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Research highlights

Wits has a proud history of research excellence dating back to its origins in 1922.

The University evolved out of a School of Mining and the focus on science, engineering and technology has persisted. However, over the years the University has seen a growth of research activity in the broad fields of humanities, social sciences and health sciences. In more recent years the edge that Wits has offered is a fairly unique mix of science, engineering and technology research with a strong culture of concern for social justice and equality. This places the University well for grappling with the dimensions of the Fourth Industrial revolution which brings together digital and the human.

Over the last five years (2013-2017), according to Clarivate Analytics data the relative impact of Wits research when compared  to global average shows that Wits has produced better than average in the broad fields of Engineering and Technology, Humanities, Medical and Health Science, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.

In this five year period Wits authors have published 11 012 peer reviewed research publications in Web of Science (ISI) indexed journals or books. Collectively these have attracted 61 549 citations. The Category Normalised Citation Impact for this research is 1.58, where the Global norm is 1.

In a 37 year period (1980 to 2017) Wits has produced over 41 888 Web of Science publications that have been cited more than 563 498 times with Category Normalised Citation Impact of 1.19 (the global average is 1).  Over this time period 70% of papers produced were cited by others.

World-class people and facilities

Nobel Prize winners

  • Aaron Klug- (BSc, honorary DSc) 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • Nadine Gordimer - (honorary DLitt) 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature
  • Nelson Mandela - (honorary LLD) 1993 Nobel Peace Prize
  • Sydney Brenner - (BSc, BSc Hons, honorary DSc) 2002 Nobel Prize in Medicine 

Our people and world-class facilities

Wits enjoys a postgraduate to undergraduate student ratio of 2:5 and is targeting to shift this to 1:1.

Wits is home to 14 large research institutes, nine Centres of Excellence, two research groups and 20 research institutes.

The University’s library system comprises two main libraries and 14 divisional libraries.  Students have access to over 1,000,000 book volumes; 400,000 journal titles and 46,000 new electronic resources. 

In order to create an environment conducive to teaching, learning and research at the highest level, Wits has recently completed an ambitious R1,5 billion infrastructure development programme, which will see its buildings and equipment modernised, renewed and upgraded to world-class standards.

Research excellence at Wits

South African measures of research excellence

In the South African (SA) context the key measures of research excellence include more than 411 NRF rated researchers of which 26 are ‘leading international scholars’ (second most in SA), host (or co-host) of six DST-NRF Centres of Excellence (most in SA), home for 28 South African Research Chairs (second most in SA), a wide portfolio of inventions (most in SA) and one third of its annual income is generated from funded research (most in SA).

Areas of Research Excellence at Wits

The University has an array of subjects of research excellence. The following list touches on only a few of them. Any reader wishing to know more about these and other areas is encouraged to contact

  • African Art
    In the Wits Art Museum resides one of the world’s finest collections of African art and a rich resource for research and teaching.

  • Astronomy and Cosmology
    With the coming of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and already making use of the existing Meerkat and Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory facilties, scientists at Wits are well placed to tackle the big questions on the origins of the Universe and to probe the outer extremities of our solar system.

  • Cities
    This is a multi-disciplinary subject, which looks at such topics as urban morphology and its impacts on transport and service provision, informal settlements and the lifestyles which underpin them, employment patterns, changing suburban ethnicities, inner-city rejuvenation, commercial and domestic security and access control and much else.

  • Communicable Diseases
    HIV and TB in particular are a major health threat in South Africa and are the subject of sustained research into causes, transmission and control. Great strides have been made in developing effective vaccines to control the spread of pneumococcal diseases, particularly amongst children.

  • Drug delivery
    Novel methods of drug delivery are being developed, often using nanoscience, so that medication is delivered directly to the areas of the human body where it is most needed, so that maximum benefit is obtained by patients with minimal delay.

  • Global Change and Sustainability
    The scope of this multi-disciplinary area includes, but is not limited to, effects and mitigation of climate change, food sustainability, effects on diversity of flora and fauna, water, waste and energy management, pollution control, environmental effects of extractive industries, water supply and ecosystem maintenance. 

  • Mathematics and Mathematical Education
    Research on mathematics spans the spectrum from primary school level to cutting edge research in pure and applied mathematics. 

  • Non-communicable Diseases
    Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cancer and heart disease are an increasing problem in South Africa. To some extent, these diseases are associated with a change in lifestyle, especially of our urban population. Pioneering research on children is underway, in an attempt to address root causes of these diseases before it is too late.
    Malaria continues to be a fatal disease, especially amongst children across the continent. Wits research targets both the vector (mosquito) and the parasite it lays, together with the shifting target of an effective prophylactic.

  • Palaeoanthropology, Paleontology  and Palynology
    Situated in close proximity to the World Heritage Site known as the Cradle of Humankind, research into the evolution of modern humans, with discoveries such as Little Foot, and the Sediba and Naledi fossils has made worldwide impact in recent years.
    Studies elsewhere in South Africa, particularly in the Karoo, continue to broaden the known range of mammal-like reptiles and dinosaurs which inhabited the country in prehistoric times.
    Middle-stone age studies in the Eastern Cape have shown conclusively that modern human behavior evolved in Africa from about 100,000 years ago.

  • Refugee and Migrant studies
    The sometimes uneasy co-existence of established South African populations with more recent migrants, particularly from other African states, is well documented in the media. Wits researchers try to better understand the underlying causes by looking at factors influencing migration, migrants’ access to social services, housing, employment, transport and other basic human rights.

  • Strong Materials
    The development of new and stronger materials continues, with applications in such industries as aerospace, mining and manufacturing. Materials studied include composites, ceramics, diamond, thin films, carbides and metallic alloys.