National Research Foundation A-rates four Wits scientists again
- Wits University
The NRF has re-awarded A-ratings to four Wits scientists, a grading which confirms that they are recognised as leading international scholars in their fields.
The A-ratings of Professor Christopher Henshilwood, Professor Bruce Rubidge, Professor Bob Scholes, and Professor Roger Smith apply from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2026.
According to the National Research Foundation (NRF), an A-rating indicates “researchers who are unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs.”
Furthermore, Henshilwood and Smith, who previously held A2 ratings, are now A1-rated. A researcher in the A1 group is “recognised by all reviewers as a leading scholar in his/her field internationally for the high quality and wide impact, i.e., beyond a narrow field of specialisation, of his/her recent research outputs”, according to the NRF.
Dr Robin Drennan, Director of Research Development at Wits, says: “The NRF rating system is a peer review system that examines the contribution and impact made by individual researchers on their chosen research community through their publications and other scholarly activities over the last eight years. The A-rating indicates the recognition as a global leader in the specific research field and is clearly a great honour.”
There are about 4 000 rated researchers in South Africa and only about 123 A-rated researchers. “Wits is therefore extremely proud of its latest cohort of four awards of A-ratings,” says Professor Joao Rodrigues, acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at Wits. “We send our sincere congratulations to Professors Christopher Henshilwood, Bruce Rubidge, Bob Scholes and Roger Smith. They are all re-appointments and so re-join the total of 27 A-rated researchers at our University.”
Understanding early human behavior
Professor Christopher Henshilwood is a Distinguished Professor and the SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) Chair in Modern Human Origins at the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at Wits (2008-2022) and Director of the SFF Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE) (2017-2026) at the University of Bergen, Norway.
His research focus is the development of complex technology, social systems, subsistence patterns, environmental change, syntactic language, and material culture associated with early Homo sapiens, especially the people who evolved in southern Africa between 120 000–50 000 years ago.
He concentrates on finding archaeological sites that were occupied by Homo sapiens during the Later- and Middle Stone Age and has excavated 20 of these sites in southern Africa.
“I am humbled and honoured to be awarded an A1 rating by the National Research Foundation. Without the backing of an outstanding research team at Wits and in Bergen, this would not have been possible,” says Henshilwood. “We will continue using innovative methods to unravel the behavioural origins of our common ancestors, Homo sapiens, who inhabited southern Africa between 120 000-50 000 years ago. I am grateful for the financial support of the National Research Foundation, Wits University, the Research Council of Norway and the University of Bergen.”
Henshilwood has published two books and co/authored more than 120 papers and chapters on the origins of language and symbolism, the effects of climatic variation on human demographics, and on the theory of human behavioural evolution. He currently leads research involving more than 40 scientists in diverse fields in Africa, Europe, the UK, and USA.
What rocks the Karoo?
Professor Roger Smith is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Geosciences at Wits and Emeritus Research Associate at Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. He is currently working on several projects under the general title of ‘Palaeoecology of Gondwana’.
Smith’s field-based research integrates palaeontological and sedimentological data [the science that deals with the description, classification, and origin of sediments such as sand, silt, and clay and the processes that result in their formation] into palaeo-environmental reconstructions of ancient landscapes – especially concerning the dramatic changes that took place in the Karoo Basin during the End-Permian mass extinction event.
Over the past 20 years – and currently – Smith has participated in numerous collaborative research expeditions to study Karoo-aged basins of other parts of Africa (Niger, Madagascar, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and Namibia) as well as Antarctica (three summer seasons) and South America (southern Argentina and northeast Brazil).
“The news that I have improved my A-rating was a pleasant surprise and very reassuring in that I appear to be doing things right,” says Smith. “It is a strong incentive for me to carry on with my field-based research in the Karoo and I will attempt to live up to the expectations this award has placed upon me.”
Smith was born in Cambridge, England and immigrated to South Africa in 1976 after graduating in Geology and Zoology from Manchester University. He holds a master’s degree from Wits and a PhD from the University of Cape Town.
