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An ‘explosive' era dawns

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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South Africa's visionary Minister of Science and Technology has committed large sums to establishing several research infrastructures, two of which will be distributed research infrastructures hosted by SAEON

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"Both of these research infrastructures are building on SAEON as an existing research infrastructure and must be interpreted as an overwhelming vote of confidence that has already given a ‘Big Bang"' impetus to SAEON." – Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

In the previous century, the term "research equipment" was used to describe the physical instruments that researchers needed. Those were primarily located inside isolated research laboratories.

In 1996, when I joined South Africa's then Foundation of Research Development (FRD), I was rather surprised to find FRD not only had a number of equipment-centered National Facilities (e.g. South African Astronomical Observatory - SAAO, National Accelerator Centre), but also a National Equipment Programme, a clear indication that research equipment had become a strategic investment from a science governance perspective.

This was largely due to the high cost and specialised operational requirements, and therefore the need for optimising the use of such equipment. Such instruments were also strategically placed in so-called historically black universities for capacity development.

Globally, the importance of research equipment has risen drastically since those days. Given the significance of infrastructure for a country's economic development, and the similar role of equipment for research development, the term research infrastructure (RI) was adopted to such an extent that in the last decade "RI" has become acknowledged terminology, although the phrase has not yet been defined as a single concept in dictionaries such as Oxford or Cambridge. The European Commission's elaboration of RIs can be found at http://bit.ly/2eVPiGu, and in short refers to "facilities, resources and related services used by the scientific community to conduct top-level research in their respective fields, ranging from social sciences to astronomy, genomics to nanotechnologies".

Prominent continental-scale examples of RIs relevant to ecosystem research are NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network) in the USA, TERN (Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network) in Australia and in Europe: LifeWatch (RI for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research), EURO-ARGO ERIC (Global Ocean Observing Infrastructure) and ICOS (Integrated Carbon Observation System).

South Africa's vision for national-scale ecosystem research infrastructure

With SAEON's establishment in 2002, the South African vision for a national-scale ecosystem research infrastructure started to take shape. In the beginning, the infrastructure actually consisted more of human resources and research sites than equipment and instruments.

SAEON's first move towards becoming an instrument-intensive research infrastructure was when a few physical oceanography instruments were permanently moored in Algoa Bay in the latter half of the previous decade. Gradually more instruments were added and when the National Research Foundation started allocating funds to SAEON from its Strategic Research Infrastructure Grant (SRIG), the drive to install a range of instruments in a range of ecosystems really gained momentum.

Additional funds also meant that historic research infrastructures for hydrological and rangeland research could be revived and further developed.

During the recent International Conference on Research Infrastructure (ICRI 2016) held in Cape Town, South Africa's visionary Minister of Science and Technology committed large sums of money to establishing several research infrastructures. Two of those are distributed research infrastructures that will be hosted by SAEON, namely the Shallow Marine and Coastal RI (SMCRI) and the Expanded Terrestrial and Freshwater Environmental Observation Network (ETFEON).

Both of these RIs are building on SAEON as an existing RI and must be interpreted as an overwhelming vote of confidence that has already given a "Big Bang" impetus to SAEON. At the same time, implementing the RIs will be a huge challenge and one for which international expertise will be sought.

Apart from the obvious expectation that the quality of ecosystem research in South Africa will be exponentially advanced and policy-relevant, the RIs are expected to be supporting the ecological research community by providing open access and services whilst demanding the release of the results in the public domain.

It is envisaged that some 30% of the users of the RIs will be from outside of South Africa. It is specifically envisaged that the RIs should reach out to other African countries and establish fruitful collaborations given that political boundaries are inconsequential in terms of ecological manifestations on the continent.

These expectations have always been integral to SAEON's long-term objectives and ethics.

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SAEON’s first move towards becoming an instrument-intensive research infrastructure was when a few physical oceanography instruments were permanently moored in Algoa Bay in the latter half of the previous decade

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