation is looking into it. We have now started the study. We hope that what we’ve concluded this particular study about these particular challenges will be able to provide some views or expressed some observations and findings and recommendations about these particular persistent problems in our system.”


Meanwhile, the report has also put the spotlight on manufacturing, which saw a small increase of about 4.6% in the output of high and medium technology manufacturing in 2019, when compared to the previous year.

“However, the share of high medium technology manufacturing in total manufacturing was marginally lower in 2019, which was 29.36% than in 2009 at 26.95%.”

Meanwhile, when compared to the previous year, the value of South Africa’s high technology exports declined by 10%.

In addition, service exports similarly weakened, which was almost 8% lower than in 2018.

“The share of overall manufacturing employment for medium and high technology sectors rose from 28.5% to 32.5%.”

While it is looking positive, Moephuli said it was worrisome especially in light of the pandemic.

“We hope that this particular report will serve as a resource to policymakers, researchers, civil society, investors, the private sector, students, and everyone in and outside the national system of innovation.”

He also believes there is a need for complementary studies to deepen the understanding of certain trends and factors in the country’s economy.


Higher Education, Science and Innovation Deputy Minister, Buti Manamela, said the 2021 report coincides with the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused many deaths and exposed the inadequacies of many countries’ national systems of innovation.

He said science, technology, and innovation are critical in supporting short, medium, and long-term plans for inclusive and sustainable socio-economic development and improved quality of life and well-being.

“In the South African context, this means that the challenges of inequality, unemployment, poverty, and ecological degradation require even more urgent attention. There is global consensus that progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals has been affected.”

Manamela said developing countries and emerging economies will be most affected by water shortages, food insecurity, premature de-industrialisation, and failures in health and social welfare systems.

This is the reason he believes these challenges make the need for robust and resilient scientific and technological capacities and capabilities even more critical.

“In an interlinked but inequitable world, domestic systems of innovation are crucial for transforming science and technology into socially useful products and practices.”

Source: South African Government News Agency

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