The Sunday Mail
Government, particularly under the new political administration, considers research a cornerstone to ongoing efforts to industrialise and create a prosperous society in the next 10 years.
Curricula in higher and tertiary institutions is presently being overhauled to ensure that it is relevant to the nation’s aspirations to both industrialise and modernise.
Our reporter HARMONY AGERE (HA) last week spoke to Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) executive director Ms Susan Muzite (SM) to get an appreciation of how the institution fits into the broader context of national development plans.
HA: What is the mandate of the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ)?
SM: The Research Council of Zimbabwe was established in 1986 through an Act of Parliament, the Research Act Chapter (10:22).
The Act generally provides for the council to promote, supervise and co-ordinate research.
The Research Act also empowers us to advise Government on matters pertaining to research.
It is in this regard that we advise Government on the national research priorities. These are areas of focus which Government should fund in furtherance of national development.
Currently, we have four national research priorities, which are: social sciences and humanities; sustainable environment and resource management; promoting and maintaining good health; and the national security of Zimbabwe.
However, as the world evolves, these priorities do not remain static and through continuous review, RCZ will keep abreast with the changing and dynamic research landscape.
The Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development is promoting Education 5.0 and emphasising that universities must move away from the traditional role of teaching, research and community service, adding innovation and industrialisation.
As RCZ, we remain alive to these new developments and intricately weave contemporary thought into our programmes and activities.
The Research Act further compels us to facilitate and encourage research in Zimbabwe and to co-operate with individuals, organisations and institutions in the coordination of research.
This facilitatory role has been achieved through the National Research, Science, Technology and Innovation System.
Through this framework, a broad spectrum of our stakeholders such as policymakers, researchers, funders, research and development institutions interface in pursuance of research and for the resultant production of goods and services.
Through the Act, the RCZ is charged with protecting the people of Zimbabwe, its flora and fauna, and natural resources from the harmful effects of research. In this regard, we seek to ensure that persons, animals and the environment are protected from the effects of potentially harmful research or undertakings through monitoring and controlling research endeavours in the country . . .
We also cooperate at regional and global level with organisations, persons and institutes in matters of research, and we are member to various associations and organisations such as the Global Research Council, the International Science Council, the Science Granting Councils Initiative and we have collaborations with other research councils within sub-Saharan Africa.
Such partnerships are vital in facilitating collaborative research arrangements with local institutions, and in exposing us to global trends in research collaborations.
The utility of research is an important aspect towards national development, and you may agree with me that research should be utilised by end-users such as policymakers, industry and commerce, agriculture and mining, small to medium enterprises and so forth.
The Research Act dictates that we secure, for public interest, the results of research and that we collect and disseminate to targeted stakeholders for their uptake.
Other broad areas of the Act are the award of grants or fellowships to Zimbabweans for the conduct of specific research; the recognition of research excellence, which has been done judiciously for the past 30 years through the Zimbabwe International Research Symposium — our premier event to showcase research initiatives in various sectors of our economy. We also make recommendations to the minister on the establishment of research councils and research institutes, and to date RCZ has seen the establishment of the Scientific and Industrial, Research and Development Centre, the National Biotechnology Authority and Zimbabwe National Geospatial Space Agency.
HA: What are some of the research programmes that you are currently working on?
SM: RCZ is at the helm of the scientific knowledge enterprise of the country.
We are mandated to ensure that research in Zimbabwe is responsive to national policy imperatives, such as Vision 2030. We are fully committed and up to the task.
We recently completed the SMEs and Co-operatives Research and Development Survey, which measured the use of research and development in the SME and Co-operatives sector.
The SME sector is a force to contend with in the national economy as it contributes over 60 percent to the nation’s GDP, employing 70 percent of the labour force.
We now have results of the survey, which will be published soon for informing policy on how this sector can be empowered to produce globally competitive goods and services that hold their own against stiff global competition. Strengthening of this sector can also lead to import substitution.
Globally, it is these small industries which have transformed the fortunes of nations.
Another important programme encompasses the research and development activities centred around the Zimbabwe National Geospatial Agency (ZINGSA), which was launched by His Excellency, President ED Mnangagwa, in July 2018.
We are currently administering funds for the seven projects under this umbrella body.
In addition to seeking to address knowledge gaps scientifically in farming, renewable energy and wildlife, among others, the nation is also warming up to the imperative of using high-end technologies to address bread-and-butter needs and challenges.
Other areas include a goat breeding project being undertaken at Lupane State University, the coal-to-tar project with the Ministry of Transport (and Infrastructural Development), a project on renewable energy (wind turbines) with the Harare Institute of Technology.
We also have various collaborative agreements with regional and global partners, and recently, we had the Malawian National Commission on Science and Technology here in Zimbabwe to share ideas on areas of research collaboration in agriculture biotechnology.
