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A not-so-ordinary SAEON science meeting

By Tim O’Connor, Observation Science Specialist, SAEON
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It is unusual to write about the internal machinations of an organisation for an outside readership, but the 2018 annual science meeting of SAEON afforded an opportunity to reflect on some of the attributes of this fledgling organisation in relation to comparable ones.

I therefore wrote this in the belief that a broader readership may derive some value from comparing SAEON’s science environment with their own.

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The majority of SAEON staff who serve in managerial, science, technical and data capacities were able to attend the meeting

How many science organisations in southern Africa or elsewhere could contemplate a science meeting to be attended by all their scientists? The majority of SAEON’s staff who serve in managerial, science, technical and data capacities (42 in all) were able to attend the meeting in Cape Town during October. The location was chosen in order to minimise costs as three of SAEON’s seven nodes are based in Cape Town.

A singular hallmark of SAEON’s science meetings is the range of subject matter reflected by the scientists who assemble. Most scientists attend meetings concerned with their subject of direct interest – this has certainly been my experience. It was a privilege to wallow in the wealth of subject matter exposed during this SAEON science meeting.

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Several small groups each developed a short presentation depicting the purpose of SAEON using approaches as diverse as a TV 'person-on-the-street' interview, charades, an animated cartoon, a mime and a play, as well as a more conventional PowerPoint presentation

I believe I am the same as most ecologists who have been involved with a restricted number of ecosystems and issues of interest. Within a SAEON meeting, I am exposed to all the terrestrial biomes plus the marine and coastal environment, not only ecology but subjects as diverse as oceanography, climatology, hydrology, resource economics and social ecology, among others.

A small staff complement allows all to get to know the others, not only in a collegial manner but in terms of individual work roles. In past meetings there have been formal offerings of some key facets of science and data management which have emerged from each of the nodes, but even with a small organisation not everyone gains exposure.

For this meeting, a novel event of each node presenting the scope of its activities through video, succeeded in portraying almost everyone – depth was supplanted with breadth. Some felt that greater exposure to hard science would be more preferable. However, my reflection was that at no other time in my career, including with SAEON, have I gained a comprehensive overview of the nature of an entire organisation through sessions totalling an hour or so. It is an internal approach for an organisation I would recommend at least on a once-off basis, that could alternate with more traditional forms.

Defining the skills set of the organisation

A small organisation can strive to achieve ‘the whole being more than the sum of the parts’ through identifying complementary skills among staff. Accordingly, Casper Crous led a session defining the skills set of the organisation using multivariate techniques through which innumerable potential opportunities were revealed.

Individuals have so much more to offer than the subject tag by which they are known – harnessing this diversity is not commonly achieved. In principle, larger organisations should be able to gain greater internal leverage from an expected greater diversity of their staff complement owing to their size, but I suspect size often brings with it reduced cohesion. SAEON intends to explore leveraging of this nature as a fundamental tenet of its modus operandi.

World Café session

An organisation whose mandate is collection of information informing about global change, needs to think ahead to anticipate novel challenges and to identify complexities. Discourse of this nature may easily become overwhelmed by the perspective of a few dominant personalities while keen young minds watch in silence.

In order to break this mould, a World Café session was planned in the spirit of the 23 greatest unsolved mathematical problems formulated by David Hilbert in 1900. The organising committee identified six contemporary topics each to be led by a postdoctoral student, through which participants rotated in a manner ensuring constant change in group composition.

A broad set of topics included observation, modelling, scales, system dynamics including process interaction, thresholds and tipping points, and policy and actions. Insight and ideas about each of the topics were thereby effectively garnered from all participants.

Usually activities of this nature do not yield products of value, but some of the seeds laid in these sessions may well germinate because useful topics were discussed. But importantly I felt, the format allowed for nearly all individuals to express themselves.

Towards a common purpose

A positive work environment can be engendered by activities which seek harmonisation among the whole regarding common purpose. ‘What is SAEON’ and ‘what does SAEON do’ appear superfluous questions at one level, but an assumption of common understanding may not be well-founded.

To this end, several small groups each developed a short presentation depicting the purpose of SAEON using approaches as diverse as a TV ‘person-on-the-street’ interview, charades, an animated cartoon, a mime and a play, as well as a more conventional PowerPoint presentation. The original and innovative nature of the products was remarkably entertaining, and collation of the nuances of each delivery provided a robust overall statement about the group identity of the organisation.

There emerged a strong statement of common purpose, of daily work activity that can make a positive impact on the country, and thus serve as individual motivation. The value of common purpose among the collective – technicians, data management, observation scientists and management – for ensuring smooth functioning of an organisation cannot be overemphasised.

Where to from here?

This meeting reinforced my impression of some of the difficulties facing young people being trained as scientists – where to from here? Where are the job opportunities for those who wish to pursue a career as a scientist?

This concern was baldly exposed during a question-and-answer session between attendees and SAEON’s MD Johan Pauw, in itself an uncommon event for promoting direct communication between management and staff. Postdoctoral students expressed an implicit hope, even belief, that SAEON would provide employment. It is improbable SAEON will become a major employer.

This made me reflect on the attrition I have witnessed over the past couple of decades in the number of career scientist opportunities made available through formal institutions, many of which continue to employ many people but proportionately fewer who function as scientists. A national discourse about career opportunities as a professional scientist is overdue – should the universities be producing so many research-oriented postgraduates when they are unlikely to ever function as a researcher?

Developed economies recognise the importance of investment in knowledge generation, committing not less than 2% of GDP to research. South Africa currently invests 0.8%, which might seem reasonable, but perhaps this is not sufficient for meeting the ever-increasing knowledge needs of a rapidly developing country.

Long-term environmental observation should not be seen as a luxury, but as a necessity for ensuring the country is well-informed about impacts that would have substantial implications for our economy and societal cohesion. If SAEON has to grow in order to meet this need, then meetings of this nature may no longer remain feasible, but effort should be made to retain the elements of cross-fertilisation, expanding depth of the value of each staff member, a strong common identity, ease of communication across sectors, a social purpose, and just simply really enjoying a day’s work.

I should like to thank the organising committee for a truly enjoyable and worthwhile science meeting.

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