#01 2024

Agent of change. Meet the manager of SAEON’s Fynbos Node

Dr Ryan Blanchard joined SAEON’s Fynbos Node in July 2022. Prior to that he was a senior researcher and research group leader for the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Research Group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Ryan’s research interests are mostly in the fields of ecology and ecosystem service science. His research has focused on various drivers of change such as biofuels, invasive alien species and climate change, and their impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Increasingly, these fields draw on the need for integrated methodologies to address complex social and ecological systems.

Ryan’s skills include the ability to adopt a systems and resilience thinking approach to understand how various drivers of change (invasive species, land use change, wildfire and floods) affect the functioning of ecological systems and the services they provide.

SAEON eNews sat down with Ryan to learn more about his exposure to the science-policy nexus, the environmental impacts of South Africa’s biofuel strategy and how he will be applying his many and varied skills to address the challenges faced by SAEON’s Fynbos Node.

Assisting chief instrument technician Abri de Buys at the Fynbos Node’s automatic weather station located at Dwarsberg in Jonkershoek.

For his Master’s research Ryan investigated the impacts of invasive alien plants on riparian vegetation. To this day he enjoys a good day by the river.

As a youngster growing up in the Mother City, what was it that sparked your interest in the environment?

My childhood in Cape Town was full of adventures and discoveries. As kids, we were lucky enough to be exposed to a variety of activities such as hiking, boating, canoeing, swimming and scuba diving. I think these experiences made me appreciate the beauty and diversity of nature. It might sound like a cliché, but I started my university career envisioning myself as a marine biologist but switched to Botany during my master’s degree.

Q  Is it your interest in Botany that attracted you to this key position at the Fynbos Node? Please give our readers a concise overview of what your position entails.

I have always been fascinated by the Fynbos Biome and its biodiversity and it seemed like a great opportunity to join SAEON. Having completed a degree in Botany at the University of Cape Town, I was exposed to many aspects of fynbos ecology, from counting the number of viable seeds in a protea cone to understanding the role of fire at the landscape scale. I also spent quite a bit of time in the field sampling riparian plots during my master’s and spent a year working on permanent vegetation plots on Table Mountain, assessing vegetation recovery following fire.

My current job entails the overall management of the Fynbos Node’s research platforms. These include several sites that regular readers will be familiar with, such as Jonkershoek, Constantiaberg and the Cederberg. One of the main tasks is to maintain and develop partnerships with stakeholders and tertiary institutions to ensure the impact of the Node’s research outputs. I am particularly interested in supporting students and future researchers by leveraging the SAEON platforms and resources.

Q  During your time at the CSIR you gained valuable field and lab experience in long-term research into landscapes, plants, soils and animals. How will you apply this to your work at the Fynbos Node? Did you have any prior experience of SAEON and its research projects?

While at the CSIR, I was mentored by colleagues who worked on the long-term experimental sites currently managed by SAEON, who also hosts an archived record of the data. During this time, I was exposed to different data collection and data storage methods. I realised how important it was to have a well-managed research platform to support science and innovation.

At the CSIR our main projects focused on supporting national government by addressing challenges associated with invasive alien plant management and their control, ecosystem service mapping and increasing social ecological resilience to natural hazards. These projects were invariably limited by a lack of relevant data, and I think SAEON can play a crucial role in providing the data and evidence needed to support government and research initiatives.

Q  For your BSc degree you majored in Ecology and Environment and Geographical Sciences, but with time this initial interest seems to have shifted to focus more on ecology and ecosystem service science. Was this a natural progression?

That’s an interesting observation. I chose Environment and Geographical Sciences (EGS) as it provided a diverse range of courses not offered under a Botany and Zoology degree at the time. To be honest, I was not interested in the human geography aspect of EGS at the time, but soon realised the human dimension plays an important role in the science we do and is critical in understanding nature’s contribution to people. I prefer to adopt a social-ecological systems approach to addressing environmental challenges, which requires a different skillset. This remains a fascinating emerging and cutting-edge science.

Q  You seem to have a special interest in fynbos and invasive alien species. For your BSc Honours, for example, one of your two independent mini projects investigated the invasion potential of the Agulhas Plain and the other tested seaweeds in the aquarium trade for potential invasive species. Where did your interest in fynbos and invasive alien species originate?