Excavating fossil treasures for rural advancement
Professor Bruce Rubidge has led palaeontological research and teaching at Wits for more than three decades. He arrived at Wits in 1990 when he was appointed Director of the Bernard Price Institute (BPI) and Head of the Palaeontology Department at the University. When the BPI and the Institute of Human Evolution merged in 2013 to form the ESI, he served as interim Director. He was simultaneously Director of the newly established Department of Science and Innovation/NRF Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences, a post he held until December 2020.
Rubidge now leads the Karoo Palaeodiversity Studies for Rural Advancement project in the ESI. His multidisciplinary research focuses on biodiversity change during the Middle Permian period, which culminated in the end Capitanian global mass extinction 260 million years ago. His current speciality is a transdisciplinary study using the rocks and fossils of the lowermost Beaufort Group (Abrahamskraal Formation) of South Africa as his study system, to understand the causes of this biodiversity change.
“I have been privileged to undertake fieldwork and research the fossil riches of the entire Karoo Supergroup [300-180 million years old], which is an international icon of palaeontological heritage showcasing the early evolution of reptiles and mammals during a time when all continents of the world were united to form the supercontinent Pangaea. My dream is to inform South Africans about this Karoo treasure and utilize its remarkable world class fossil storyline to create employment opportunities in the impoverished rural Karoo through tourism,” says Rubidge.
He established the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo as a sustainable palaeotourism business to employ and empower local residents. He also helped develop the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site and the Golden Gate Dinosaur exhibition Centre. He was instrumental in establishing Wits’ palaeosciences museum, the James Kitching Gallery, which forms the core of an active curriculum-based palaeoscience outreach programme.
Noticing connections in complex ecosystems
Distinguished Professor Robert (Bob) Scholes is an internationally-renowned systems ecologist; in other words, one who looks at the ecosystem level consequences of the interactions between organisms (including people) and their environment. He is the Director of the Global Change Institute (GCI) at Wits University.
In addition to the renewal of his NRF A-rating in 2021, Scholes was named one the most highly cited scientists in the world in 2020 – he is among the top 1% of environmental scientists worldwide based on citation frequency, having published widely in the fields of savannah ecology, global change, and earth observation.
Scholes currently co-chairs the first ever joint IPCC-IPBES (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change- Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) workshop on climate and biodiversity interactions.
He was a section lead on a major report, Making Peace with Nature, released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in February 2021. This report provides a blueprint of how the world can transform its relationship with nature and tackle the climate, biodiversity, and pollution crises together to secure a sustainable future and prevent future pandemics.
Scholes was previously an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change during the third, fourth and fifth assessments. He co-chaired the Conditions Working Group of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services Global Assessment of Land Degradation and Restoration.
He has led several high profile studies including the South African national assessments of Elephant Management and of Shale Gas Development, and major research campaigns such as SAFARI 2000 and the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
“What strikes me in reviewing my thirty year career is how it mirrors what we know about change in complex systems. There are many feasible outcomes, separated by quite unpredictable forks in the road. The demands of working in South Africa are not necessarily an impediment; they can be an opportunity. We are forced to be multi-skilled. I have made a niche out of seeing the connections between things and that has made all the difference,” Scholes said in his inaugural lecture delivered on 21 June 2016.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor, commended the A-rated scientists and said that conducting world-class research and fostering innovation are core areas for Wits as the University approaches its centenary in 2022:
“Wits is home to some of the best scholars in the world who lead globally respected research entities. I congratulate these four scientists on retaining and improving their A-ratings and acknowledge their significant contribution to advancing Wits’ research agenda,” says Vilakazi, adding that Wits is the only University in South Africa that boasts two NRF A-rated scientists on its Senior Executive Team.
“Professor Shabir Madhi, the Dean of Health Sciences, and Professor Lynn Morris, the incoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs [April 2021] are members of the Senior Executive Team and amongst Wits’ 27 A-rated researchers, all of whom contribute towards Wits being one of the leading research-intensive universities on the continent.”