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SAEON - science programme or environmental agency?

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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The DST’s Global Change Grand Challenge has been identified as the umbrella framework for SAEON’s work

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SAEON has a research contract with a mining company to study the long-term effects of land use and climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem services

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From its current position within the NRF, “SAEON can produce the widest range of policy-relevant knowledge outputs, and serve the information needs of the widest range of stakeholders, including being consulted by the National Planning Commission, as has recently been the case.” – Johan Pauw

There were, and probably still are, those who hold that SAEON should be located within the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) rather than the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

These views are understandable given the “environmental” focus of SAEON. This short piece seeks to better inform the debate.

Firstly, the ‘environment’ domain of SAEON is owned by all citizens, and therefore all government departments, representing the people of South Africa. Environment is a true cross-cutter that underpins all sectors of society.

It would therefore be short-sighted to consider ‘environment’ as solely the concern of the Department of Environmental Affairs. Departments such as Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Water and Sanitation; Rural Development and Land Reform; Tourism; Health; Energy; Economic Affairs; Basic Education; Higher Education and Training; and last but not least, Science and Technology, all have a direct interest in the work and welfare of SAEON.

What is important to recognise is that SAEON was not established as an environmental agency of sorts; instead, it was established as a science programme. SAEON’s science is an essential contribution to the ‘environmental’ knowledge base used by government.

As such, it should be managed as a research institution and from an economically neutral basis such as the National Research Foundation (NRF). SAEON is not for or against ‘conservation’, it merely seeks to pose important research questions around how environmental systems function, and what the drivers of change and the impacts of environmental change are… on natural systems as well as on those sectors of society dependent on them for a variety of essential resources and services.

SAEON is definitely for ‘scientific excellence’, the only guarantee that SAEON’s outputs will be adopted as reliable information that should inform socio-economic decision-making. By working in the DST’s sphere of influence, SAEON never has to argue the case for scientific excellence or a comprehensive disciplinary mandate.

Government’s strategic documents make it clear that the DST has a responsibility for supporting and directing environmental research, and the DST’s Global Change Grand Challenge has been identified as the umbrella framework for SAEON’s work.

Thirdly, SAEON was established as an institutionalised network with the mandate to support government, higher education and industry. As such, SAEON’s outputs are expected to contribute to the knowledge economy and ultimately to have policy relevance. Being a network organisation, SAEON is also expected to operate outside institutional boundaries, that is, to collaborate and widely share its available research infrastructure, databases and intellectual capacity in a meaningful way.

So, are all these objectives being met?

SAEON receives core funding from the DST only to run and maintain its long-term environmental observation and data systems, together with an environmental science engagement programme. This means that SAEON enters into contracts and agreements with stakeholder and user institutions for general collaborations without exchange of finances, or for short- to medium-term contracts.

More recently, two such agreements have been signed with DEA and another one is likely to be signed in March 2017. In addition, a collaborative agreement has been reached with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and awaits final sign-off.

Data system development contracts with several government departments are underway. SAEON moreover has a research contract with a mining company and runs a secretariat for the South African Marine Research and Exploration Forum (SAMREF).

Research students receiving support from SAEON hail from most of the South African research universities. In the very latest development, as reported in October last year, SAEON is currently being contracted by the DST for hosting two large environmental observation research infrastructures.

It should be clear that for SAEON to be run under government’s science vote from within the NRF is a well-motivated strategy delivering the expected results. From this position, SAEON can produce the widest range of policy-relevant knowledge outputs, and serve the information needs of the widest range of stakeholders, including being consulted by the National Planning Commission, as has recently been the case.

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