US honour for South African scientist

19 May 2014

South African Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist well known for his contributions in the fields of global change, ecology and earth observation, has been elected as a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, an honour bestowed on the world’s best scientists as chosen by their peers.

With this achievement, Scholes – a researcher with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – joins the ranks of a small number of elite South African scientists, among them the late Phillip Tobias, a renowned paleoanthropologist best known for his work at South African hominid fossil sites.

According to Thompson ISI, who maintain databases on scientific publications worldwide, Scholes is among the top 1% of environmental scientists worldwide based on citation frequency, publishing widely in his chosen fields. He has a particular interest in the savannas of Africa and has over 30 years of field experience in many parts of Africa and the rest of the world.

The National Academy of Sciences is an independent, non-profit society, established by an Act of the US Congress in 1863. Regarded as one of the top scientific academies in the world, it now has 2 214 members and 444 foreign associates. Foreign associates are non-voting members of the Academy.

Its task is to provide independent, objective advice to the US government on matters related to science, engineering and medicine. Nearly 500 of its members have won Nobel Prizes.

Only 21 foreign associates are elected annually, and there is no membership application process. Only Academy members may submit formal nominations of their peers. This is then followed by an extensive vetting process that results in a final ballot at the Academy’s annual meetings in April every year.

According to the Academy, members are elected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Election to the Academy is regarded as one of the highest honours that a scientist can receive.

“I am blown away and I am humbled,” Scholes said in a statement issued by the CSIR last week. “It puts me in the company of internationally respected colleagues. It is a huge honour, both for myself and for South Africa. I hope to spread the benefits by helping the South African Academy of Science, of which I am also a member, to reach its full potential,” he added.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom congratulated Scholes on his election, saying it was a great honour for South Africa “because it recognises the excellent work of South African researchers and scientists and their contribution to the global body of knowledge and addressing some of the global environmental challenges.

“Scholes’ elevation and appointment to this prestigious position will serve to inspire other South African researchers to reach the same level, and encourage young and aspiring scientists to work harder and learners to consider careers in science.”

A National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, Scholes is a Fellow of the CSIR, Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, member of the South African Academy, and honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

According to the CSIR, Scholes has been a leader in several high-profile studies, including the Assessment of Elephant Management and the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. He has also led research campaigns such as Safari 2000 and the Southern African Millennium Assessment.

He has been a member of the steering committee of several global earth observation bodies, as well as several International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) research programmes. He served as coordinating or lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change during the 3rd, 4th and 5th assessments, and was co-chair of the Conditions Working Group of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

SAinfo reporter