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No ‘A’ for transformation in SA’s latest research ratings

Only two black scientists and two women on South African funder’s list of 21 “international leaders” in research.

South Africa’s National Research Foundation latest list of top-rated researchers reflects the slow pace of transformation at the top of the science system.

The latest batch of 21 A-ratings, published on 12 September, go almost exclusively to white men—a repeat of what happened last year. A-ratings are awarded to researchers who are considered leading international scholars.

Of the group, only two, Emmanuel Iwuoha and John Maina, are black Africans, the rest are white. And only two are women: Lucy Allais and Maureen Coetzee. 

The picture doesn’t improve much in the P-ratings, reserved for researchers under 35 deemed to have the potential to be future international research leaders. All five are men, and three are white.

Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education, science and technology, said he was “deeply concerned about the demographics of our researchers”, speaking at the NRF awards ceremony in Somerset West, where the ratings were also announced.

In addition to retaining past gender and racial biases, the NRF top ratings predominantly go to institutions that were privileged under the country’s racist Apartheid regime.

The University of Cape Town has the most new A-rated researchers with seven, followed by the universities of Johannesburg and Pretoria with three each. The universities of Stellenbosch and the Western Cape host two researchers each, and North-West and KwaZulu-Natal one each. Two of the P-rated researchers are based at UP, and one each at UKZN, NWU and Nelson Mandela University.

Nzimande deplored “the continued reproduction of inequalities in research outputs and innovation between historically advantaged and disadvantaged institutions”. This also reflects the urban-rural divide in South Africa’s higher education landscape, he added. 

A slow process

It’s not the first time that the NRF’s ratings system has received criticism. In 2018 a University of the Witwatersrand researcher accused the rating system of discrimination, saying it was “possibly racist”

The NRF’s A-rated researchers do not reflect South African demographics. At present there are 120 A-rated scientists. However, only one in six A-rated researchers is a woman and the group as a whole is largely white. Black African women are almost completely absent among A-rated researchers, with only Stella Nkomo from the University of Pretoria in the current crop. 

The NRF has previously countered accusations over a lack of transformation among A-rated researchers by saying that it reflects South Africa’s history because it takes upwards of 30 years of post-PhD research work to achieve the rating. 

The latest A-rated researchers are:

Lucy Allais, Department of Philosophy, University of the Witwatersrand

Maureen Coetzee, Wits Research Institute for Malaria

Philip Hallinger, Department of Education Leadership and Management, University of Johannesburg

John Maina, Department of Zoology, UJ

Thaddeus Metz, Department of Philosophy, UJ

James Raftery, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, University of Pretoria

Don Cowan, Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, UP

Michael Wingfield, Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, UP

David Attwell, Department of English, University of the Western Cape

Emmanuel Iwuoha, Department of Chemistry, UWC

Gary Maartens, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town

Harold Kincaid, School of Economics, UCT

Don Ross, School of Economics, UCT

Dan Stein, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, UCT

Igor Barashenkov, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, UCT

Douglas Butterworth, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, UCT

Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Centre for Rhetoric Studies, UCT

Bert Klumperman, Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, Stellenbosch University

David Richardson, Department of Zoology and Botany, SU

David McQuoid-Mason, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Marius Potgieter, Centre for Space Research, University of the North-West