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Profile of Professor Bob Scholes

- By Wits University

“My work is in the field of Systems Ecology or ‘big picture ecology’, and my objective is to help address major national and international problems, notably global climate change, global biodiversity loss and land degradation,” explains

In January 2015 he took up his Distinguished Professorship at Wits in the Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute (GCRSI), School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES).

Since the mid-1970s Wits has been at the forefront of Systems Ecology when Professor Brian Walker, a leader in this field, established it as an academic research domain. He had a major influence on Prof Scholes from his undergraduate degree through to his PhD in Ecology in 1988.

Scholes has been worked on global climate change since 1990, and is a world-renowned scientist in Systems Ecology, particularly regarding African savannas.

“It takes many years to develop a systems ecologist. Central to my work as a distinguished professor is to advance this pipeline at Wits through the growth of a research group of Master’s and Doctoral students and Postdoctoral fellows,” says Scholes who was with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) from 1992 to 2014, as a research group leader in the field of terrestrial ecology. 

“I work on the fundamental underlying carbon cycle processes that drive climate change and their consequences for terrestrial ecosystems,” explains Prof Scholes who has also helped to develop the field of scientific assessment - the process of translating science findings into policy.

“I’m particularly interested in a field known as Ecosystem Dynamics, which is all about how the ecosystem behaves over time, especially in the presence of disturbances. Are there tipping points or thresholds that we should not cross? Where do they lie? What is on the other side?”

Scholes is one of the lead authors in the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on present and future impacts of climate change, and how we can adapt to or reduce it.

“This includes changing our energy supply systems – moving out of fossil fuel and increasing the efficiency with which we use carbon-based energy. If we do not do this in South Africa we will be financially penalised for our carbon footprint in the future.”

In addition to his IPCC work, he co-led a working group of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, is co-chairing the upcoming global assessment of Land Degradation Assessment, and is co-leader of South Africa’s Strategic Environmental Assessment of Shale Gas Development.

“The way you conduct assessments is critical,” he explains. “We need to collate, evaluate and summarise what is known nationally and internationally, and identify what is unknown. Following the assessment we need to ensure that substantive research is conducted for the unknown and that proper regulation is put in place to reduce the known risks.”

Solutions

Scholes is confident that nationally and internationally we have the technical solutions to overcome the major ecological problems we face, “but whether we can achieve this politically and socially remains an open question,” he says.

“We are at an incredible juncture in human history. The global population will stabilise mid-century at about ten billion people. If our current consumption patterns and trends continue, this will not be ecologically sustainable.

“Each one of us has to start limiting our consumption of ecological resources like water, and our emissions to the environment of wastes such as carbon dioxide. We can do so without compromising our ability to live well, and by doing so will allow others – in the present and the future- to also have a good life” says Scholes.

“This kind of information needs to be widely shared and we need to put in place actions that change our consumption patterns, which have become life threatening. Knowledge encourages action and I have built my research on this premise.”

He is one of three academics who won accolades at the 17th National Science and Technology Forum Awards. In the category for a Contribution Over a Lifetime by an Individual, Scholes with Professors Helen Rees and were honoured for their work in their respective fields.

Professor Andrew Forbes received the Special Photonics Award by an individual in celebration of UNESCO’s “International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies”.

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