Introduction

Creating an environment that safeguards nature while promoting the social and economic development of the country’s people is the focus of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management (UESM). Located at the Potchefstroom Campus, the unit supports the optimal utilisation of natural resources within the limitations of the resilience of ecosystems. To ensure long-term relevance, the UESM seeks a balance between fundamental and applied, market-oriented research. Currently our research is conducted in eight subprogrammes: Climate change Air Quality and Impacts, Aquatic Ecosystem Health, Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology, Ecological Interactions and Ecosystem Resilience, Environmental Management, Integrated Pest Management, Geology-Soil Science and Spatial Planning and Implementation.

 

Research highlights

During 2015, 42 researchers from the unit presented their research at international conferences in over 29 countries, including Belgium, Norway, Canada, Finland, Vietnam, Italy, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Kenya, the UK and the USA. As a result, our researchers were at the forefront of the key environmental issues of the day, contributing problem-solving ideas and novel research.

The international profile of the unit increased markedly through the appointment of seven extraordinary associate and full professors from Australia, Belgium, Japan, Norway, the UK and the USA.

Five postdoctoral fellows completed their fellowships at the UESM in 2015 and eight joined our ranks, bringing the number of postdoctoral fellows to 18. The new postdoctoral fellows represent a good mix of national and international researchers, the latter being from the Czech Republic, Iran and Nigeria.

The unit still has the highest number of NRF-rated researchers in a single research unit of the NWU. Among the 23 rated researchers are two with B ratings, one of whom, Prof Johnnie van den Berg, improved his rating for the period 2015 to 2020 from a B3 to B2, following a successful application for re-evaluation in 2014. Prof Louis du Preez was also successful with his re-evaluation as a C1-rated researcher.

 

Skills base

The UESM had another good year for postgraduate completions, with 55 master’s and 14 PhD students graduating in 2015. For the second year in a row, the unit had more than 300 registered postgraduate students, comprising 209 master’s and 100 PhD students.

 

Publication output

Our subsidised publication outputs have been on an upwards curve for the past six years. In 2015 we built on the excellent output of 2014 (70,48 publication units), increasing this by more than 20% to 86,38 units. As a result the average publication unit per full-time academic staff member increased for the first time to over two publication points. This is more than double the required target of one for members of an NWU research unit.

The total impact (research influence) of the unit’s published research is increasing and the 2015 total impact factor of all the ISI-indexed publications was 272,971. This resulted in an average impact factor per publication of 1,76 (range of 0,073 to 6,204). According to the ISI journal citation report of 2014, the median impact factor for the 223 journals in environmental sciences was 1,606; thus the unit is already showing a higher-than-average level of international research influence.

 

Partnerships and collaboration

The research unit played an active role in environmental and special planning activities in the local municipality and province. During 2015 a number of our researchers contributed to the North West Province Environmental Outlook Report, North West Province Biodiversity Conservation Assessment Technical Report and the North West Environmental Implementation Plan.

Prof Francois Retief, previously the director of the School of Geo and Spatial Sciences, was appointed as a full professor in the UESM with the focus on developing and implementing the taught master’s programmes. This entails the management of the current Master in Environmental Management, as well as the implementation of a further three taught master’s degrees. The first of these, in collaboration with the Department of Water and Sanitation and the Water Research Commission, is a Master in Environmental Management specialising in environmental water requirements and will enrol its first 15 students in 2016.

A capacity-building course on synthetic biology was presented in Potchefstroom during August 2015 in collaboration with Norway’s GenØk-Centre for Biosafety and NIBIO/Bioforsk. The course focused on biosafety and the contribution of synthetic biology in addressing societal challenges. Forty participants from 13 countries attended lectures by researchers from South Africa, Malaysia, Brazil and Norway.

 

Recognition and awards

Many staff members, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students from UESM received national or international awards during 2015. They include:

  • Prof Francois Retief and Prof Angus Morrison-Saunders, who received the 2015 Outstanding Service to the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) award for their services as co-editors of the Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal (IAPA) journal and their role in establishing it as one of the top journals in its field. They received the award in April 2015 at IAIA's 35th annual conference in Florence, Italy. 
  • Prof Henk Bouwman and Prof Klaus Kellner, who the NWU recognised for their exceptional leadership in international research and advisory organisations, institutions and committees of importance. Both served on various United Nations and other international scientific and technical advisory committees.
  • Edward Netherlands, who received the 2015 S2A3 medal as the best master’s student at the NWU, as well as the Juinior Neitz medal from the Parasitological Society of Southern Africa (PARSA) for the best MSc in parasitology at any university in South Africa. Kyle McHugh received the Senior Neitz medal from PARSA for the best PhD in parasitology at any university in South Africa.

 

Special projects

The NWU Environmental Impact Assessment Pro-bono office enabled honours students in environmental management to gain practical experience doing real-life environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for municipalities in the province. The Pro-bono office also offered specialist training to provincial officials responsible for water and waste management. During 2015, the Pro-bono office moved to the Department of Environmental Affairs’ offices in Pretoria.

Members of the UESM participated in a number of other community engagement projects, including the hosting of a precision farming day and an international fish migration day.