Ten years on: Programme incubates future generations of researchers

02 April 2013
Long haul: Assoc Prof Azeem Khan, Emer Prof Luigi Nassimbeni, Emer Prof John de Gruchy and Dr Lyn Holness were there at the start of the ERP, either as participants (Khan) or staffers.
Long haul: Assoc Prof Azeem Khan, Emer Prof Luigi Nassimbeni, Emer Prof John de Gruchy and Dr Lyn Holness were there at the start of the ERP, either as participants (Khan) or staffers.

A flagship research development and support initiative, UCT's Emerging Researcher Programme (ERP), celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. A cross-faculty programme located in UCT's Research Office, the ERP strives to ensure the transfer of essential research skills from experienced researchers to those academics who have yet to establish a research career. Its establishment was in part a response to concern that a cohort of senior academics, mainly white and male, who had been responsible for most of the research output, were soon to retire.

SA's aging research profile
At the ERP's anniversary celebration in March, Emeritus Professor John de Gruchy, who has been involved with the ERP since the outset, recalled a conversation between himself and former deputy vice-chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey. En route from an NRF meeting in Pretoria to the airport in Johannesburg, they mulled over reports about the aging profile of the country's - including UCT's - top researchers, and the fact that nationally the next generation was not being groomed in any substantial numbers. It was at this time that a proposal for UCT's response to this crisis was being penned by the former director of the Research Office and now executive director of research, Dr Marilet Sienaert. This went on to secure the necessary funding from The Atlantic Philanthropies to launch the ERP in 2003.

National imperatives
The ERP's objectives were also aligned to national imperatives set by the National Plan for Higher Education of 2001 and the National Research and Development Strategy of 2002. The former warned of a decline in national research outputs and low enrolments in master's and doctoral programmes, and highlighted the need for the higher education system to improve both access and graduation rates, particularly for black and female students. It also prepared the way for a new funding formula which was to substantially increase rewards for research output. The National Research and Development Strategy addressed the challenges faced by 'national competitiveness in a rapidly changing and increasingly knowledge-dependent international environment' and called for an 'improved quality of life, especially the reduction of poverty, for South Africans'. UCT's research community - including ERP participants - has responded by increasing its focus on finding solutions to problems that affect Africa, and impact on the rest of the world.

Objectives achieved
At the function, De Gruchy recalled the ERP's early days. This involved setting up the initial seminars and sessions alongside Dr Lyn Holness, who became the ERP's first co-ordinator (and, as many academics from that period have noted, "the face of the ERP"), and recruiting retired researchers, such as Emeritus Professor Luigi Nassimbeni, who is still involved with the programme, to guide and mentor emerging scholars. It was also necessary to solicit funding from the likes of The Atlantic Philanthropies and the Carnegie Corporation and Mellon Foundation, to ensure further development of the programme.
Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price said at the event that it was difficult to measure the success - or failure - of such a programme. But there was ample data in the case of the ERP to conclude that the programme had more than achieved its objectives. By the end of 2012, 548 academics from all the faculties had received some form of support from the ERP, 56 signing up in that year alone. In 2012 alone, the programme, run from the Research Office, delivered 41 seminars to 765 participants, as well as 25 residential workshops attended by 326 researchers. Of the 58 academics who received ad hominem promotions in 2012, 34 had come through the ERP's ranks.

Leadership and guidance
Furthermore, the programme had changed the culture of academia, Price noted. In his time (an experience echoed by De Gruchy and Nassimbeni), emerging researchers had to thrive or fail against a backdrop of sink-or-swim "academic Darwinism". "Fortunately, the current approach is a different one," Price said. "We can provide leadership and guidance, we can provide support, we can provide training, we can have a much higher success rate, and people can enjoy their jobs more." Emeritus Professor Luigi Nassimbeni recalled his own experience of being supervised at UCT and noted how much things have improved since then. He praised the role that the ERP played in developing supervisory skills. "I tell emerging researchers not to take a laissez faire attitude to supervision. A student is an asset that must be used to the advantage of both the supervisor and the student." ERP alumni Dr Abongwe Bangeni (Centre for Higher Education Development) and Associate Professor Azeem Khan (Electrical Engineering), both among the original 2003 cohort, said the programme had helped them in many ways, from managing their time, planning sabbaticals, applying for research grants, and networking, to internalising institutional priorities such as supporting their own PhD students and applying for NRF ratings.

Hands-on support
Dr Mignonne Breier, research development manager at the Research Office, said there was a sense that the programme had been a resounding success, and that the hands-on support of deputy vice-chancellor for research Professor Danie Visser was a contributing factor. Its broad-based focus had even earned plaudits from counterparts at Australian universities, she reported. Breier confirmed that future plans for the ERP would see them establishing more formal links with faculties, trying to raise research funding for contract researchers (the main part of the programme is open only to permanent staff), doing more to promote the university's Afropolitan vision, and training researchers to write grant proposals.

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