Posted on behalf of Linda Nordling
South Africa’s government will embark on an ambitious PhD training programme to fix the country’s leaky pipeline of health researchers.
The country’s health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, launched the National Health Scholars Programme today in Cape Town. The programme aims to enrol 1000 new PhD students in health science by 2022. It is part of a wider South African push to train more graduate students. The South African National Planning Commission has set a target to produce 5000 PhDs annually by 2030. Currently, the country produces less than 1500 per year.
The programme is the government’s response to a decline South Africa’s clinical research output, and an increase in the average age of researchers in the field.
Money has already been set aside for the first three years’ training, said Bongani Mayosi, chairman of the National Health Research Committee, which advises South Africa’s government on health research issues.
Thirty PhDs will be funded in the 2012/12 financial year with the help of 13 million rand (US$1.7 million) from the government, Mayosi told Nature. Sixty will enrol the following year, backed with a budget of nearly 30 million rand, and 120 more the year after with 50 million rand. Students will be funded for four years.
A significant number of the students will need to be trained abroad, as there are not enough supervisors locally, Mayosi said. “It’s clear that we are going to send our PhDs abroad. To India, China, but also to the traditional partners like the US and the UK,” he said.
A 2009 report by the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAF) identified a “largely unplanned, but cumulative” drop in public funding for clinical research over the past two decades. It blames this drop on the withdrawal of research support as provincial hospitals focused increasingly on healthcare; the refusal of national laboratories to give discounts for researchers wanting to use their kit; and the under-funding of the country’s Medical Research Council.
The report also discovered a decline in the number of clinical medicine journal articles produced by South Africans. The average age of active scientists was another red flag, with 78% of authors being older than 60 years in the field of neuroimaging in 2001-2005, for instance.
Bongani added that the PhD programme is just the first phase of a wider training programme. Future interventions will focus on later career stages, to ensure the newly trained students have somewhere to move on to.
“I do think the ambition is realistic based on current numbers. The key point is to ensure there is employment for these PhD graduates,” comments Arieh Katz from the University of Cape Town’s Division of Medical Biochemistry.