(Published - 16 August 2018)
The University of the Western Cape is one of the African continent’s great academic and research success stories - as the 2017/2018 URAP World University Rankings (URAP) have shown, with placed UWC at 162 in the world in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
“The URAP ranking reflects a strategic decision UWC took a decade ago - a decision to start building Astrophysics and to get involved in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project,” says Prof Roy Maartens, SARChI/SKA Research Chair and an NRF A-rated researcher. “From small and humble beginnings, that strategy has paid off very successfully - especially since South Africa won the bid to host the SKA.”
Today UWC Astrophysics is an internationally-recognised research group which plays a leading role in aspects of MeerKAT and SKA science - and dozens of UWC researchers are involved in a variety of MeerKAT and SKA projects. In the last five years alone, the group has won over R60m in external research funding and has produced nearly 400 refereed journal papers in top international journals.
Prof Maartens and Prof Mario Santos, Director of UWC’s Centre for Radio Cosmology (CRC), have both been chairpersons of the international SKA Cosmology Working Group, and played a key role in setting out the cosmological science that can be done with the SKA.
“The SKA will produce the biggest ever maps of the Universe, which contain the imprints of the birth of the Universe, as well as of the Dark Energy that is dominating the late Universe,” says Santos. “Decoding this information and making sense of these big cosmic mysteries is a huge task involving unbelievably large data sets - and this requires a multidisciplinary solution.”
To tackle a job that big, UWC joined forces with the Universities of Cape Town and Pretoria, and North-West University, to form the Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA). The founding Director is Prof Russ Taylor, an SKA / UCT / UWC Research Chair and A-rated researcher.
“IDIA brings together researchers in the fields of astronomy, computer science, statistics and e-research technologies to build the data science capacity that is essential for developing South African leadership in MeerKAT and SKA science,” says Taylor.
The University also received recognition in the URAP rankings for Physical Science, ranked at 494 in the world. UWC is making a strong impact in experimental nuclear physics (including involvement in CERN experiments), materials science and solid state physics - and it has received international recognition before for its efforts.
“UWC’s research programmes are set to continue producing important and interesting work for years to come,” says Prof Christopher Arendse, Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy. “We have the expertise, the talented and hardworking students and staff, the partnerships and equipment - and the will to succeed and explore the bigger picture.”
Looking To The Future: Transforming South African Science & Society
If there’s one thing UWC truly believes in, it’s transformation - of science and of society.
“We’ve been successful at recruiting and training students from disadvantaged backgrounds and helping them to achieve their potential and contribute to innovation through science in South Africa,” says Maartens.
The Physics & Astronomy Department has focused from the start on training postgraduates (there are over 50 of them in the Department) and postdoctoral researchers (nearly 20). It has built an environment that encourages and supports early-career researchers to explore science, to connect with the public, to experience international collaboration, and to contribute to the future of the country.
Early-career successes include Siyambonga Matshawule - a co-author on the first research paper to emerge from the first phase of the SKA project and an NGAP lecturer already training the next generation of achievers - and PhD student Eliab Malefahlo, whose groundbreaking techniques may allow scientists to harvest more information about faint galaxy populations.
Large science projects like MeerKAT and the SKA have knock-on effects on the society in which they take place. They stimulate technological advancement, such as the IDIA research cloud, which are then used in other disciplines and in industries. It’s a pattern that’s recurred throughout history - where basic research opens up entire fields and industries, from quantum mechanics leading to television, to Einstein’s relativity underlying the global GPS system.
“Astronomy can lead to unforeseen and important technological advances. But scientists do what they do because they’re curious about the Universe,” says Maartens. “Investing in this curiosity is an investment in the knowledge and culture of all humanity, and can enrich society in ways we cannot even imagine.”
This kind of intellectual curiosity is something the University of the Western Cape strongly encourages.
“All rankings are imperfect, and we don’t want to place too much importance in them. But this success for Astronomy is testimony to UWC’s commitment to research excellence and to the training of a new and transformed generation of researchers,” notes Prof Tyrone Pretorius, UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor.
According to URAP, the University of the Western Cape also ranks 843 in Medical and Health Sciences and 934 in Chemical Sciences - and among the best 1000 universities in the world overall.
“This is just more confirmation, as if more confirmation were needed, that our students and staff have the potential to change the world,” Prof Pretorius says, “and we trust they will continue doing so.”