THE FORMATION OF NITHEP

The National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP) was officially launched in May 2008. World-renowned theoretical physicist Prof Stephen Hawking, Nobel Laureate Prof David Gross and the South African Minister of Science and Technology were among those who attended the launch.

The process of bringing NITheP to fruition follows on four years of behind-the-scenes planning, negotiations and consultation. The wheels were set in motion after an international panel commissioned by the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), Department of Science and Technology (DST) and National Research Foundation (NRF) tabled a report in 2004 on “Shaping the Future of Physics in South Africa”. It recommended, amongst other things, that a national institute for theoretical physics be established to act as a user facility for South African and African theoretical physicists.

A broad consultative process within the South African physics community followed, resulting in the tabling of a proposal to the DST and NRF in November 2004. The proposal received strong support from the international physics community. Letters of endorsement were received from several winners of the Nobel Prize for physics, as well as from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

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After two more years of negotiations to refine the proposal, the South African government announced the establishment of NITheP in May 2006 and committed funding for an initial five-year period. The necessary infrastructure was put in place in 2007, while the first positions for director, five researchers and five post doctorates were advertised by the end of that year.

Over the years, the institute has stimulated a healthy interest in theoretical physics on both a national and international level. This has been accomplished through several initiatives, such as networking opportunities, mobility grants, encouraging visits from local and international physicists and physics students, bursaries, research opportunities and internships, summer schools and other outreach and community service.

LOCATION

NITheP has regional centres at three locations:

  • Stellenbosch University (SU)
  • University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

GOVERNANCE

The governance system is that of a national Centre of Excellence (CoE), which is subject to the notarisation of a binding contract between the granter, the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the grantee, namely Stellenbosch University.

NITheP operates in an independent environment, with Stellenbosch University providing administrative support. This is critical in the South African (and African) context to ensure non-alliance with a particular institution and to develop an independent identity. A consortium agreement between the hosts of the three regional centres governs the interaction between the regional centres.

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