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Cold facts

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COLD FACT: In view of the recent budget cuts, how long will SAEON still be able to maintain its long-term environmental observation platforms working to detect, interpret and predict environmental change?

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The austerity measures will have marked consequences for the public value flowing from SAEON.

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MD Johan Pauw invites comments from SAEON stakeholders on how the impasse in financial support external to the Department of Science and Technology may be resolved.

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

 

In American singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s album, Coming from Reality (1971) the opening line of his poignant song Cause goes like this: “Cause I lost my job….two weeks before Christmas”.

This issue reaches you, our SAEON stakeholders, approximately two weeks before Christmas and the incidental significance of this timing is illustrated by some “Cold Facts” that I highlight here below.

Cold Fact 1:

Robert M. Solow (Nobel Prize laureate 1987) established a strong positive correlation between the investment in technology and sustainable national economic growth; whereas more jobs and capital explained only 1/8th of economic growth (read http://garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v11p123y1988.pdf for a layman’s overview of the importance of Solow’s work).

Cold Fact 2:

SAEON researchers presented eleven wide-ranging oral papers (15,5% of the total) and volunteered a session dedicated to “Global Change and Society” at the Global Change Conference hosted by the Department of Science and Technology at the end of November 2012.

SAEON’s "omnipresence" at the conference led to calls for an expansion of its work, which is labour intensive and costly. Delegates agreed that long-term environmental data and information obtained from field research are reliable inputs for evidence-based policy making and are essential to feed and validate modelling approaches, but cannot be replaced by them.

More government departments than just the Department of Science and Technology are sharing in the benefits flowing from SAEON and should therefore contribute to the core maintenance and growth of SAEON.

Cold Fact 3:

Between the 2011-12 and the 2012-13 financial years, the national science vote’s budget increased by 13,5% (Medium Term Budget Policy Statement 2012, Table A.1), whereas SAEON’s parliamentary allocation decreased by 3,3% (National Research Foundation internal documents).

Cold Fact 4:

South Africa’s National Treasury, which is in control of government finance, last month instructed budget cuts of 1% (2013-14), 2% (2014-15) and 3% (2015-16) against core baseline funding for all government departments. This calculates to approximately 3% increase per year in numerical terms. Provisional calculations show that SAEON’s parliamentary allocation will slowly increase from the R 18 592 000 in 2012 to approximately R 20 316 000 in 2015. In real (discounted) terms, the monetary value of the allocated budget will decrease by some 5% per year, given an 8-9% inflation rate for research platform type organisations (personal communication by the NRF-CFO).

Cold Fact 5:

Despite Cold Facts 1 and 2, the impact of these austerity measures (described as Cold Facts 3 and 4) on SAEON’s ability to maintain its current research platforms will be severely erosive and environmental observation and education capacity will most certainly be lost as a result.

SAEON is mandated to perform long-term environmental observations in order to detect, translate and predict environmental change, for public good, which is a government responsibility among the many other national priorities on the agenda. More government departments than just the Department of Science and Technology are sharing in the benefits flowing from SAEON and should therefore contribute to the core maintenance and growth of SAEON … but this is not happening.

Our archive of eight years of SAEON newsletters can be found here and is a testament of what SAEON has achieved for South African citizens in terms of government’s Outcome’s 5 and 10, and for global stakeholders in terms of global environmental conventions and science programmes.

I should be grateful for any advice from SAEON stakeholders about how the impasse in financial support external to the Department of Science and Technology may be resolved. Moreover, if the National Treasury and other national policymakers follow the Solow Model for Economic Growth, it should result in continued favourable financial support for Vote 34 Science and Technology in relation to the dominant national priorities of job creation and infrastructure development, despite the immediate need for austerity measures across government spending.

Given that the National Strategy for Sustainable Development adopted a world view wherein ecosystems services encapsulate the socio-political and economic spheres, SAEON in particular should experience real growth in its parliamentary allocation, instead of downscaling resulting from the current disconnect between national policy and investment.

Please send your comments to johan at saeon.ac.za. You may also choose to submit your comments on the Solow Model’s application to the national investment in science and technology in the form of an article that we could consider for publication in this newsletter.

It is two weeks before Christmas 2012 and our jobs at SAEON are indeed intact. Nonetheless, coming from a stark reality point of view, it should be appreciated that unless financial support external to the Department of Science and Technology is obtained in the medium term, the erosion of available research funds through budget cuts and cost of living increases will effectively reduce our productivity on the one hand, and job satisfaction on the other.

It is only fair that SAEON’s stakeholders are kept informed and that the negative implications of such developments on both staff morale and the public value flowing from SAEON should be made clear to everyone.

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