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SAEON RESEARCH 

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By Jasper Slingsby1 and Theoni Photopoulou2
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In our current time of change, we need a systematic understanding of environmental processes and trajectories to inform decision-making.

South Africa is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet and much of the economy depends on this biodiversity, from ecotourism to rural livelihoods and major ecosystem services like pollination, carbon sequestration, water provision or soil stabilisation.

Understanding and sustainably managing these natural systems and their derived benefits requires answering some very complex questions, often using sparse and noisy data.

Extracting signal from the “noise” in data requires properly measuring and modelling the variables of interest, and quantifying the uncertainty around them. This is particularly important in long-term studies, where the goal is typically to discern and attribute any evidence of directional change against a background of natural variability and measurement error.

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South Africa is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet (Pictures courtesy of Malachite Media and SABCA)

Training a new generation

In short, we need the most robust statistical methods and decision-making tools available to us, but the skills are in short supply. Conducting innovative research to address the environmental challenges we face will increasingly depend on training a new generation with the necessary skills, both ecological and analytical.

The Centre for Statistics in Ecology, the Environment and Conservation, or SEEC for short, is an inter-departmental research centre established at the University of Cape Town that aims to connect statisticians and natural scientists to address the most important environmental questions with cutting-edge statistical methods. Led by Prof. Res Altwegg and colleagues in the Statistical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Actuarial Sciences departments, and including members from a range of local and international institutions, it is the only dedicated statistical ecology research group in South Africa.

It is hoped that many more such hubs of interdisciplinary research will grow and form an extensive national network that can jointly tackle some of the big questions of our time.

Transforming data into understanding decision-making

The keystone of SEEC’s research is to develop methods and expertise to link data analysis and modelling to conservation planning, policy and management decisions. Biological and environmental sciences study complex systems with large amounts of multi-layered data, encountering great challenges in transforming those data into understanding and decision-making.

This creates an exciting and productive space for statisticians, who develop quantitative tools for evaluating hypotheses in the light of data, and decision theorists, who help inform decisions that directly affect human livelihoods and well-being as well as conservation priorities.

Recent developments in statistical methodology and the advent of the age of Big Data are making statistics ever more indispensable as a partner-discipline for the life sciences. The hybridisation between statistics and ecology is creating a highly productive cycle, revolutionising the way ecological and environmental research is conducted, and at the same time presenting unique statistical problems and forging the further development of quantitative methods.

SAEON have been actively engaging with SEEC since its inception and hopes to grow this relationship. Current involvement includes one SAEON staff member on the SEEC Core Team, two MSc students, and multiple other staff, students and interns participating in SEEC strategy workshops and training activities.

1 Ecologist, SAEON Fynbos Node and SEEC Research Associate
2 Postdoctoral Fellow, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and SEEC Researcher

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