27 January 2022 | Story Andre Damons | Photo iStock

The University of the Free State (UFS) has made steady progress in its research performance over the past five years by increasing its research output, NRF-rated researchers, and internal and external research funding. The university also hosts six South African Research Chairs (SARChI) funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) / Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), four of which are held by women.

The UFS has also increased its international collaborations with international and regional institutions. Between 2017 and 2020, the university has collaborated with more than 2 534 international institutions and produced 5 792 co-authored publications. Since 2016, there has been a 66% growth in the number of co-authored international collaborations. 

According to Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, the UFS produced a record number of almost 1 400 research output units in 2020. “I want to thank all our academics and researchers for their productivity in spite of the challenges that we were forced to face due to the pandemic this past year.” 

“The recent DHET Outputs Evaluation Report also indicated that the UFS has produced the most book outputs over the past eight years for the entire South African higher education sector. This is a fantastic achievement of sustained outputs and productivity over an extended period that we can be proud of,” says Prof Witthuhn. 

Growing strong local and global partnerships and networks

According to the latest internal research report, the number of research-related contract grants signed by researchers from the UFS – which remains the largest source of third-stream income at universities – increased to 255 in 2020 compared to the 204 the previous year.

The UFS collaboration partnership included a total of 278 African institutions during the period 2017-2020. Of these, 1 775 co-authored publications were finalised within the following regions (outside South Africa):

- Nigeria, with 47 collaborating institutions and 193 co-authored publications;

- Kenya, with 26 collaborating institutions and 42 co-authored publications;

- Ethiopia, with 24 collaborating institutions and 44 co-authored publications; and

- Egypt, with 14 collaborating institutions and 21 co-authored publications.

The university’s researchers also collaborated with colleagues from the Asia-Pacific region, which included India (158 collaborating institutions), China (106 institutions), Australia (69 institutions), and Pakistan (32 institutions). The majority of the output was within the fields of Physics and Astronomy, as well as Engineering and Material Sciences (from 2017 to 2020).

The European collaborations with 851 institutions resulted in 1 046 co-authored publications from the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The co-authored publications increased from 223 in 2017 to 307 in 2020.

The contract research grants from government departments and agencies amounted to R47,2 million in 2020. The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), (along with its Technology Innovation Agency, TIA), the Petroleum Agency SA, and Water Research Commission (WRC) remain the most important government contributors. Grain SA and the CSIR (including the National Laser Centre) also contributed significantly towards the UFS contract research agenda.

There was an increase in the number of contracts signed in the Faculty of the Humanities during the same period. 
Though the number of signed active research collaboration agreements has declined since 2016 – from 312 in 2016 to 225 in 2020, a total of 1 653 research collaboration agreements were active in 2020. The Office for International Affairs (OIA) supports the creation of a supportive research environment by enabling international engagements of academics, connecting the university with partners through memoranda of understanding, supporting staff and postgraduate student exchanges, and providing data on research internationalisation.

The majority of co-authored publications are within the social sciences field, followed by agricultural and biological sciences. Since 2016, there has been a 66% growth in the number of co-authored international collaborations.

The Afromontane Research Unit (ARU), the flagship research group on the Qwaqwa Campus of the UFS, had its strongest possible year in 2020 since coming into existence in 2015, despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The external income unit also increased to more than R40 million.  

Individual research groups continue to grow in size

The ARU, one of the strategic research hubs to focus on – as identified by the UFS senior management – is a strategic research hub and continental leader in African mountain research with a strong focus on research capacity development. The external income was the highest ever for the ARU in a single year, totalling R46 million (although large amounts of this are for external partners working on specific projects). This is a significant increase from 2018 (R5,7 million) and 2019 (R7,6 million).  

Most of the 2020 funding came from four large grants. A very encouraging development was the founding of a Risk and Vulnerability Science Centre (RVSC) in 2020 as part of the DSI Global Change focus theme. The individual research groups of the ARU continue to grow in size, as is evident in the increasing student throughput. Ten postgraduate students graduated in 2020 (up from two in 2019) – two honours, four master’s, and four doctorates, and eight are expected to graduate in 2021. 

Even though the COVID-19 lockdown moved teaching and learning online, research outputs did not taper off as much as expected, with a paper pipeline of 42 papers in 2020 (27 published/accepted, 1 accredited conference proceeding, and 14 submitted manuscripts). This is down by only five compared to 2019 – plus one ARU flagship book. Quality remained high, with an average impact factor (IF) per paper of 2,298, while 48,1% of papers were above IF 2,000 (down from 55,6% in 2019); 25,9% of papers were in the IF 2-3 range, while 37% were in the IF 1-2 range. 

The higher IF publications did taper off somewhat in 2020, with only 14,8% of accepted/published papers in journals with impact factors (IF) >4. The highest IF, however, was 7,319 (up on the 5,667 of 2019, and the second highest recorded in the ARU journey to date), with the second highest being 6,330. An ARU publication was submitted to Science (IF41,845), but although it went for review, it was unfortunately unsuccessful.

ARU strengthens its internationalisation and domestic partnerships

Research and strategic partnership collaborations were greatly enhanced in 2020, with the ARU strengthening its internationalisation and domestic partnerships. ARU activities, intellectual development, partnerships, funding, and opportunities continued to develop and mature in 2020, with the ARU emerging as a global player.

The ARU is well on its way to achieving its vision, mission, and objectives, and can position itself with pride among similar-modelled research groups in Southern Africa and abroad. The ARU is also capturing wider attention, with media coverage of ARU activities represented by 24 media articles in 2020 (up by 7 from 2019).

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