SARChI changes the face of university research

This is what Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said at the SARChI 42 announcement:

The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) establishes research professors in universities across the country through a grant of either R2.68-million or R1.68-million a year, for a period of 15 and 10 years respectively. Its aim is to enable research professors to create world-class centres of research by undertaking frontier research themselves and by training a new school of researchers. 

Each research professor supervises 10 postgraduates, on average, more than the honours, master’s and doctoral students supervised by other established researchers rated by the NRF or holding research grants. The SARChI programme began with 21 research professors in 2006 and has grown to 198  research professors in diverse disciplines across the natural sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences. It is now a R470-million-a-year programme.

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the 42 new SARChI research professors who will be introduced later this morning. Let me tell you why. There have been new departures to the original concept of the SARChI programme. These were industry, department, and country bilateral research professors. But one thing remained the same: SARChI remained largely a programme for male professors. Four out of five SARChI professors are men. Today that changes. Today we make history. 

Today we have 42 new female research professors. From now, nearly half of our 201 research professors will be women. 

The SARChI 42 is the most radical transformation we can make, within our resources, to shape the future of the South African professor. The SARChI 42 will determine whether our universities are able to compete globally, whether our universities climb up global rankings, and whether future parents send their children to contact universities here rather than contact or online universities abroad. The numbers may seem small — under a 100 out of 534 female professors. But that is a larger proportion than the [previous] 100 and more out of 1 640 male professors (2 174 total in 2012). 

Remember universities are not all research intensive and in those that are research intensive, the majority of professors focus on teaching. But this pattern is changing. Universities are undertaking more R&D [research and development] than before. Barely 10 years ago universities undertook 20% of South Africa’s research. 

Now it’s over 30%, and growing. Investing in SARChI is the best investment we can make in the future. We target two birds with one intervention — more women professors and more PhDs. 

The new women research professors come from North and South, East and West, old and new, traditional and modern universities, comprehensive universities, and technology universities — five each from Stellenbosch, UCT, UJ, KZN, four each from Pretoria and Wits, three from Rhodes, two from UWC, and one each from CPUT, TUT and UL. Nearly half (16) come from the humanities and social sciences and that’s only to be expected. What is surprising is how few there are from the medical and health sciences (eight) and physical sciences (four). Life sciences (14) are second only to the humanities and social sciences. 

I say the dominance of the humanities and social sciences is only to be expected because women have been directed, from an early age, into the soft rather than the hard sciences. We want to change that. And we are changing it at school, where we have to start. 

Having said that, it’s a cause for celebration that our publication output, according to the 2013 R&D survey, is growing not only the fastest in the fields of the humanities and the social sciences, but also in its share of global publications. So even though they are smaller in output than the natural and life sciences, they are growing faster.

What impressed the NRF selection committee the most about the SARChI 42 was their calibre. SARChI is not a development programme and the SARChI 42 are not quota appointments. The SARChI 42 gives women an opportunity to which men have, for far too long, felt entitled. The SARChI 42 takes the systemic bias and gender gatekeeping out of the programme. 

The best argument for the SARChI 42 comes from the women themselves. Here are a few examples:

Professor Lotz-Sisitka will advance knowledge of global change. Professor Simbao will advance knowledge about South African and African identities. Professor Gouws will use her rare quantitative and qualitative skills as a gender scholar to analyse national policy. Professor Myburgh will create new knowledge about skeletal muscle. Professor Hesseling will focus on new chemotherapeutic regimens and improved vaccines for TB. Professor Walker, a former land commissioner, will explore the socio-ecological dynamics in the Karoo region around SKA. 

Professor Douglas works on technological solutions for a healthier population through biomedical engineering and health innovation. Professor Farrant is working on the production of drought-tolerant Eragrostis tef (a species of lovegrass native to Ethiopia), which would serve as a gluten-free cereal and subsequently as fodder for animal husbandry or for the manufacture of bioethanol. 

Professor Weltman will work on new knowledge in the vast field of the fundamental physics that underlies all of cosmology and astronomy research. Professor van Heerden works on the use of plants for medicinal purposes. Professor Wingfield is a world leader in interrogating the genomes of fungi that have direct and valuable applications to several research fields. Professor Gobodo-Madikizela will create the leading knowledge centre for trauma studies in Africa.

The SARChI program is a truly beneficial public partnership between government, universities and industry. Government puts up the initial stake, the universities then invest in additional resources, and industry takes advantage of the new knowledge created. The total cumulative public investment in SARChI between 2006 and 2014 amounted to R1.5-billion and SARChI research professors were able to leverage an additional R3-billion from foreign sources, government departments and industry funders. 

With that sort of investment South Africa has the potential to turn African talent into new technologies. With that sort of investment South Africa has the potential to turn African science into life-saving and enhancing innovation. In future each professor will be able to say that they were part of the SARChI 42, the research professors who changed the face of university research in South Africa.


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