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SAEON celebrates 10th anniversary

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"SAEON has become an international player interacting with the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, the International Science Union, the World Data System and the United Nations Environmental Programme." – Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology (Picture: George Sekonya)

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Dr Nicky Allsopp, Manager of the SAEON Fynbos Node (right) explains the science programme at Jonkershoek to Minister Pandor (Picture: George Sekonya)

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Johan Pauw, Managing Director of SAEON addresses guests. The weir measuring streamflow is visible in the background (Picture: George Sekonya)

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Guests had an opportunity to view the weir which was cleaned recently and equipped with modern instruments, among other things for automatic data transmission via cell phone (Picture: George Sekonya)

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The Minister (right) is accompanied by Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, President of the NRF (left) and Dr Nicky Allsopp, Manager of the SAEON Fynbos Node (Picture: George Sekonya)

Speech by the Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Ms Naledi Pandor, during her visit to the Jonkershoek research site in Stellenbosch on Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

  • Director of Ceremonies;
  • President of the National Research Foundation, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld;
  • Managing Director of the South African Environmental Observation Network, Mr Johan Pauw;
  • Distinguished Guests;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen ...

I am pleased to be here with you this morning as I pay my first visit to the Jonkershoek research site located here in Stellenbosch. This has come at the right time when we are still celebrating South Africa’s successful and memorable hosting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17).

As many of you are aware, the Department of Science and Technology published a Ten-year Innovation Plan for South Africa, Innovation Towards a Knowledge-based Economy 2008-2018, in 2008. The purpose of this Ten-Year Innovation Plan is to help drive South Africa’s transformation from a resource-based economy towards a knowledge-based economy.

The Ten-Year plan signals our belief that the government’s broad developmental mandate can ultimately be achieved only if South Africa takes further steps on the road to becoming a knowledge-based economy, in which science and technology, information, and learning move to the centre of economic activity.

"Well-managed and well-resources observation science will doubtlessly give rise to good economic and social returns." - Naledi Pandor

As part of our Ten-Year Innovation Plan, we identified a set of grand challenges aimed at providing focus and ambition for the National System of Innovation. One of the key Grand Challenge areas I would like to draw your attention to focuses on Science and Technology for Global Change.

SAEON and global change research

The focus of the Global Change Grand Challenge is informed by the country’s geographic position given its proximity to the Antarctic, the Southern Ocean, and the Algulhas and Benguela currents. This positions South Africa to play a leading role in climate change science. It is in this area of global change research where the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), will make a significant contribution.

SAEON, as many of you are aware, is a national research programme established by the Department of Science and Technology within the National Research Foundation (NRF). It establishes innovative research platforms and information management systems for long term, multi-institutional and participatory ecosystem research with strong regional and global linkages. These research platforms are coordinated as nodes. SAEON has to date established six nodes around the country which focus on key environmental themes such as nutrient cycling, climate change and biodiversity.

2012 marks 10 years of SAEON’s existence

Ladies and gentlemen, this year – 2012 - marks 10 years of SAEON’s existence. SAEON’s mandate is to provide research and observation data on long-term environmental trends, in particular to provide timely warning to policy makers and resource managers on the impact of anthropogenic Global Change on natural resources.

In addition, it enhances this function by archiving environmental data in a form accessible to all so that this data may be used in future studies to determine the direction of change. Its third mandate is to reinforce the DSTs and NRF’s role in capacity development by providing support in the sciences for learners, students and the general public. These three goals are undertaken in a managed network whereby SAEON partners with relevant local, national and international partners in order to reach its goals.

The SAEON Story

The SAEON Story, (especially when one considers the period from 2007 to 2011) gives an overview of the rich mosaic of activities undertaken in the last five years by SAEON. SAEON has grown to over 50 full-time staff and supports graduate students in a wide array of environmental disciplines. Learners get to experience research and the natural environment first hand by taking part in field excursions and ocean voyages aboard national research vessels.

Jonkershoek research site

Programme Director, it gives me great pleasure to have been able to visit Jonkershoek, a site which is one of the oldest environmental observatories in the world which now forms one of the core SAEON Observation sites.

SAEON recognised the importance of maintaining monitoring in mountain catchments in order to understand the impacts of Global Change on our most precious resource - water. SAEON’s collaboration with the Department of Water Affairs and CSIR has resulted in streamflow monitoring in mountain catchments becoming a core SAEON activity. This has led to the establishment of SAEON Observation sites at Jonkershoek and Cathedral Peak with the aim to expand this observation to other sites critical for understanding issues pertaining to water delivery.

Well-managed and well-resources observation science will doubtlessly give rise to good economic and social returns. In this light, I must say ladies and gentlemen that we are quite encouraged by the generous support from the NRF’s Research and Infrastructure Grant which has enabled SAEON to completely refurbish the equipment at the weirs and weather monitoring site. As a result, SAEON has now phased in electronic equipment which can relay data back to their offices via cellphone. Following the successful reinstrumentation of the Jonkershoek streamflow monitoring weirs, SAEON will be embarking on bringing the weirs in the Cathedral Peak, Drakensberg back into monitoring.

These streamflow monitoring observatories will, because of the length of the records (more than seven decades), provide SAEON with an objective assessment of trends in water resources under the impact of climate change. In addition, the wealth of earlier research on the composition and function of these ecosystems will allow further research opportunities which will give some light as regards the impacts of Global Change.

Key flagship programmes

SAEON has a number of key flagship programmes including the Ridovhona flagship programme. The Ridovhona flagship programme of SAEON is aimed at growing the number of observation sites, such as the one where we are visiting today. Ridovhona means “we shall see” in Venda and the name underscores the importance of SAEON’s long-term observation system for the benefit of the future generations.

Science education

I understand that SAEON has been breaking new ground in the field of science education over the past eight years. The science education programme is node-based and emphasises teacher and learner development through ongoing interaction with scientists and hands-on involvement in environmental monitoring projects. The education programme supports the national curriculum at under-resourced schools in the surrounds of three of the six nodes.

Data and information systems

New ground has also been broken in the field of data and information systems, with the result that SAEON has become an international player interacting with the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the International Science Union (ICSU), the World Data System and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

Locally, SAEON is the developer of the IT platforms for the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, the South African Earth Observation System and the Bio-Energy Atlas. Ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased with the results and the value that SAEON is delivering to the South African and global communities.

The SAEON observatory in Jonkershoek is proof of how several organisations can work together creating greater benefits for South Africans, now and for generations to come. I therefore call on all stakeholders to continue in this way and to grow their invaluable support for SAEON’s observation, information and education programmes.

In conclusion, I thank you all for sharing the lovely outdoors with me today. I have pleasure in congratulating all involved and I will forever treasure my personal copy of the SAEON Story.

Thank you.

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