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Newly funded demands are expanding SAEON’s footprint. Dare we decline?

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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SAEON research data and knowledge are regularly used as input into national and local government policy deliberations for socio-economic sustainability. One example is its investigations into the spillage of toxic mining effluent into the Olifants River in Limpopo.

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SAEON provides integrative information management systems, such as the South African BioEnergy Atlas, to several government departments.

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“As an instrument of government, SAEON does not have the ‘luxury’ of declining externally funded mandates that will contribute to national environmental sustainability and equity outcomes.” - Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

We in SAEON have recently been tossed into a new orbit by the addition of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) mandate for the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) and the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI).

This has prompted us to engage in strategic internal conversations about whether our mandate has changed and how the organisation should be restructured.

Most certainly our available budget has more than doubled and this alone demands a new structure to enable us to work effectively as a public entity. To a large extent the eventual restructuring would depend on the need for functional specialisation and the addition of new functions.

To answer the question about how SAEON’s mandate might have changed, I revisited the aide-mémoire of a conclusive meeting titled the “Interdepartmental Discussion on the Long-Term Ecological Research (Ecosystem Observatory) Proposal”, held on March 1, 2001. This meeting was attended by high-level representatives of stakeholder departments including the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (hereafter the DST), the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, the then National Department of Agriculture, the National Research Foundation (NRF) and representatives of the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Steering Committee.

The LTER Steering Committee, with Professor Albert van Jaarsveld in the chair and him being the main author of the proposal, requested the meeting with the heads of government departments and the NRF to obtain a commitment from the South African Government towards the establishment of a national LTER programme. The meeting to discuss the LTER proposal followed on a five-year period of deliberations and planning that was kick-started by the visit of the Chair of the International LTER (ILTER), Jim Gosz, organised in 1996 by the Foundation for Research Development’s (FRD) Sustainable Environment Theme.

During the meeting, pertinent comments were made by the government representatives, which I recorded in the aide-mémoire. Those comments captured the thinking of the heads of the government departments at the time of committing to establish SAEON. An analysis of the documented comments will therefore be useful in determining whether SAEON has been meeting those expectations and whether the new SARIR projects align with or differ from those.

The meeting agreed that government at large is SAEON's key stakeholder in terms of both environmental sustainability and equity objectives. On reflection, this means that the South African public, duly represented by the government, is the main stakeholder of SAEON and that justifies an investment of public funds in our work.

It was further concluded that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) would be the line department responsible for the new entity and that it would mandate the NRF as the lead agency for the establishment and implementation of SAEON, supported by ongoing core funding from the DST.

The SAEON mandate

The DST’s mandate to SAEON was to scientifically research ecosystems over long periods to understand the impacts of global and local change with an ultimate view to identify environmental management options that will reduce the socio-economic risks and impacts of the large and local-scale drivers of change. As such, the DST required SAEON to become part of the National Science and Technology Infrastructure.

Since an LTER approach will require monitoring sets of variables, the meeting agreed that SAEON would also contribute data to, and thus benefit, the national environmental monitoring system, although it will not be regarded as part of that system. The meeting resulted in government departments jointly approving the establishment of SAEON on the premise that it would produce more socio-economically relevant science, thus science with clear policy and environmental management implications, than that offered by universities and other science institutions.

In order to reflect an inclusive focus on ecosystem dynamics and therefore the inclusion of human-ecosystem relations as part of SAEON’s mandate, the DST proposed that the term “ecological” be replaced with “environmental” in the naming of SAEON.

The DST furthermore made it clear that other government departments responsible for relevant sectors such as biodiversity, water, energy, agriculture, mining, fisheries, forestry and land affairs were expected to enter into contracts with SAEON for applicable services and products. Although international collaboration is imperative, it must be from a South African point of departure and should ensure technology transfer for the development of local capacity.

Meeting government expectations

In hindsight, it may be remarked that SAEON did indeed evolve to be well-aligned with those original expectations. Government has remained its key stakeholder and several departments as well as the private sector have contracted SAEON to deliver on their expectations of services and products.

Environmental monitoring, research into global/local change and infrastructure for environmental observations are provided to government and the private sector. Integrative information management systems such as the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, the South African BioEnergy Atlas, the Marine Information Management System, the Spatial Statistics Analysis Platform for the National Invasive Alien Plants Survey and the South African Spatial Data Infrastructure are provided to several government departments.

SAEON’s footprint

Contracts and collaborations have enlarged the research footprint of SAEON to a magnitude far greater than the financial value of the core funding received from the DST. The Department of Higher Education is specifically serviced by an offering of research platforms, research infrastructure and co-supervision of research students in pursuit of excellence and equity.

SAEON has grown its international footprint as well and plays a significant international role through collaboration and service in global change initiatives, intergovernmental science programmes and hosting of international researchers.

SAEON research data and knowledge are regularly used as input into national and local government policy deliberations for socio-economic sustainability. To name a few recent cases: the water crisis in Cape Town; the spread and effect of harmful algal blooms resulting from rising sea temperatures on the Eastern Cape coast; spillage of toxic mining effluent into the Olifants River in Limpopo; reduction of biodiversity impacts of benthic trawling for hake on the West Coast; prospective shale gas development in the Karoo; predictive research on the impact of sea-level rise on estuarine ecosystems, oceans and climate modelling; and the impact of land-use and climate change on groundwater in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.

Somewhat on the downside, it needs to be acknowledged that as yet very little direct socio-economic research other than on fuelwood harvesting in Limpopo has been performed by SAEON staff. To partially fill that gap, SAEON has established ongoing collaborations with ASSET Research (environmental and natural resource economics) nationally, and with Living Lands (sustainable land management practices) in the Eastern Cape. On the upside, the implementation of EFTEON in the foreseeable future will substantially increase the volume of socio-economic research performed by SAEON.

It is understandable that the sheer magnitude of SAEON’s growing footprint may be cause for concern, prompting some speculation as to whether SAEON should not consider reducing its research focus. This may well apply to SAEON’s internal research programmes that are supported by DST’s core funding. However, the exponential influx of additional funding via contracts for global change research services and products, and grants for research and research capacity building, is signalling that the funders value SAEON for the broad scope of its research.

These funders experience a range of needs that SAEON must respond to in alignment with the original expectations that SAEON should serve the public’s objectives for environmental sustainability and equity, as expressed by the interdepartmental meeting discussed above.

As an instrument of government, SAEON therefore does not have the ‘luxury’ of declining externally funded mandates that will contribute to national environmental sustainability and equity outcomes.

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