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Time to expand: achieving science through science engagement

By Sue Janse van Rensburg, Coordinator: SAEON Grasslands Node
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What ecosystem services do grasslands provide us with? What are the consequences of global change (including land degradation) on such services? Can we restore ecosystem services of degraded systems for improved resilience?

These are key questions driving the SAEON Grasslands Node science plan. To answer them, the intention is to implement research and monitoring programmes within benchmark sites, degraded areas and sites undergoing rehabilitation.

The Cathedral Peak research catchment area is the Node’s high-altitude benchmark site representing mesic fire climax grasslands in the upper reaches of the Thukela catchment. Now that this site is fairly well established, we are expanding operations to include degraded/impacted areas and sites undergoing restoration within the same Thukela catchment.

We want to use this expansion as an opportunity to profile and advance science engagement initiatives, and demonstrate how doing so can also achieve our science objectives.


The chairlady of the Okhombe Monitoring Group, Mrs Mavundla (in yellow), explains to NRF visitors, students and interns the history of the Okhombe rehabilitation efforts and monitoring programme. The new weather station of the Grasslands Node can be seen in the background.

Involving the local community

We are fortunate to be working in collaboration with a long-running established restoration programme driven by Dr Terry Everson at Okhombe, a local community close to the boundary of the Cathedral Peak research area. This project owes its success to the participatory approach taken with the community and their on-going involvement in monitoring the impacts of restoration on ecosystem services.


Mrs Hlubi, one of the 11 members of the Monitoring Group, explains the monitoring tools they use looking at rehabilitated and degraded areas, here assessing splash height, grass cover and sediment runoff.

This is an example of true science engagement where, despite low levels of literacy, women have been empowered within this community to perform basic but vital measurements that assess the impact of restoration efforts on water and grass cover in the area. Here we will be using sophisticated science-based techniques to complement simple routine measures undertaken by the community.


The NRF’s Executive Director of Corporate Governance, Ms Faranah Osman (centre) with Mrs Mavundla (left) and Mrs Hlubi.

The intention is to calibrate simple techniques against more sophisticated measurements. Once calibrated and refined, we can roll out cheaper, simpler methods more broadly, knowing they will still contribute to scientific enquiry, while at the same time enabling broad-based science engagement with communities and learners.

The Okhombe monitoring group, chaired by Mrs Mavundla, often host student groups, demonstrating to them how they do rehabilitation and monitoring. They are also visited regularly by various interested parties, including the French ambassador and in July this year, members of the National Research Foundation’s Corporate Governance team.

Deployment of weather stations

Although weather is the most basic of factors that need to be monitored to interpret other responses in the landscape (e.g. biodiversity and water dynamics), weather stations are scarce to non-existent in this area. The first priority was therefore to deploy weather stations in at least two sites within the area that could provide meaningful information to the science programme, while at the same time providing benefits for science engagement activities. The Okhombe community was the one site and Bambanani Primary school, situated across the valley, another.


A rehabilitating donga monitored by the Okhombe group for water and soil processes to assess recovery potential of critical ecosystem services.

These stations will complement two existing SAEON stations within the Cathedral Peak area that, incidentally, have live links available to engage the broader public.

Pioneering citizen science tools

Weather stations are expensive, however, which is why we are partnering with GroundTruth, an organisation committed to “democratising science”, to quote their MD, Dr Mark Graham. GroundTruth are pioneers in advancing citizen science tools and we are working with them to develop calibrated cheaper alternatives to expensive weather station systems.

We are also aiming to capacitate a new generation of scientists who are as well versed in science engagement as they are in “academic” science. So, within the first month of their arrival at the Node, DST-NRF interns Nobuhle Mweli and Nqobile Lushozi were tasked with learning how to set up Davis weather stations and deploying these, through community engagement, in our area of interest.


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