16 JUL 2020 By Linda Nordling
Treasury’s ultimatum to science department: Slash your budgets or we’ll cut them for you
Thousands of postgraduate and PhD grants. Hundreds of research grants. The National Science Week. Research chairs and centres of excellence. These are some of the victims of South Africa’s pandemic budget cuts unveiled in a marathon parliamentary committee session on 15 July.
The cuts total 16 per cent of the 2020/21 budget of the Department of Science and Innovation. They are “tradeoffs” between the need to save money and the need to sustain South Africa’s innovation system, said Phil Mjwara, DSI director-general, during the live-streamed virtual briefing.
Mjwara said that earlier this year, as the negative effects of the coronavirus on the country’s budget became evident, Treasury came to the department with an ultimatum: Either the DSI would help it identify areas to cut this year, or the Treasury would cut the budget for the department. “We think we’ve done the best [we could],” Mjwara said.
One of the department’s ‘wins’ was to convince Treasury to count the R340 million (US$20.5m) that it had already repriorised toward Covid-19 research in this financial year towards its overall savings target, Mjwara added. This meant that instead of a 20 per cent cut to its budget, which is what Treasury had at first demanded, the DSI ended up with the 16 per cent cut outlined in June’s emergency budget.
More than a dozen science officials and administrators from South Africa’s top research funders participated in the briefing. They outlined how the cuts would affect the detailed budgets of the DSI as well as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the National Research Foundation.