#03 2021

Stronger together: SAEON and University of Mpumalanga sign joint agreement of cooperation and collaboration

By Dr Dave Thompson, Biodiversity Scientist, SAEON Ndlovu Node

In 2019, South Africa’s national Department of Science and Technology (now Department of Science and Innovation) published the revised White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). This document, which is rooted in global change aspects of developing economies and impact on the natural environment, seeks to ensure a central and growing role for STI in preparing South Africa for this emerging future.

Government departments, research facilities and institutions of higher education have critical roles to play in ensuring that the vision of the White Paper – Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable and Inclusive Development in a Changing World – becomes entrenched within South African society.

SAEON, a business unit of the National Research Foundation (NRF), leads and facilitates research in a wide range of environmental fields, from organismal ecology to earth system science, to create knowledge that is critical for detecting, understanding, predicting and responding to environmental change.

SAEON maintains a network of platforms in both terrestrial and marine environments in South Africa. These platforms constitute long-term research sites where repeated observations, experimental treatments and related data are permanently maintained; laboratories, in-situ instruments, infrastructure and other equipment needed for conducting environmental research; datasets and models relating to environmental change; scientific and technical support for government departments and agencies, universities and other research institutions, researchers, postgraduate students, schools, industry partners and NGOs; and data portals for public access to environmental data and decision-support systems.

SAEON’s Ndlovu Node, established in Phalaborwa in 2007, drives critical environmental change research in, especially, the savannas and grasslands of the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa.

The University of Mpumalanga (UMP) in Mbombela was launched in 2013 and provides tertiary education and research and innovation in a range of fields, including the biological, ecological, environmental and life sciences. The South African lowveld, where UMP is located, is characterised by a concentration of biodiversity-related enterprises rooted in the natural environment, with nature conservation, wildlife management, agriculture, forestry and tourism, together with ICT (information and communications technology) being niche areas in which the university is making its mark as an academic institution. All of these are crucial for the development of the Mpumalanga province specifically, and the country more generally. Students registered here, being primarily local (Mpumalanga province) and female, are exposed to educational and training opportunities through teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and engagement, in collaboration with strategic partners.

SAEON and UMP function under the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation and have operated side-by-side as silent neighbours across provincial boundaries for the past several years. But more than this, both have been working firmly within the gamut of the White Paper to generate the science and the next generation of scientists and science practitioners needed to guide South Africa towards a sustainable future in the coming decades.

In 2020 Dr Dave Thompson, Biodiversity Scientist for SAEON Ndlovu, and Prof. Dan Parker, Head of Biology and Environmental Sciences at UMP, started ‘talking over the wall’ and began discussing areas of potential collaboration.

Significantly, Dr Melissa Schmitt (an NRF-funded postdoctoral fellow at UMP) was working with SAEON Ndlovu Node postdoctoral researcher Dr Keenan Stears (also NRF-funded) at the time. Their work is aimed at informing savanna management practices, particularly the ability of transformed environments in the lowveld to sustain the critical ecosystem services underpinning sustainability and development. Thus, both parties were quick to recognise that the collaborative approach to research and training leads to better outcomes and innovations, that complex problems often require a multidisciplinary approach to resolve and that such partnerships can play a key role in broadening the capabilities required to resolve these challenges.

In 2020, SAEON announced the selection of six ecosystem research sites or ‘landscapes’ that constitute the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON). Each selected site within this research infrastructure represents a major biome in South Africa and includes human-transformed ecosystems such as urban areas and agricultural systems.

The designated Lowveld (Mpumalanga) EFTEON Landscape links extensive historical research in these savannas and serves as a bio-geophysical scaffold onto which future ecological and social research can be pinned. Such research will broadly cover ecosystem processes across land tenure systems, such as the dynamics of the carbon and water cycles; climate and air quality; ecosystem condition and productivity; biodiversity; and water quality and supply.

The geographic footprint shared by the SAEON Ndlovu Node and the University of Mpumalanga, together with complementarity in their respective mandates and thematic overlap in research, makes for an ideal partnership to enable and stimulate science, technology and innovation in the region.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Keenan Stears (pictured) is working through the SAEON Ndlovu Node with Dr Melissa Schmitt, a postdoctoral fellow at UMP in the School of Biology and Environmental Sciences. Their work aims to unravel how herbivores use, and so impact on, the vegetation of an aggressively managed savanna.

Against this backdrop of complementarity in mandates, thematic overlap in research and setting within a larger regional research infrastructure, Dr Thompson and Prof. Parker facilitated the signing of a joint agreement of cooperation and collaboration between the two institutions. Signed in April 2021, the memorandum of understanding sets the framework in which the parties, by working together, seek to:

  • Enhance their research capacity and capabilities, and their societal relevance;
  • Enhance co-learning opportunities for UMP and SAEON employees and students;
  • Promote a regional culture of science and environmental engagement;
  • Strengthen contribution to a regional and national pool of environmentally aware students, thereby creating a cohort of knowledge producers in support of an environmentally informed society;
  • Initiate research projects and generate and disseminate novel data which continues to raise the standards of environmental and biodiversity conservation, and which enhances society’s understanding of a changing planet;
  • Promote environmental and biodiversity conservation and natural resource management as careers for students enrolled for such courses at UMP; and
  • Increase their visibility and reputation in the scientific landscape by benefiting from the existing reach, associations and structures of each other.

SAEON, echoing the priorities identified in the White Paper on STI, has identified maintaining and expanding its established network of diverse collaborations and partnerships as a critical factor for maintaining relevance as a world-class environmental research platform. The partnership with UMP, which in signing this agreement of cooperation and collaboration joins a suite of other academic institutions in formal partnership with SAEON, accomplishes exactly this.

Expertise and resources are being shared. Co-learning is and will continue to take place.

Research data to address biodiversity conservation and sustainability challenges will most certainly accrue for ecologically and economically significant sites in the region. In short, the cooperation and collaboration are well underway, and can only strengthen as the synergism gains momentum. This bodes well for a long, productive and positive relationship that benefits not only SAEON and UMP, but also the broader societal and environmental landscape in which they are embedded.

SAEON Managing Director, Johan Pauw, says: ‘In the Lowveld, global climate change is superimposed on a juxtaposition of rapidly expanding human settlements surrounded by multiple divergent land uses including agriculture, mining, forestry and large state, communal and privately run conservation areas. Due to the complex dynamics of the area, there are no simple recipes for sustainable development. This reality calls for comprehensive, coordinated transdisciplinary research and capacity development efforts to be extended over decades to come. The MoU between UMP and SAEON formulates our shared intent to do just that.’

Speaking on behalf of the University of Mpumalanga, Prof. Parker added: ‘Two of the core values of the University of Mpumalanga are excellence and collaboration. As such, the University actively pursues partnerships with excellent stakeholders so that the collaboration is equally beneficial to both parties. The University of Mpumalanga views the recent signing of an MoU with SAEON one such significant milestone and looks forward to working with the colleagues from the NRF.’