World honour for SA botanist

A Cape sugarbird on a pincushion protea,
one of the many beautiful flower species
found in the Cape floral kingdom.
(Image: South African Tourism)

Professor Richard Cowling of the Nelson
Mandela Metropolitan University.
(Image: NMMU)

Janine Erasmus

South African botanist Richard Cowling, research professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s School of Botany, has been admitted to the renowned US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Cowling is one of 350 non-Americans ever to be granted this honour, only three of which – including himself – are South African.

The US National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 by then president Abraham Lincoln. The academy’s function is to investigate and advise the government on topics involving science or art, and is one of four such national bodies. The other three focus on medicine, research and engineering and were all established much later, in the 20th century.

Cowling joins South African botanist and medical researcher Walter Marasas, who was admitted to the NAS in 2007, and celebrated anthropologist Philip Tobias who was admitted in 1987. Admission to the NAS takes place through a nomination and election process, during which the nominee’s notable achievements are scrutinised, and is considered one of the highest honours that can be granted to a scientist or engineer.

Cowling is one of 18 foreign associates from nine countries who were recognised in 2008 for ongoing achievement in original research. The other associates are from Ethiopia, France, Israel, Mexico, United Kingdom, Australia, Austria and Canada. Paleoanthropologist Dr Bertane Asfaw of the privately run Rift Valley Research Service is the only other new member from Africa.

SA home to cutting-edge science

With more than 170 Nobel laureates among the 2 100 American and 350 non-American members, Cowling is in distinguished company. The botanist was nominated by leading US environmentalist Prof Peter Raven, who described him as “the foremost researcher in the world’s most species-rich and threatened ecosystems”. South Africa is well known for its biological diversity, which offers a wealth of scientific opportunities.

The appointment has delighted the local scientific fraternity, and Cowling himself said, “It’s fantastic for my own sense of achievement but more so because it indicates that despite all the doom and gloom around we have the infrastructure and the opportunity here in South Africa to do cutting-edge science. Like the arts, science is a good barometer of the health of a country, I think.”

One of only a handful of South African botanists given an A-rating in terms of work quality by the National Research Foundation, Cowling praised the foundation and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University for their support, saying that it played an important role in his achievements. A-rated scientists are “unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs”, according to the National Research Foundation.

A multi-award-winning scientist with over 400 published papers and several botanical books to his name, Cowling has been honoured at home and internationally by bodies as diverse as the US-based Society for Conservation Biology, the UK-based World Innovation Foundation, the South African Association of Botanists and the National Research Foundation. He has worked on a number of advisory committees, belongs to many professional, academic and civic societies, and has presented botanical papers at local and international conferences.

His main research interest is conservation assessment, planning and implementation in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

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