Who and where are the visible scientists in South Africa?

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Marina Joubert

A total of 211 scientists in South Africa – less than 1% of the country’s scientific workforce – have been identified as being ‘publicly visible’ in a new study by researchers Marina Joubert and Lars Guenther at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University (SU). The study is published in the latest edition of the South African Journal of Science (http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2017/20170033).

“These visible scientists are increasingly recognised as the new scientific elite, because their high public profiles allow them to spread their ideas, influence policymakers, defend science and promote a culture of science in society”, Joubert explains. “In our society, they are also the role models that shape the public image of science.”

Scientists may become visible in the public sphere for a number of reasons and in several ways. Some are thrust into the limelight when they win a major international science prize. Others achieve visibility as the result of a specific scientific breakthrough that attracts significant public and media attention. Some scientists cultivate relationships with journalists for many years and invest considerable time and effort into making their work publicly accessible, thereby creating and sustaining a public profile. In all cases, the involvement of the mass media, including social media these days, is required to achieve significant levels of public visibility in science.

Joubert and Guenther explored the institutional affiliations, fields of research and demographics of these scientists, who were identified as publicly visible by a panel of science media experts. More than half of these 211 visible scientists work at just four universities in South Africa. There are 37 visible scientists at the University of Cape Town, 34 at the University of the Witwatersrand, 20 at the University of Pretoria and 17 at Stellenbosch University. A closer look at the 211 visible scientists reveals that 78% of them are white and 63% are male. The 18 most visible scientists in the group were on average 52 years old. The need to increase the public visibility of black and female scientists is highlighted, along with the need to equip young scientists with public communication skills.

According to this study, the two most visible scientists in South Africa are Prof Lee Berger (University of the Witwatersrand) and Prof Tim Noakes (University of Cape Town). The study discusses some of the factors that have made these two scientists publicly visible. Prof Nox Makunga from the Department of Botany and Zoology at SU was identified as one of the 18 most visible scientists in South Africa. She works on indigenous plants.

Marina Joubert is a science communication researcher, associated with the SA Research Chair in Science Communication at CREST. 

  • Photo: Prof Nox Makunga in conversation with journalist Munya Makoni.

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

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