However, RCZ is not a research performing agency as many would like to believe.
RCZ’s main focus, as mandated by the law, is to direct, control, supervise and co-ordinate research in support of national interests.
Therefore, we are tasked with various matters in terms of co-ordinating research, funding research, registering the foreign researchers and advising Government on national research priorities.
HA: Are you happy with the funding you are getting from Government?
SM: We receive funds from the public purse and we are happy that in the Second Republic, we have received a renewed and bigger commitment to research funding.
We are still collating the statistics but we can say that the ministers for Finance and Economic Development; and Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development have worked hard to increase the funding in the short time they have been in office. We are grateful.
It is also interesting to note that if we make global comparisons, the nations of the North and East, which have made huge investments in research and development, have gone on to become highly developed, with strong indices in terms of human capital development, strong researcher populations, defined national research niches and a high research output index.
To cause research to happen, governments need to fund research and it becomes the bedrock of national and economic growth, because through research, we get new and improved goods and services and improved quality of life through the innovations that emanate from research.
Another promising model for research funding is industry and commerce involvement, as they are eventually the consumers of research. They also benefit from research through the profits made from commercialisation of research outputs.
Therefore, industry and commerce must form viable partnerships with researchers, young and upcoming innovators and see ways in which they can fund research with the potential for commercialisation.
At RCZ, we have made inroads in getting research funding from parastatals, especially for renewable energy.
HA: Last year, RCZ called for proposals from technology innovators and entrepreneurs who wanted to pursue promising scientifically proven concepts. How much progress have you made on this programme?
SM: Yes, indeed, we did make a call for proposals in March 2019, on heritage-based science and technology innovations, focused on demand-driven technological innovation, prototyping and commercialisation.
The aim of the call was to foster and encourage participation in innovation and entrepreneurship by women, the youth and persons from the informal sector.
Our requirement is that such technology innovators and entrepreneurs should be affiliated to an academic institution or Government department.
We did get submissions and they have gone through the shortlisting process, initial and final review process, and two proposals are being funded.
HA: Research in Zimbabwe’s higher and tertiary education sector, particularly universities, is said to be lagging behind compared to the region. What role can your organisation play to address this problem?
SM: As I have already said, the potentialities of research can be realised through adequate funding of research, development and innovation in any sector of the economy; more so, for universities, as they are the intellectuals of society and are more critically charged with thinking and providing solutions for the betterment of society.
I will start with the positives. Government, through the higher and tertiary education responsible ministry, has championed the strengthening of research, development and innovation in universities across Zimbabwe through the popularly dubbed Education 5.0, which rightfully extended the mandate of the universities from teaching, research and community service to innovation and industrialisation.
This is coming from the realisation that research has to be translated to goods and services for any nation to develop.
Therefore, Government’s commitment to funding the construction of innovation hubs and industrial parks is a strong indicator of the increased funding dedicated to research in universities.
In the recent past, Government made headlines by releasing $20 million towards funding research in institutions of higher learning.
So we are seeing indications of commitment to research funding, which is a positive step towards the attainment of Vision 2030.
As I mentioned earlier, there has to be renewed commitment to research funding, and we note that countries of North America, Europe, Asia expend huge amounts of money on research and development, with some countries spending up to 3 percent of GDP on research.
With this investment in research, we find that research will rise to the level of expectation that you so desire and that will be translated to tangible goods and services.
Our role is to advise Government on matters of research, as well as to facilitate research through co-operation, bilateral agreements and so forth.
An example I mentioned earlier is that we are currently working with universities in the ZINGSA project.
We have five universities on board, which we are providing funding to conduct high-end research and development initiatives.
So I would like to take a futuristic response and say the quantum of research in our universities is set to increase, and this is due to several factors, but chiefly because of the enabling environment created by Government through the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology.
HA: The country is currently going through considerable economic challenges. How can research help in solving these challenges?
SM: Research is the cornerstone of development and facts and statistics globally support that assertion. Countries in the East such as the Asian Tigers, China, (and) Japan began to witness a turnaround in their economic fortunes through the realisation of their identity as a people and through purposive and sound investment in research and development activities.
Therefore, at RCZ we have created the framework for that to happen and we are happy about the inroads we have made to date.
HA: Zimbabwe has produced many technology gurus who are making great inventions in other countries around the world.
Are there any plans to work with these inventors and localise their inventions to benefit the local market?
SM: While the assertion is not based on research results, we can usefully talk about harnessing the skills of Zimbabwean diasporans to national benefit.
Our Government has shown commitment to diaspora engagement in recognition of the important role this constituency has in various spheres of national development.
I believe the presence of Zimbabwean experts across the globe presents a unique opportunity for us to work with globally exposed experts who can make tangible contributions towards the development of our nation, and who can also make
their knowledge and skills available to the country.