#06 2021

Over the hill

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

They say that when you’re over the hill you go faster. Well, that could be true… especially when you do not take the time to enjoy the views behind you and scrutinise the new horizons in front of you that are waiting to be explored.

As I am now reaching the top of Retirement Hill and looking back, it is fair to say that the journey I experienced with my fellow travellers in SAEON has been nothing short of exceptional. We have already moved far beyond our original vision and created a globally recognised institutionalised LTER network, the functionality of which is somewhat different from that of both a common bricks-and-mortar research institute and a network of such research institutions.

As an institutionalised network, SAEON provides core capacity to and draws expert capacity from its collaborators while benefiting from diverse funding sources. This model was deemed appropriate for South Africa as a developing economy – it was designed to make the best use of available national resources and has served its purpose extremely well over the past 19 years.

The main functional elements of SAEON prior to 2017 were a central National Office providing coordination and administration to six distributed nodes or field stations (for savanna, coastal, offshore-marine, fynbos, grasslands and arid land systems), each with an array of collaborative in-situ environmental observation programmes. The functions of the National Office included a cross-cutting Environmental Science Education Programme, support for a Graduate Student Network and the development of an IT network and data management system for SAEON.

Overall supervision and support were provided by the National Research Foundation and the Global Change Grand Challenge directorate of the Department of Science and Innovation.

The advent of SARIR 

SAEON’s position in South Africa’s science landscape as described above, was exponentially upscaled by the advent of the South African Research Infrastructure Road Map (SARIR) developed and funded by the Department of Science and Innovation as of 2017. The outcome is that with the research community’s support, SAEON successfully proposed to host three national environmental research infrastructures – the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI), the Enhanced Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) and the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI). This development also led to and facilitated the upscaling of SAEON’s data management capacity to the level of a seventh SAEON node.

Most but not all SAEON’s original leading figures, collaborators and funders are still active today, but 19 years ago none of us could ever have foreseen the remarkable magnitude of the organic structural expansion of SAEON over the last four years. The distributed design, co-creation track and performance record of SAEON as an institionalised network positioned it as the natural host organisation for the above-mentioned research infrastructures on behalf of the national research community.

From Limpopo to Antarctica 

Over the period of 25 years since the concept of a South African LTER network was first mooted by the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER), SAEON benefited greatly from guidance and support by the international research community.

The many international opportunities that were availed to us offered SAEON a strategic advantage both locally and globally. Not the least of these is our current involvement in the founding and development of the Global Ecosystem Research Infrastructure (GERI) with six other major research infrastructures from around the world. Ultimately, GERI will be an umbrella for SAEON’s new vision to create an integrated intercontinental mega-environmental research infrastructure stretching from Limpopo to Antarctica.

This is as far as what we can see now, but who knows what else may be beyond those distant horizons? 

On a personal level, as I hand the baton back to my organisation, I do so knowing that my lap was far from perfect but that it was certainly eventful and educational. I have too many people to acknowledge and cannot single anyone out, yet you should all know that your contributions co-created SAEON and that SAEON has been and will continue making a difference.

Let us stay connected. My future email contact will be johan.pauw at gmail.com.

Until we meet again, there is no better English expression than Cheers! 

Ultimately, GERI will be an umbrella for SAEON’s new vision to create an integrated intercontinental mega-environmental research infrastructure stretching from Limpopo to Antarctica

There are new horizons out there waiting to be explored…