#01 2023

Take-home messages from SAEON sessions at the National Global Change Conference

By Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, Managing Director, NRF-SAEON

The year 2023 started on a high note with several people within NRF-SAEON preparing to attend the Fifth National Global Change Conference (GCC) which took place at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein from 30 January to 2 February.

SAEON was well-represented through presentations in a number of sessions, but also hosted two excellent sessions, one on Innovative Opportunities in Science, and another on the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA). My message will focus on what I understood as take-home messages from these two sessions.

The managing director of NRF-SAEON, Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, opens the session on Innovative Opportunities in Science.

In her presentation, Prof Keolebogile Motaung of Durban University of Technology highlighted how she is assisting the university in contributing to entrepreneurship with research output.

Innovative Opportunities in Science

The organisation of the Innovative Opportunities session was chaired by Ms Nicole du Plessis, with presentations from SAEON team members Dr Paul Gordijn, Prof Juliet Hermes, Mr Thomas Mtontsi and Ms Nicole du Plessis on NRF-SAEON, research infrastructures hosted by SAEON, science engagement and funding opportunities at the National Research Foundation (NRF).

The discussions that followed indicated some of the challenges experienced by students, for example, a lower stipend during internships compared with postgraduate funding, a lack of job opportunities and exclusion due to age. These highlight challenges we experience as a country due to limited funding for research, innovation and human capital development. The Chief Executive Officer of the NRF has very clear plans to increase revenue to address some of the mentioned challenges.

A related session was held at the South African Marine Science Symposium (SAMSS) from 20 to 24 June 2022 where similar challenges were mentioned. In several of the scientific positions we advertise, we find there are limited skills in the country, which begs the question of whether what is taught in our universities addresses the challenges of the country. NRF-SAEON plans to continue working closely with universities to ensure that the skills we need are known and to contribute towards the supervision of students.

In the session at the GCC, Prof Keolebogile Motaung of Durban University of Technology presented on how she is assisting the university in contributing to entrepreneurship with research output. There was also a discussion from ocean startup companies, some of which started companies that use research findings from their postgraduate degrees. This is an often-neglected discussion, with most of our students studying to become employees, and not entrepreneurs. Discussions in this area need to be increased, and support programmes initiated in universities to reduce the level of unemployment in our country.

In a discussion facilitated by SAEON’s Thomas Mtontsi (left), representatives from ocean startup companies shared how they started companies that use research findings from their postgraduate degrees.

Dr Mary-Jane Bopape (in blue dress) with former SAEON MD Johan Pauw and SAEON staff members who organised and participated in two side events at this year’s National Global Change Conference: Dr Paul Gordijn, Dr Michele Toucher, Galaletsang Keebine, Keneilwe Hlahane, Caroline Mfopa, Londiwe Khuzwayo, Mkholo Maseko and Thobeka Ntsibane.

South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas

The second session focused on SARVA, a project funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). NRF-SAEON has been part of this project since its inception in 2008 and was later tasked with hosting the full project. Information from this project is available here.

Presentations were made by Dr Henry Roman from the DSI and Dr Clifford Nxomani from the NRF. Caroline Mfopa, Galaletsang Keebine and Keneilwe Hlahane from SAEON’s uLwazi Node demonstrated the capabilities of the platform and how it has evolved from a paper document to a dynamic online system. Discussions following the presentations indicated that there is a need to collect information on the users of the platform to determine if those the platform is meant for, are using it. In particular, this platform is supposed to assist municipalities in their decision-making on natural hazards, disasters and vulnerabilities.

The presentations also shared information on disasters in South Africa recorded by the International Disaster Database (EMDAT) of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). The discussion indicated that some of the events in South Africa are not reported in CRED due to its strict criteria, indicating a need for a local database on disasters and their impacts to be developed collaboratively by the responsible departments and entities.

From a SAEON perspective, we would like to see increased use of the SARVA information, and to further develop the platform to answer pertinent questions. Those who would like to share ideas on further improvements are welcome to contact Caroline Mfopa or Keneilwe Hlahane.