During my third year at university, I took a module on invasive alien species with Professor David Richardson. I was particularly interested in the impacts of these species and the speed at which they can transform a system. At the same time, I was doing a module on Phycology (seaweed ecology) with Professor John Bolton. These two courses formed the basis for my honours research projects. I have stuck with this and recently participated in the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) assessment on invasive alien species and their control.

“It took approximately three hours to cover 20 km in a 4×4 to get to the Cederberg weather station at Engelsman Kloof. The view was definitely worth it.”

Cycle tour 2024!

Q  You’ve been a lead author on the chapter addressing direct and indirect drivers of biological invasions in the IPBES assessment on invasive species and their control. What would you rate as your main learning experiences during this time? How do you see this science-policy interface you’ve been exposed to being of benefit to your work in your new position?

A lot of valuable and exciting research has already been conducted, and much more work needs to be done to synthesize this research and find solutions that can benefit society as a whole. The IPBES process has highlighted the importance of engaging with decision-makers to communicate scientific findings and to have multiple interactions to understand why certain decisions are made. I understand that the stakeholder community is eager for the information that SAEON has to offer. We just need to ensure that it is packaged in the right way and that it is relevant to the challenges of the day. SAEON is embarking on an initiative to increase impact and my participation in the IPBES process should provide some valuable insights into this process.

Q  As a senior researcher at the CSIR your responsibilities included the management and execution of diverse projects. Would you like to elaborate on that? Based on your qualifications and previous experience, you seem tailor-made for your position at the Fynbos Node, which has a strong management focus.

It was not easy to transition from academic project management to managing externally funded contracts. However, the CSIR prepared me for the challenge and provided some necessary support to ensure that the skills were acquired. I continue to lean on that foundation to this day and I am grateful to the mentors I have had. An important aspect of project management was project planning. A quote by Dwight D. Eisenhower sums this up nicely: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Although it would take longer to plan a project, it ensured that everyone working on the project knew exactly what was meant to be done and what was expected of them, often saving time in the long run.

Q  You’ve done some ground-breaking work on the science-policy interface. Your PhD focused on analysing the implications of the South African biofuel strategy on land cover and land use change and the potential introduction of new and potentially invasive species. This policy analysis focused on better understanding the environmental impacts of large-scale biofuel production. Can you tell us more about that?

My PhD research focused on much broader national issues. I was concerned that the demand for biofuels would stimulate the movement and cultivation of potentially invasive species. New processing technologies meant that there would be a demand for fast-growing shrubs or trees producing significant biomass or oil seed – these are the traits most associated with invasive species. Africa was perceived to have significant land resources available to grow biofuels to supply many developed markets. This would also assist with sorely needed job creation.

So, drawing on lessons from the plantation industry, we developed some guidelines to minimise the potential for introducing invasive species and to ensure that biodiversity areas are not impacted by the potential increase in agricultural lands for biofuel production.

Q  You’ve attended skills development workshops in places as far afield as Stockholm, Australia, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Kenya. You’ve also contributed to several national and international projects to assist with the development of decision-support systems for public and private clients, modelling ecosystem services and invasive plant distribution. How will this exposure to global skills benefit your work at SAEON? 

It is always useful to have interactions with people in different fields or different networks. It helps to stimulate new and innovative ways of thinking and I hope to continue this by engaging with stakeholders and ensuring that the SAEON research platforms can contribute to the science needs of society. I also realised that South Africa has some unique and interesting stories to tell, and that the international community is willing to listen and learn from them too.

Q  We are approaching critical environmental limits – nationally, Africa-wide and globally. What role do you see your work at the Fynbos Node playing in the prevention and mitigation of climate risks and climate change?

We have a lot to offer in terms of adaptation to climate change. By understanding how the environment is likely to respond to climate change, we can begin to anticipate the influence this will have on societies that depend on the natural systems. For example, water is a limited resource in South Africa and if we can provide some insight into how rainfall patterns are shifting and impacting water availability, we could provide some guidance on how to secure these water resources and where protection is needed.

SAEON’s flux towers also provide a unique tool to address many climate change questions, such as how the soil and vegetation contribute towards climate change mitigation.

Q  You obviously have a hectic schedule. Does that leave any time for hobbies? If yes, what are these? 

These days my hobbies are shared with my baby girl, but I do try to cycle and swim when I can. I may consider signing up for the Cape Town Cycle Tour this year. It would be great if we could have a SAEON or NRF team to join in 2024.

Q  Do you have a mantra that you live by? 

Look out for those close to you and help when you can. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things as you might just discover a new passion.