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Lee Berger named SA’s ‘most visible’ scientist

- Wits University

Wits palaeoanthropologist tops 25 300 others in a new study on highly visible scientists.

Renowned for the discovery of two species of human ancestors, Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi, Professor Lee Berger from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University has been identified as the most ‘publicly visible scientist’ in a new study by Stellenbosch University researchers Marina Joubert and Lars Guenther.

Berger received 27 mentions from the selection group consisting of 45 journalists, science communicators and researchers interested in public communication of science. He is among the 34 Wits researchers who made the cut as the top visible scientists in the country.

The others Wits scientists, who received four or more mentions, include Berger’s colleagues Professors Bruce Rubidge and Francis Thackeray, palaeoscientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute and the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences; renowned HIV vaccine researcher, Professor Glenda Gray; internationally renowned systems ecologist, Professor Bob Scholes; and world genetics expert, Professor Himla Soodyall.

The study, titled: In the footsteps of Einstein, Sagan and Barnard: Identifying South Africa’s most visible scientists, is published in the latest edition of the South African Journal of Science.

While South Africa has around 25 300 researchers (excluding doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows at higher education institutions), only 211 scientists – less than 1% of the country’s scientific workforce – have been identified as ‘publicly visible’.

A closer look at the 211 visible scientists reveals that 78% of them are white, 63 of them are male and more than half of them work at just four universities. The 18 most visible scientists in the group were on average 52 years old. The study discusses the demographics of this group and its implications for public science engagement in the country, highlighting the need to increase the number of black and female scientists who become publicly visible.

This is the first such study to identify South Africa’s highly visible scientists and has meaningful policy implications for mobilising scientists towards public science engagement.

“It is important to identify and understand the role of these visible scientists, because they are able to influence public opinion about science and are seen as role models that shape the image of scientists in society,” explains Joubert, lead author of the study and a science communication researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University.