Professor Ursula Scharler.

Professor Ursula Scharler of the School of Life Sciences has been appointed Chairperson of South Africa’s new National Member Organisation (NMO) of the Austria-based International Institute of Applied Systems (IIASA). She will hold the position for three years.  The NMO committee comprises representatives of the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST), senior academics and other stakeholders. Another UKZN representative serving on the committee is Professor Graham Jewitt of the Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR).

The NRF established the NMO to steer and promote research and training opportunities in applied systems analysis in South Africa and also to develop capacity in the field and establish it as a research approach. The country has a strategic engagement with IIASA through the NRF, supported by the DST. According to the NRF, the relationship positions South Africa at the forefront of Systems Analysis in Africa by having access to programmes affiliated with IIASA at national and international levels, and is supported by the Minister of Science and Technology.

Scharler has been involved with systems analysis and the training opportunities provided by DST/NRF and IIASA for several years, notably through the reformulation of the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program (SA-YSSP) into the Southern African Centre for Systems Analysis (SASAC) in 2016. SASAC is a long-term programme whose aim is to train South African PhD students in the field of systems analysis in partnership with IIASA whose extensive alumni network includes several Nobel laureates.

She supervises postgraduate students in systems analysis at UKZN, finding the approach relevant to many different disciplines including natural sciences, social sciences, medical sciences and more. Many people, she says, contribute to systems analysis simply by the nature of their particular research fields, or through the management of bigger systems such as governing bodies.

Scharler’s background is in marine ecology, and she has not only applied the tools of systems analysis in her own field but has also been involved in projects analysing systems of water usage by various socio-economic sectors, or carbon exchanges within urban systems.

‘I am excited by the wider view systems analysis provides, linking different aspects and sectors to provide the bigger picture,’ said Scharler. ‘If we can combine some of these efforts and popularise systems analysis, this will be a big step in tackling problems that did not arise in isolation, and therefore cannot be solved in isolation.’

Looking forward to the prospect of chairing the committee, which she calls a great team, Scharler said she hopes to achieve an expansion of the knowledge of systems analysis in the country.

Words by: Christine Cuénod