Go back

Search for lab head roils South African physics community

Image: AfricanLibrarian [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


National Research Foundation defends recruitment process for next leader of major iThemba cyclotrons

A new director for iThemba Labs, which operates cyclotron facilities at sites in Cape Town and Johannesburg, is being sought due to the departure of current head Faïçal Azaïez, whose term comes to an end in June 2023.

Research Professional News has spoken to a number of researchers who are critical of what they perceive as attempts to replace Azaïez with a preselected candidate who will shy away from reforms. An advert for Azaïez’s replacement is also serving as a lightning rod for long-festering concerns that iThemba Labs is failing to provide sufficient access to its facilities for South Africa’s historically Black universities, and that ambitions to transform the institution’s racial and gender profile have stalled.

One physicist working at a previously Black university, who did not wish to be named, said the physics community had become “polarised” in recent years around iThemba and that young Black physicists felt “demoralised”. They said there was a feeling that a small number of top research universities had a large amount of access to iThemba facilities, while researchers at a larger group of universities felt their access was blocked.

The relationship—and perceptions that some elite, traditionally white universities receive more access—is especially fraught due to South Africa’s long-running attempts to transform the racial and gender balance of its academics.

Members of the country’s Black physics community have raised their concerns before. In 2019, they drew up a letter of complaint to the National Research Foundation, which manages the labs, and the Department of Science and Innovation. “They acknowledged receiving the letter, but they never said anything thereafter,” says one of the signatories, who did not want to be named in this story.

Designate director

The trigger for the current row was an advertisement seeking a ‘designate’ managing director for the labs, distributed to iThemba staff on 8 July with a closing date for applications of 21 July. Several nuclear physicists said they worried that the ‘designate’ role sounded junior and may therefore not attract senior applicants, while the short application window also raised concerns.

iThemba referred all questions to the National Research Foundation, which insisted that everything was being done properly. A spokesperson said that the organisation “engages in deliberate succession planning”: the director-designate will take over from Azaïez when he steps down after a “determined, short overlap period” to “ensure a seamless transition and handover”. The advert was published in two national-reach publications and a recruitment organisation with an international reach has been hired, the NRF said.

They also strongly denied a suggestion circulating in the community that a successor had already been picked. All candidates will compete on an equal footing, they said.