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The new NRF Amendment Act – how does it relate to SAEON?

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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“SAEON has grown to become Africa’s most comprehensive and largest environmental research infrastructure. The growth in reach and productivity was made possible by appropriate business models and highly efficient and committed personnel.” – Johan Pauw

Signed into effect on 6 May 2019, the NRF Amendment Act incorporates new definitions and emphases that underscore SAEON’s raison d’etre and status in the National Research Foundation (NRF), as well as our operations.

These new designations are for national research facilities, the development of research infrastructure, the promotion of science engagement and the coordination of science-advancement and outreach activities.

National research facilities

The Amendment Act has coined a new definition of a ‘national research facility’ by stating succinctly that it is “an institution that provides unique and substantial infrastructure, capabilities and services for competitive research, innovation and human capacity development in science, engineering and technology”.

A more elaborate definition was published in The Science, Technology and Innovation White Paper (2019), which defines the NRF’s National Facilities as follows: “The National Facilities of the National Research Foundation (NRF) are research institutions centred on substantial instrumentation, equipment or skills bases. The National Facilities constitute unique and indispensable infrastructure platforms that provide the enabling environment for advancing research areas of strategic importance in South Africa. The National Facilities further create the foundation for South African researchers to compete at the forefront of discovery, as well as to train highly skilled postgraduate students”.

SAEON is yet to be declared a National Facility of the NRF by the government minister responsible for science and technology. Nonetheless, SAEON lives up to the expectations in all aspects of the definition and is already funded and managed as if it has achieved the status of a National Facility.

Launched in 2002 to function across South Africa and the surrounding oceans, SAEON has significantly grown its scholarly and human capacity development (HCD) contributions, while its six research nodes have functioned well as platforms for universities. In 2017 the then Department of Science and Technology (DST) saw fit to award SAEON with a ca R50 million a year additional contractual budget for two South African Research Infrastructure Road Map (SARIR) projects.

Simultaneously, SAEON offers significant support to government departments in the development of data-management and decision-support systems for which contracts have been extended to continue development after the successful conclusion of the initiation phases. The uLwazi Node for data platforms and decision support, established in 2018 as SAEON’s seventh node, is largely funded from contractual income received from government departments.

Research infrastructure

The NRF Amendment Act emphasises that the role of the NRF is, inter alia, to promote the development of research infrastructure. Based on its extended suite of environmental research infrastructures, SAEON serves the Amendment Act well as a national platform for ecosystem science, with the aim of increasingly detecting and explaining environmental change and predicting the impact of such change on terrestrial, coastal and offshore-marine ecosystems.

It achieves this by:

  • establishing and maintaining state-of-the-art environmental observation and digital research infrastructure and systems;
  • driving and facilitating context-relevant research on long-term change of South Africa’s terrestrial, coastal and offshore-marine environments at multiple scales;
  • developing long-term research relevant to South Africa‘s unique ecosystems and geographical location, and developing research locations within these as living laboratories for ecosystem scientists and students;
  • providing access to research infrastructure and platforms – constituted of physical observation platforms, numerical models and knowledge hubs;
  • developing and maintaining accurate, consistent and reliable long-term environmental databases;
  • making use of the best local ICT systems engineering and development talent in South Africa;
  • promoting access to environmental data for research and informed decision-making;
  • contributing to HCD by investing in a new generation of ecosystem scientists, technicians and developers; and
  • promoting science engagement and environmental justice, with and for society, and environmental science education-outreach in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education.

Since its inception, SAEON has succeeded in creating a long-term, large-scale and coherent research infrastructure for the major ecological systems of the country, including coastal and offshore-marine systems. Given its physical and disciplinary dimensions (Figure 1), SAEON has indeed grown to become Africa’s most comprehensive and largest environmental research infrastructure. The growth in reach and productivity was made possible by appropriate business models and highly efficient and committed personnel.

A complex system of SAEON sites and instrument arrays has emerged (Figure 1). The continuous operation of automated in-situ monitoring instrumentation, the growing collection of long-term datasets for these sites, and importantly, the SAEON accession arrangements that provide long-term open access and open science at these sites for the research community, are unique aspects of SAEON as a large, adaptive, inclusive and broad-based environmental research infrastructure offering a range of platforms consisting of “substantial infrastructure capabilities”, skills and “services for competitive research, innovation and human capital development”.

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Figure 1: Environmental observation infrastructure footprint

SAEON has a distinctive core organisational structure and budget in conjunction with a broad network of local collaborators who are affiliated to all of the relevant South African institutions and departments. A network structure was adopted in order to achieve economies of scale across the fragmented environmental science landscape of South Africa and to offer an ecosystems research platform to the National System of Innovation (NSI).

