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Reflections on technical services and technology push-and-pull

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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Technology push-and-pull is changing the future of environmental science. 

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The services that SAEON offers is an additional way of meeting its vision of offering information for decision-making, in this case at the local level.

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The objective to study social-ecological relations directly, places the EFTEON project in the domain of the novel Long-Term Social-Ecological Research (LTSER) sites of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (LTER).

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“By contracting SAEON, the contractee saves on costs since the work gets done nearly at cost. Both parties benefit from the collaboration because SAEON’s real profit is in the opportunity to generate additional data or to develop reusable software. Everyone, including the taxpayer, wins.”- Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

The never-ending push-and-pull that gives organisations momentum is not abating in SAEON.

Over the past years we have signed large contracts with public entities for ICT hardware and data management services. We have also signed contracts for monitoring and research, not only with public entities but also with the private sector.

Through these contracts, SAEON delivers technical services in data management, environmental monitoring, systems-ecological understanding and the economics of environmental management to a range of stakeholders.

A business model for offering technical services

It is useful to unpack SAEON’s business model for the offering of technical services. These services are offered on top of SAEON’s core infrastructure and funding. The provision of services to stakeholders is therefore reliant on the basics of a well-running organisation.

Income from services is gained at around 10% of the contract value as a management fee. This income is strategically reinvested in special organisational infrastructure projects that cannot be funded by SAEON’s core budget, and in some instances, can also be used for staff appointments on a shared basis.

Other typical strategic investments are an annual meeting of SAEON’s administration staff (given six nodes and a national office this involves travel and accommodation), development of specialised databases and office-related costs. Only recently has it become possible to use income from services to top up operational budgets at SAEON nodes.

Technology developed by the data management services is retained as improvements to SAEON’s own data systems. This adds value to SAEON at a negligible cost. Additionally, these contracts often make provision for hardware, software and ICT staff. The advantages of the additional hardware and software are obvious, but though the project staff are only employed for the duration of a contract, they add to SAEON’s available ICT resources.

Similarly, the offering of monitoring and research services contributes to SAEON’s scientific capacity and outputs while meeting stakeholder objectives. In the first instance, data are generated that help to address environmental challenges and add to SAEON’s long-term data sets. Since the agenda for the required service is set for a study area wherein the contractee has a primary interest, the service offered is an additional way of meeting SAEON’s vision of offering information for decision-making, in this case at the local level.

The request for SAEON’s services by a range of stakeholders, which results in diverse income streams, adds additional proof of SAEON’s legitimacy and sustainability in the public science system of South Africa. It is important to note that this business model of SAEON has very much the character of a public enterprise (Pauw, 2014).

True to SAEON’s ethos, the offered services are at the level of collaborative projects and are not profit-driven. In these collaborations, the contractee offers financial resources in exchange for expertise. By contracting SAEON, the contractee saves on costs since the work gets done nearly at cost. Both parties benefit from the collaboration because SAEON’s real profit is in the opportunity to generate additional data or to develop reusable software. Everyone, including the taxpayer, wins.

The impact of technological push-and-pull on Global Change Science

With the addition of the two South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (Department of Science and Technology, 2016) projects, namely the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI) and the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON), a new era has dawned. Together, these research infrastructure (RI) projects are double the value of SAEON’s core budget for in situ environmental observations.

A new kind of environmental scientist will have to be brought on board - one that can integrate, model and interpret physical, biological and social-ecological systems and data. Those scientists will be required to lead the interdisciplinary research teams of the new research infrastructure.

Suddenly, financial management of SAEON’s available budget and resources has become very complex. This is largely because in real terms, both these projects were designed to build on SAEON’s existing observation systems and to expand those geographically.

For some time, these two projects will be managed under a single stand-alone contract, but it is foreseeable that in due course, once they are running smoothly, both these RIs will be integrated with the current observation systems of SAEON. The resulting contribution to Earth System and Global Change Science will grow exponentially.

The SARIR projects are generally viewed as state-of-the-art research infrastructure driven by technology. While technology, and specifically automation, is making it possible to do more with the same number of staff, it is necessary to be reminded that for environmental and Earth system observations, the physical research locations are part of an RI. Access to the research sites, permission to collect data and security measures to protect the instruments are fundamental to both the SAEON and SARIR observation systems.

Add to those the technical and scientific staff as well as the data systems and managers who all have essential roles to play, and it becomes clear that the SARIR projects are much more than just flux towers. In the case of EFTEON, the objective to study social-ecological relations directly, places it in the domain of the novel Long-Term Social-Ecological Research (LTSER) sites of the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network ( ILTER ).

The future of environmental and Earth system observations has arrived. Yes, we will see more machines in the field, but that does not render the field scientist and technician obsolete. Instead, more field staff will have to be employed given the multiple observation sites to maintain and the avalanche of data to be delivered and analysed.

A new kind of environmental scientist will have to be brought on board - one that can integrate, model and interpret physical, biological and social-ecological systems and data. Those scientists will be required to lead the interdisciplinary research teams of the new RIs.

Can academia be expected to produce integrative environmental scientists when specialisation and citations are driving the science system? This is unlikely... so where will we find them?

Integrative environmental scientists are likely working as problem-solvers and planners in large organisations with an environmental management mandate. They might also be modellers at universities, or even consultants. They might not have a high profile currently and might not even see themselves as successful research scientists because they have not made an outstanding career of publishing scientific papers. Furthermore, they are likely to be in the second half of their careers since it takes many years and ample international connectivity to garner sufficient expertise across disciplines to transform from your basic academic training to being a true Global Change scientist.

If we do find such integrative environmental scientists, how will they be rewarded by the science system?

The depth and breadth of the subject matter to be integrated is sure to eventually result in the production of direction-giving papers. Such papers will take long to produce due to the multidisciplinarity of the teams and subject matter, and they might not even achieve high citation rates because of the non-specialised nature of such papers.

The onus will therefore be on the employer to offer the conditions of service, inclusive of financial and non-financial reward systems, that will retain integrative scientists. Particular non-financial incentives that might attract integrative environmental scientists are likely to be found in the unique and intriguing research questions that can be answered in conjunction with the opportunity to make a significant contribution to Global Change and Sustainable Development theory and practice. In addition, because of their generally slow career development, the employer might have to provide for career extensions beyond normal retirement age.

Technology push-and-pull is changing the future of environmental science. Our science will not be limited by technology, funding or data; rather, the limitations will derive from the paucity of highly yet broadly skilled scientists (inclusive of people skills) required to manage and perform complex and data-rich science with substantive meaning for environmental policies and Sustainable Development.

The public science system should develop a strategic and structured approach to producing, retaining and rewarding such individuals.

Related content:

  • Department of science and Technology, 2016. South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap. Available online: http://bit.ly/2u18qNX 
  • Pauw JC, 2014. A comprehensive systematic approach to legitimise the adoption and implementation of a technical service by a public entity. MBA dissertation, University of Stellenbosch Business School. Available online: http://bit.ly/2xrfcev   

 

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