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Beating the odds: How a Namibian faculty grew its research

Rolf Becker tells Sarah Wild how his science faculty at the Namibia University of Science and Technology doubled its publication output and captured some large international grants in the last two years.

Earlier this year the Namibia University of Science and Technology’s faculty of natural resources and spatial sciences won a European Union grant to look at biodiversity management of the Iona and Skeleton Coast National Parks, their surrounding areas and communities.

Including the university’s own in-kind contributions, the project is worth about €1.4m (US$1.65m)—a significant amount for a university like NUST, says Rolf Becker, dean of the faculty.

He tells Research Africa how he has expanded its research activity and how he plans to build on the gains.

Tell us about NUST, and your faculty

The NUST has been a university of science and technology only since the end of 2015. Before that, it was the Polytechnic of Namibia, which was primarily focused on teaching.

Since I’ve joined [at the beginning of 2016], it has been my mission to expand the research, expand the international collaborations and build the research capacity of the faculty.

The faculty is diverse. It includes four departments: architecture and spatial science, land and property science, geospatial sciences and technology, and natural resources and agribusiness.

How do you plan to grow NUST’s research capabilities?

Our biggest problem is the typical southern African problem: capacity.

To build up research and research capacity, it is important that one has the right people—the right people in terms of experience: senior people to guide youngsters, and youngsters who want to do research and develop themselves.

We build our own capacity by canvassing youngsters internally, but we realised that in order to do it effectively we also need people from outside. But you can only hire so many people with a limited budget.

For the rest, we try bring in as many as possible adjunct professors and [international] people who can assist us with postgraduate studies and supervision where we have gaps.

A combined approach is the one that we’re using for the last number of years. It is getting there, but it is a slow start.

What do your staff and collaboration numbers look like?

In the faculty we have 20 PhDs out of 80 academic staff. In terms of just normal growth we expect to have another 100 academic staff members in the faculty in five years, of which 45 to 50 per cent should have PhDs.

Collaborations are difficult because some are more active than others, some are transient, and some are permanent. But we’re collaborating with between 20 and 30 individuals and institutions at any one time within the faculty.

And in terms of publication output?

Our papers this year are around 30 peer-reviewed papers within the faculty. With a faculty of 81 academic staff, that is still a relatively low output. That’s one of the things that we still have to develop.

How do you build on that?

Coming from a very low base, it starts off with insisting on really good quality, even with simple things like student proposals. You do that by having experienced people assist the youngsters in becoming proficient in doing good science.

It is something you have to learn. That is why we have the PhD, post-doc processes: they help you to become a meaningful scientist, producing high-quality work.

Why is international collaboration a cornerstone of your plan?

You cannot these days in science claim to be doing meaningful work if you are not doing it on an international level. There’s place to address local problems, of course, but one must do it in collaboration with international people to build an international reputation and to do really high-quality research. Because if you don’t do high-quality research, where are you going?

Aren’t you worried that collaborators might take over and start dictating your research?

One of the problems when I got here was that our people were sometimes used, almost like tourist guides. It wasn’t really collaboration and true partnership.

An example is an international group that came in and for a number of years one of our people set up their camp for them, made sure they and their students could come in and do research. 

I told the group: ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that. The next time you come in, there must be a Namibian student involved as well, and that student must have a bursary from you.’ They said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that. It’s not in the budget.’ And I said, ‘Sorry, then I’m not helping you.’

Two weeks later I got an email. They had found a bursary. The collaboration from then on has flourished and become more a partnership. A number of our students and a number of staff are involved in it.

One has to be careful that the international people do not start dictating, but we are very aware of that so we try and avoid it. We know what the issues are that we want to research in Namibia, and [international collaborators] often have the tools and the money to assist us in getting there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.