While Swaziland continues to face challenges in its higher education system, experts are calling for an overhaul and more funding for this sector which can drive research and innovation, for the country to turn its economy around and achieve sustainable development.

“There are not enough scientists and engineers in the natural sciences, the people who should be leading research and development – which means we need to fund higher education to increase human capacity in Swaziland,” says Dr Thula Sizwe Dlamini, Executive Director of the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC).

Delivering a presentation on ‘Sustainable Development Through Research Funding’ at the 4th Swaziland National Health and Research Conference held last week at the Royal Swazi Spa Convention Centre, he said there was a need for the country to find sustainable solutions to create jobs, end poverty, reduce inequality, and attain first world status.

“The good news is that with all the challenges come a billion and one opportunities. We need to produce new industrial goods and services to create jobs, end youth unemployment and hunger. We also need new knowledge to improve our innovative capabilities, and attain the level of development akin to that of developed countries,” he said.

Dr Dlamini said each time Swaziland imports goods and services, the country was actually exporting jobs. Citing an example, he said by importing just one product which takes about five researchers to come up with, the country was basically also exporting the income people could be earning in Swaziland.

“We need to start using research to attain sustainable development in Swaziland. We all know that poverty is a problem in the country at 63%, youth unemployment is very high, while we also face growing inequality; actually we are in the top 20 countries globally, where inequality is high,” he added.

“To reduce the inequality levels we need to give people employment. New industrial goods are a must for the country, so we need new knowledge to improve our innovative capabilities, and we can only be able to do that if we increase our investment into research and development. For innovation, we need to conduct basic research.”

Dr Dlamini said governments in many countries directly support scientific and technical research, for example, through grant-providing agencies. He said many governments run their own research facilities, including facilities focused on non-military applications such as health, agriculture, industry, and human sciences, among others.

He said Swaziland has made a bold investment into the Science and Technology Park, which has increased the appetite for new knowledge and knowledge generation in the economy. However, Dr Dlamini said this now calls for the country to increase its funding for research and development, particularly basic research both in the natural and social sciences, as well as to use already available policy incentives to encourage the private sector to get involved in funding research.

“Government support for research and development presumes sufficient national capacity to engage in effective research at the desired scale. That capacity, in turn, depends importantly on the supply of qualified scientists, engineers, and other technical workers. So it is important to ensure a sufficient supply of individuals with science and engineering skills for promoting innovation, which then raises questions about education policy and immigration policy,” he added.

“We need to ensure that higher education curriculum speaks to the needs of industry. We also have to ensure that the relationships between our universities and industries are concrete and beyond breakable. The skill we do not have can be sourced in other countries. All technologies benefit from public research. We cannot have transformative products or new goods and services if there is no research/innovation; it calls for industry linkages with academic/research institutions, hence government needs to pump in more money into universities to drive research.”

Dr Dlamini said government can also come up with strategies and policies that will inform the business sector. He pointed out that this was important as each and every country should be engaging in research to increase the stock of new knowledge so that citizens can be more innovative in the future and therefore create more meaningful lifestyles. He further said government should focus on funding fundamental/basic research through direct funding of state research facilities, providing research grants to universities, and tax incentives to investors.

“Research needs to be sustained, it cannot be turned on and off at will. Other key policy issues include the definition and enforcement of intellectual property rights and the setting of technical standards. We must strengthen the intellectual property rights regime, for example, by granting the developers of new ideas strong and long-lasting claims to the economic benefits of their discoveries, perhaps by extending and expanding patent rights.”