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Address by Dr Molapo Qhobela, NRF CEO, at UCT Research Awards

9 OCTOBER 2017

Celebrating and Enhancing Research Excellence

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Dr Max Price, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internalisation, Dr Marcellette Williams, Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and International Relations at the University of Massachusetts, Distinguished guests, and, in particular, the scholars who are being celebrated tonight.

Good evening.

It is an honour and an absolute delight for me to be invited to participate in celebrating the successes of the researchers who will receive awards tonight. Their accomplishments in the face of the critical resource challenges that continue to plague our higher education system and the instability of some of our Universities is noteworthy.

Excellence in all its manifestations is a key imperative in ensuring that we establish a vibrant and globally connected university system as part of our National System of Innovation (NSI).

In this regard, I wish to quote Clark Kerr who was the President Emeritus and former Chancellor and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley; in his delightfully written book, “The Uses of the University”, when he states that Presidents of Universities need the great “moral virtues” of courage, fortitude, justice and prudence”.

During these challenging times, as leaders in our respective institutions, we need the courage to do what is right for our institutions and the university system; and more importantly to have the courage of imagining and realising a university system that is better and stronger in all respects than what we have today and one which importantly serves our society and young democracy.

Needless to say, such courage must be accompanied by fortitude and resilience to continue to pursue the path even under duress. As long as our choices and actions are tempered with judiciousness and justice, I am confident that we can overcome the current challenges and come out a stronger and more resilient university system.

In a society that contextualises almost everything, it is pleasing to note that our notion of academic excellence is broad and is not being juxtaposed with an equally imperative national priority of transformation.

Too often a perception is created that excellence can only exists in the domain of research and scholarship if we are not saddled with the responsibility of ensuring that those who generate new knowledge are representative of our society.

The National Development Plan correctly identifies education, training and innovation as core elements in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality; to assure South Africa’s long term sustainable development.

The NDP has set some ambitious targets that are particular to us including growing the size of the university system; increasing the graduation and throughput rates of our students; increasing research productivity and transforming our researcher cohort, including ensuring that 75% of research and instructional staff have doctoral degrees by 2030.

These are noble and aspirational targets which set very high expectations for our universities.  The University of Cape Town as one of our premier institutions has a significant role to play in this regard.

We are all aware of the NRF rating system. It is a valuable tool for benchmarking the quality of our researchers against the best in the world. Contrary to popular perception, the rating is a peer system made by and for the benefit of the research community.

There are currently 3677 rated researchers in South Africa and 517 of them are based at the University of Cape Town. The university boasts 232 C-rated, 160 B-rated, 37 A-rated, 82 Y rated and 6 P rated academics.

Last month, the 2017 NRF awards paid tribute to Professors Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan and Peter Ryan for their 1st A rating and Professors George Janelidze and Frank Brombacher  for their 3rd and 4th A rating respectively. It is also common knowledge that should not be taken for granted that UCT has the highest number of re-rated A rated scholars.

The seldom awarded Science Team Award, was awarded to the UCT Cardiovascular Genetics Laboratory under the leadership of Professor Bongani Mayosi and other collaborators at Groote Schuur Hospital and Italy; while Professor Ntsebeza received the Hamilton Naki Award which honours individuals achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges.

It is thus not surprising that currently, the University of Cape Town holds the most number of SARChi Chairs at 39 or 20% of the 199 awarded Research Chairs and 17 of them are occupied by women. UCT also has 2 of the 6 Centres of Excellence.

The research productivity and the international standing of UCT has also grown significantly since 1997. During the period 1997 to 2006, 10 240 Web of Science document were produced, of which 79.38% were cited with a total citation number of 264 349. For the period 2007 to 2016, the number of documents grew to 24 653 of which 71.97% were cited with a total citation number of 347 030.

We applaud the University of Cape Town in being the leading South African university in terms of number of documents, number of citations and Category Normalized Citation Impact (CNCI). The UCT CNCI has grown from 1.18 (1997-2006) to 1.62 (2007-2016). CNCI is an unbiased indicator that allows comparisons between entities of different sizes and different subject mixes. A CNCI value of 1 represents performance at par with world average, indicating that University of Cape Town is also performing well above world average.

During 1997-2006, University of Cape Town had an average CNCI of 1.18, in comparison with University of the Witwatersrand 1.07, University of Stellenbosch 0.94 and University of Pretoria 0.72. During 2007-2016, University of Cape Town had an average CNCI of 1.62, in comparison with University of the Witwatersrand 1.52, University of Stellenbosch 1.21 and University of Pretoria 0.92.

It may be asked why I have laboured at these statistics:

In the first instance, I wish to remind us of the important role that the University of Cape Town plays in our national higher education system. Many of the goals that we have set for ourselves are being realised because of the changes that are taking place at UCT.

Secondly, it is important to remind ourselves that the standing of a university is determined by the standing of its academics and researchers. I am thus privileged to be given the opportunity to convey my congratulations to all those being recognised today.

In my opinion, one of our most pressing priorities aside from increased investment in Research and Innovation is to transform and make representative our science and technology system while continuing to do excellent scientific research.

Our challenge as the National Research Foundation is to find creative ways of supporting you and our universities to continue to excel in your chosen endeavours. We are regrettably in the same fiscal pressures as you.

As an example, over the last 5 years, the NRF parliamentary grant has declined by an average of 3% in real terms. In 2016, the grant increased nominally by 0.5% (a decrease of over 6.1% in real terms) while in 2017 it increased by 5.4% (a 1.1% decrease in real terms).

The ring-fenced and designated allocations were reduced by an average of 1.2% over the MTEF, masking a reduction in real terms of 7.3%. The significant reduction between 2017/18 and 2018/19 of 13.8% (19.1% in real terms) is due to a cut in the allocation for equipment and research infrastructure investments. The allocation for scientific equipment decreased from R181 million in 2017/18 to R0 in 2018/19.

These challenging time require us to reflect on how to reallocate scarce resources to protect and enhance the research enterprise. In this regard, we need to increase the value and number of competitive research grants, invest in early career researchers (we have too few P rated researchers) and increase the value and reach of postgraduate bursaries to name a few examples.

Similarly, our collective challenge as a university system is to increase the diversity of those producing knowledge. In this regard, today we will be recognising women in some categories of award. The pursuit of the gender agenda needs to be complemented by an equal commitment to other equity agendas, wherein we ensure that the majority of our population also participate in the knowledge enterprise. This is necessary if not vital for the long term sustainability of our universities.

Congratulations to all!!

I thank you.

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