#01 2023

Former SAEON MD honoured for his ‘immense contribution to global change research’

By Staff Writer

In keeping with the theme of the fifth National Global Change Conference*, “Research and innovation accelerating transformations to global sustainability”, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) selected this important event to highlight former SAEON MD Johan Pauw’s immense contribution to global change research in the country and beyond, specifically in terms of long-term environmental observation. 

With very few resources and only one team member, Johan’s SAEON journey began in 2002. Taking up the leadership role of what was to become one of South Africa’s key environmental research organisations, his vision was to create a distributed network of research and monitoring platforms across South Africa’s beautiful and diverse ecosystems. This culminated in long-term observation and research focused on the country’s major biomes, and covering the terrestrial and marine spheres.

The network of monitoring sites thus created, invited close collaboration between SAEON and organisations (including universities) that hosted some of the key environmental research infrastructures and facilities for the betterment of environmental research or observational science in the country. The seven long-term environmental observation and monitoring sites based on biomes came to be known as the SAEON Nodes.

Scaling new heights

SAEON scaled new heights when it was selected to host three national environmental research infrastructures of the DSI-sponsored South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) through the knowledgeable and insightful leadership of Johan Pauw. These are the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI), the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) and the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI). The three research infrastructures continue to make progress while expanding collaboration in the environmental space.

Passionate about inspiring a new generation of global change researchers and environmental observation scientists, Johan included science engagement as one of the three pillars in the operational design of SAEON. The organisation was also one of first in South Africa to adopt an open data policy, with more organisations now following the trend.

SAEON is a member of globally recognised networks such as the International Long-Term Ecological Research (ILTER) Network and a founding member of the Global Ecosystem Research Infrastructure (GERI).

“The DSI and NRF are delighted to honour Johan for his leadership and his sterling contribution to global change research and environmental observational science,” says Leluma Matooane, Director: Earth Systems Science at the Department of Science and Innovation. “When Johan retired at the end of 2021 he left a thriving organisation to his successor, Dr Mary-Jane Bopape.”

A fine legacy of strong scientific vision and leadership

Professor Guy Midgley, Chair of the South African Global Change Scientific Committee, described Johan’s SAEON journey as follows: “After moving from the Agricultural Research Council in the early 2000s, it seemed from the outside that Johan integrated himself fairly quietly into the NRF structures. Despite his apparently gentle approach to his new role, he very quickly started changing the game in the area of South Africa’s ecological research funding, balancing an emphasis on biomes, habitats and biodiversity foci with a much needed focus on building a coordinated evidentiary basis for observed environmental changes and trends, and their attribution to human and other drivers. His astute reading of the funding and policy tea-leaves was supported by strong international links, especially in the area of long-term ecological research. He pursued his collaboratively focused framework for the developing SAEON effort by doggedly establishing a distributed set of staffed nodes linked to well-managed sites at the landscape level.

“In the context of the SA Global Change Scientific Committee, this effort was anticipated to evolve into a vital asset-yielding evidentiary value for decades to come. It is now clear that his persuasive abilities have borne rich fruit.

“If one looks back, Johan’s vision has become the science and policy asset that will support evidence-based management responses, and it has been instrumental in ensuring the successful funding of further investment such as in the EFTEON network, which is a critical component of South Africa’s global change efforts, and a fine legacy of strong scientific vision and leadership.”

Recognising SAEON’s highly diverse, high-performance teams

In his acceptance speech, Johan said that he initially had mixed feelings about having such a great honour conferred on him, but soon realised that he would be standing on the podium representing the highly diverse, high-performance teams behind SAEON.

“I therefore dedicate all honour to the many people and organisations who contributed to the design, establishment and growth of a unique long-term environmental observation facility for South Africa,” he told the audience. “These include local decision-makers, researchers, students, advisors, funders, facilitators, consultants, traditional authorities, administrative support staff, public and private land and facility managers, schools, universities, science councils, industries, consultants, diplomats, international science networks, and behind the scenes, their supportive inner circles. Indeed, whatever difference we might have realised through SAEON, followed from ‘going it together on a road less travelled’.”

In conclusion he paid tribute to the NRF as his employer, who guided and advanced his personal growth in many ways, as well as the DSI who led the way by regularly conceptualising and supporting frameworks of opportunity.

“I thank you all for your indulgence and support. May your science safeguard our country and the planet as a whole.”

For more information on Johan Pauw’s contribution to SAEON and to global change research, click here.


*   Jointly organised by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the National Research Foundation, the South African Global Change Scientific Committee and the University of the Free State, the fifth National Global Change Conference took place from 30 January to 2 February. It brought together researchers, members of industry and government, businesspeople, funders and foreign diplomatic missions. The purpose of the conference was to share and debate current local research and development initiatives that form part of the Global Change Grand Challenge (GCC5), one of the focus areas developed under the DSI’s Ten-Year Innovation Plan. For more information on GCC5, click here.

Johan Pauw addressing the audience at the fifth National Global Change Conference hosted by the DSI, the NRF and the South African Global Change Scientific Committee in partnership with the University of the Free State (Photo: UFS)

(L-R): Professor Katinka de Wet, Interim Co-Director of the UFS Initiative for Digital Futures, Johan, Leluma Matooane, Director: Earth Systems Science at the Department of Science and Innovation and Jonathan Diederiks, Director: Global Change Unit at the NRF (Photo: UFS)