Science and technology

Zimbabwe has relatively well developed national infrastructure and a long-standing tradition of promoting research and development, as evidenced by levy imposed on tobacco growers since 1930s to promote market research.

The country also has a well-developed education system, with one in eleven adults holding a tertiary degree. Given the country’s solid knowledge base and abundant natural resources, Zimbabwe has the potential to figure among the countries leading growth in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020.

Scientific research output in terms of publications in Southern Africa, cumulative totals by field, 2008–2014. Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015).

To do so, however, Zimbabwe will need to correct a number of structural weaknesses. For instance, it currently lacks the critical mass of researchers needed to trigger innovation. Although the infrastructure is in place to harness research and development to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic development, universities and research institutions lack the requisite financial and human resources to conduct research and the current regulatory environment hampers the transfer of new technologies to the business sector.

The economic crisis has precipitated an exodus of university students and professionals in key areas of expertise (medicine, engineering, etc.) that is of growing concern. More than 22% of Zimbabwean tertiary students were completing their degrees abroad in 2012, compared to a 4% average for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. In 2012, there were 200 researchers (head count) employed in the public sector, one-quarter of whom were women. This is double the continental average (91 in 2013) but only one-quarter the researcher density of South Africa (818 per million inhabitants). The government has created the Zimbabwe Human Capital Website to provide information for the diaspora on job and investment opportunities in Zimbabwe.

Despite the fact that human resources are a pillar of any research and innovation policy, the Medium Term Plan 2011–2015 did not discuss any explicit policy for promoting postgraduate studies in science and engineering. The scarcity of new PhDs in science and engineering fields from the University of Zimbabwe in 2013 was symptomatic of this omission.

Nor does the development agenda to 2018, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Economic Transformation, contain any specific targets for increasing the number of scientists and engineers, or the staffing requirements for industry and other productive sectors. In addition, the lack of co-ordination and coherence among governance structures has led to a multiplication of research priorities and poor implementation of existing policies.

Scientific publication trends in the most productive SADC countries, 2005–2014. Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015), data from Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, Science Citation Index Expanded

The country’s Second Science and Technology Policy was launched in June 2012 after being elaborated with UNESCO assistance. It replaced the earlier policy dating from 2002. The 2012 policy prioritizes biotechnology, information and communication technologies (ICTs), space sciences, nanotechnology, indigenous knowledge systems, technologies yet to emerge and scientific solutions to emergent environmental challenges. The Second Science and Technology Policy also asserts the government commitment to allocating at least 1% of GDP to research and development, focusing at least 60% of university education on developing skills in science and technology and ensuring that school pupils devote at least 30% of their time to studying science subjects.

In 2014, Zimbabwe counted 21 publications per million inhabitants in internationally catalogued journals, according to Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science (Science Citation Index Expanded). This placed Zimbabwe sixth out of the 15 SADC countries, behind Namibia (59), Mauritius (71), Botswana (103) and, above all, South Africa (175) and the Seychelles (364). The average for sub-Saharan Africa was 20 scientific publications per million inhabitants, compared to a global average of 176 per million.