SAEON has thus met all the criteria implicit in the recent definitions of a National (Research) Facility by virtue of its unique national network of platforms and instrumented LTER sites over land and ocean ecosystems, its open-access data system and computerised information services (platforms), its international competitiveness in ecosystem and environmental science, its innovation in ICT research infrastructures/platforms and its contribution to HCD through postgraduate training and the Environmental Science Education Programme (ESEP).

Government priorities, science engagement, and science advancement and outreach

New emphases in the Amendment Act are the NRF’s obligations towards the ”promotion of support of Government priorities”, as well as to promote “science engagement” and “coordinate science advancement and outreach activities”.

In a nutshell, the government serves society in accordance with the Constitution of South Africa that, among other things, guarantees the country’s citizens environmental quality and economic development. It is therefore clear that SAEON is by default a direct response to a government priority as espoused in the Constitution.

The numerous services that SAEON has provided, and still provides, to relevant government departments over the years are clear manifestations of support for “government priorities”. Beyond the former DST, SAEON supports the work of the former Department of Environmental Affairs, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation, Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, Department of Basic Education, Department of Higher Education and Training, Department of Energy, the Presidency, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Statistics South Africa, the Water Research Commission, South African National Parks, almost all provincial nature conservation authorities, and the Metros of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg.

Through its research infrastructure, its research agenda and knowledge production, its HCD programmes and service offerings to government in terms of sustainable economic development, SAEON contributes to more than just the National Research Foundation Act, specifically also to the Presidency’s National Development Plan (NDP 2030), the Department of Environmental Affairs’ National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD, 2011) and the DST’s own Science, Technology and Innovation White Paper (2019).

The work of SAEON qualifies as a contribution to the intended outcomes of several national policies and strategies, among others the Science and Technology White Paper (1996), the Research and Development Strategy (2002), National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2015), Action Plan for Combating Land Degradation to Alleviate Poverty (2005), National Climate Change Response Strategy (2011), the draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (2019), National Water Resources Strategy (2013), South African Earth Observation Strategy (2007), Marine and Antarctic Research Strategy (2016), the Presidency’s Outcomes 5 and 10 (2010), the S&T Ten Year Plan (2008), Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act (1984), Marine Living Resources Act (1998), National Water Act (1998), National Forests Act (1998), National Environmental Management Act (1998), Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act (2002), National Energy Act (2008) and the National Agricultural Research and Development Strategy (2008).

With the NRF Amendment Act highlighting science engagement, advancement and outreach as new government priorities, it is gratifying to observe that those priorities have been pursued by SAEON since its establishment. Currently a team of three staff members across the country are dedicated to these functions and are well-supported by SAEON’s research staff.

SAEON’s Environmental Science Education Programme (ESEP) is positioned in a niche area of the science-engagement objective of the NRF. The ESEP goes beyond merely creating awareness by the adoption of schools with the aim to create opportunities for educators and learners to perform practical scientific projects. Thus, SAEON’s interaction with educators and learners is research project-driven and with a goal towards imparting a particular set of science and numerical competencies and skills.

As part of the educator-support programme, SAEON has developed and presented successful GIS courses to educators around the country. Automatic weather stations and computers were purchased and installed at the schools participating in the ESEP. This programme provides opportunities for learners to learn about climate monitoring, climatic phenomena, data management and analysis. Teaching and learning resources have been developed to assist educators with additional information and guidelines for designing weather-based research projects using the equipment. New materials to support educators are being developed on the topics of biomes and climate change.

The primary objective of the ESEP, which is to support and enable school leavers to enter university (through augmentation of their science and mathematics curricula), has been achieved with dramatic success. A database has been developed to capture and track the number of learners in the programme, the percentage matric pass rate and the SAEON learners who register at higher education institutions. The matric results indicate that the number of learners that are eligible to enter the university system as well as the number of learners actually registering at higher education institutions have increased between 2013 and 2018.

Education outreach is thus integral in SAEON and focuses on late high school grades, with particular emphasis on raising the skills of science and mathematics educators, most of whom are from disadvantaged communities. The strategy is to contribute to the university feeder pipeline by building long-lasting education capacity within the Department of Education's curricula, leading to more students entering science and mathematics careers.

At present SAEON mentors 17 interns and has adopted 28 high schools; all of the latter are in rural areas or black townships. Excellent results have been achieved over the past few years. The schools' programme is complemented by a network for research students providing extracurricular training and exposure to the range of disciplines and integrative research and collaborative agreements with all universities in South Africa.

SAEON has always understood that it should deliver societal value based on the public funds invested in it. The new Amendment Act’s emphasis on support for government priorities in general, and for science engagement in particular, endorses that ethos.

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