Transforming the Research Cohort - New SARCHI Chairs Redress Gender Equity

In 2014 at the annual NRF awards, during which A-rated researchers are recognised, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, challenged the research sector as a whole to do something about the under representativity of women. The NRF came up with the idea of limiting the next research chair call to women which the Minister approved. A total of 20 chairs were to be reserved for women but, given the good quality of candidates they received, Pandor agreed with some juggling of budgets to up it to 44. “It has been a massive injection into the research capacity of the country and it has done a gender right sizing and taken women researchers to almost on a par with men,” said Dr Peter Clayton, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Development. “And these are serious women – it is not a consolation prize at all.”

The newest Chairs at Rhodes, held by Professors Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Ruth Simbao and Adrienne  Edkins, straddle the disciplines of education and environmental sustainability, geopolitics and the  arts of Africa, and biomedical biotechnology. Rhodes now holds 14, or 7%, of the SARChI chairs nationally. This is an impressive achievement for the smallest established institution in South Africa.

“Their work enriches the intellectual space of the University, and adds to the academic capacity and the scholarly reputation that Rhodes continues to raise. The SARChI award provides the resources to achieve heightened research outputs in all respects: volume, impact, and influence of the recipients’ work nationally and internationally,” said Clayton. “They not only produce their own outputs and graduate students, but gather momentum around their intellectual disciplines and act as role models and creators of opportunities for others, to the benefit of all who study and work at the University and beyond. Most importantly, they are a source of new knowledge for the benefit of all humanity and the planet.”

The national priorities are important touchstones in the award of these Chairs and the scholarly target, in terms of a measure of where the researcher aims to go with his or her discipline, is essential to the review at the end of year four of each five-year term of the SARChI funding. This review measures both research targets and the social impact of the research in terms of how it has addressed critical issues such as poverty, jobs, health, education, or other key areas in addressing the national priorities. The balance of SARChI Chairs focus on more esoteric types of research in which Government recognises the value of the intellectual work undertaken by the researcher in terms of building knowledge and stimulating debate around important social and political topics.

Part of the compliance requirement with the DHET is the achievement of graduated MScs and Phds under these chairs because that is how one component of the funding is received and so, in terms of performance, a measure of successfully graduated postgraduate researchers is taken in addition to peer-reviewed research papers produced. “The accreditation vehicle that that drives subsidies is quite a blunt instrument and it is really meant to incentivise at an institutional level,” explained Clayton. “Different disciplines have different advantages around it. There are certain valuable areas of scholarship that don’t feature and some that feature weakly by comparison, but that does not mean that they are not valuable to the scholarly reputation of the University.”

While the current round of SARChI chairs has successfully redressed issues of equity in terms of gender, one key area that remains is to rightsize the representativity of South Africa’s research elite in terms of race. Amongst the first SARChI chairs awarded in 2006 was Africa’s iconic woman researcher, Distinguished Professor Tebello Nyokong, who from her laboratories in the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes has become amongst the most productive and influential researchers on the continent, attracting accolades and recognition from across the globe. Nyokong, who places great emphasis on her role as a mentor to upcoming researchers and is a champion for creating African solutions to challenges not only on our continent but also globally, is in every respect a role model for emerging researchers in South Africa, and in particular for women and black researchers. Nyokong remains Rhodes University’s only  black SARChI chair, and one of few nationally. The demographics nationally of the 44 new chairs are overwhelmingly white. However, the award of a SARChI Chair comes with a huge and overwhelming obligation to transform the research cohort, “and that’s not just a polite request to them, the structure of the budget they are given has specific quotas around black South African students,” said Clayton.

Given this pressure and expectation to advance, change and transform the research cohort, where are the other emerging high profile black researchers? “Essentially we would have loved to have been able to put forward black women but we did not have people in place just at this moment. This particular round was different from other rounds in that it was a quick turnaround looking at researchers that are already on the staff rather than going out and attracting researchers from the outside,” explained Clayton. “We do have quite a strong group of emerging researchers who are going to be great in the future and one of the ways we are trying to deal with this is we  are involved in conversations together with a number  of other universities about the next generation.”

Rhodes currently has a proposal in front of the Mellon Foundation which, together with several other universities in South Africa, speaks to advancing the black professoriate in the Humanities. Rather than focussing on the traditional notions of accelerated development which are about giving students what they need to meet high scholarly standards, the new focus is on allowing researchers the time required  and a focus area that will provide the funding to gather postgraduates in a concerted research project. These efforts will put attention on the mid-career academics, not just to promote their research careers but also to ultimately transform the Senate.  “We are not talking about emerging researchers here, but rather current researchers who are within striking distance of professor or associate professor in a couple of years,” Clayton clarified. “The idea is to really push these researchers forward and to give them the advantage of meeting their scholarly targets.”

According to Clayton, Rhodes in on a good trajectory with a strong cohort percentage wise of black emerging researchers who “if we can find the right support mechanisms and retain them here at Rhodes I think they are basically going to transform the research cohort for us. There are some incredibly talented people among them”.

If you are an up and coming black researcher  then the world is your oyster, so the tricky thing is to retain high calibre researchers by ensuring Rhodes offers a stimulating research environment, attracts good funding and offers competitive salaries. Clayton believes that Rhodes as a research institute has several advantages for upcoming researchers: “We have kept probably the best researcher on the continent here and she gets offers all the time, but she has made Rhodes her home. I think many of our young black researchers do stay on because of her example – she is just a fantastic role model, more than anyone can ask.”  “However, there is a lot we still need to do generally in terms of transformation of the University,  it is important for us to create a space that is attractive to black emerging researchers. Our new SARChi Chairs really do help us to open the pool of researchers.”

It is a huge achievement for a researcher to be awarded a SARChI chair, and recognises both their track record and future potential to contribute to new knowledge, a new generation of high quality researchers, and the transformation of the cohort of researchers to include South Africans of every kind.