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Fly me to the moon

Last year was the Year of Science and Technology. It was a year in which science was to be promoted and encouraged, and the value of scientific endeavour recognised. It was a year in which South Africans can dream of one day going to the moon - or beyond.

Yet moves from government undermined scientific integrity; undermined the rewards of scientific discovery and technological excellence; alienated some of our skilled workers in scientific fields; discouraged scientific careers; and undermined academic freedom.

The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology cannot be blamed. Of the department's R740 million budget, R405 million was allocated to ‘science, technology and meta-information', and was to be spent on a budget survey, evaluations of science institutions, development of a new financing and reporting system for science councils, the establishment of a ‘National Advisory Council on Innovation', and the celebration of 1998 as the year of Science and Technology. Of that amount, R368 million(unfortunately less than 0.2% of SA's R201 billion budget), goes to Science Councils.

In 1993/1994, government budget support for Research and Development in Japan was 3%, Germany 4%, and the USA 6%. South Africa, as a developing country, obviously has priorities other than the funding of Research and Development.

However, we are lacking in skills, especially in the various scientific fields. In 1995, South Africa had 3,3 scientists and engineers per 1000 of the population while Brazil - a comparable country - has 11, and the highly industrialised Japan 71. The least South Africa can do, is to ensure that the institutions and policies in place in South Africa do not act as a deterrent to the pursuit of science related careers or undermine scientific integrity. But this is not happening.

Patent rights are time-limited monopoly rights. An inventor who registers a patent on an invention is compensated for his innovation, research time, expenses and effort in creating the invention by his right in terms of the patent to market or grant licences for his invention, to the exclusion of all others.

After expiry of the term of the patent - in South Africa it is 20 years, as long as the annual renewal fees are paid - the invention becomes public property. Why would anyone spend time, effort and money on an invention if others can imitate it and reap the same rewards? Patents therefore add the ‘fuel of interest' to the ‘ fire of genius'. Without a reliable patent system, there is no incentive for research. Equally important, a patent system means full disclosure of the invention - ensuring that it becomes public knowledge.

In 1991, South Africans filed 5511 applications in SA, while 4690 came from outside SA. (The USA had 87 955 domestic applications out of a total of 164 306 - Brazil 2352 out of 5565). South Africa ranked 13th in the number of applications filed annually. This is a measure of the faith placed in South African patent rights, and also a measure of the extent to which inventions are intended to be marketed in South Africa.

The infamous section 15(c) of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Amendment Act, however, gives the minister of health, Dr Nkosazana Zuma, the power to take patents away from registered owners and give them to third parties who will be able to produce the drugs which are the subject of the patent more cheaply. The South African Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, has pointed out this will undermine international patent rights. Three American organisations - the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Black Nurses Association, and the National Medical Association have threatened to withdraw their investments in South Africa if the Act is not changed.

Minister Zuma says she will not have health policy dictated to her by Americans, no matter what their ‘colour'. South Africa has been classified a ‘problem country' by America's pharmaceutical industry's umbrella body, PhRMA. Members of PhRMA say they have already stopped proposed investment in SA of up to $50 million.

Our reputation as a patent-respecting country has been damaged. South African inventors can be forgiven for taking their pharmaceutical inventions elsewhere - and foreigners for not bringing them here and investing in this country.

Government tenders are an important source of work for engineering and technology firms. Since 1994, the tender procedure for local, provincial and national government has incorporated an ‘empowerment' aspect. For example, the recent tender for the national identity card system went not to what appeared to be the most technologically sound bidder, an international company, but to an ‘empowerment' group.

There have also been reports of essentially ‘white' companies sporting a ‘black face' winning government contracts. The message is, if you are not, or do not seem to be an ‘empowerment' group, your technological prowess will be undervalued.

The Medicines Control Council (MCC) is a respected body which is responsible for approving drugs for clinical trials on humans. Dr Peter Folb has been its head for 18 years. However after clashes over the drug legislation mentioned above, and the continuing virodene affair - in which the MCC was put under political pressure to approve the drug for human trials - his appointment was not renewed. Virodene has been refused clearance for human trial four times by the MCC because of concern about its toxicity.

A year of service in a public sector hospital by all graduating doctors is a compulsory requirement for them to be granted a licence to practice. Doctors will earn R4700 per month - many of them struggling to pay off student loans - while doing community service. Yet there are not enough posts for community service doctors to fill next year, as provinces do not have the funds to accommodate 1200 new medical officers. Medical graduates may prefer to go elsewhere.

Eskom, South Africa's electricity parastatal, has quietly been pursuing an aggressive affirmative action policy. This has already landed them in trouble in the Labour Arbitration Court, with a white woman taking them to task after being passed over by a black woman who had only the minimum requirements for the job. Eskom gives many recently qualified engineers the experience they need to qualify as professionals. If affirmative action denies graduates of merit that chance, they will be forgiven for taking their degrees to other countries where they can obtain that experience.

Our liberal universities have a proud tradition of academic freedom. It is in an environment of academic freedom that academic and scientific excellence can be maximised, and that academics, scientists included, can be their most creative and innovative. At the University of Cape Town, the TB Davie memorial lecture was established as a reminder of the importance of academic freedom. Dr T.B. Davie courageously championed the cause of academic freedom and university autonomy. He defined academic freedom as a university's right to determine ‘who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it shall be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.'

Neither his erstwhile university nor any other protested loudly about the Employment Equity Bill to be passed this year. It is irrelevant that these universities are to a large extent pursuing their own ‘transformation' policies, which may well result in conformity with the bill. The fact remains that the bill, once passed, will apply to universities also, and will amount to government dictating to universities that criteria other than academic merit should be considered when deciding who shall teach. That universities may be doing so of their own free will is one thing. That government should be requiring them to do so is completely another.

(This article was written in August 1998.)

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©Jean Redpath 1999