#06 2021

Newly established polar research infrastructure offers multiple opportunities

By Juliet Hermes (SAEON), Tamaryn Morris (South African Weather Service), Marcello Vichi (University of Cape Town) and Johan Pauw (SAEON)

The South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI), one of 13 research infrastructures developed by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), was established in 2021, with the final contract between the DSI and the National Research Foundation signed in November. A link to a recent webinar and the full proposal can be found here. Professor Juliet Hermes, manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, will be the interim manager of SAPRI, which will be hosted at SAEON.

The vision of SAPRI is to enable balanced and transformed research across polar disciplines and to maintain and further expand the world-class, long-term observational research infrastructure and datasets already established within South African polar and oceanographic research. This will benefit the governmental strategies for Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands and assist decision-makers to formulate appropriate environmental policies that lessen the risk and vulnerability of global climate change on the regions which impact South Africa, but also which South Africa is custodian to.

The SAPRI mission is to transform the access to, and perception of, South African polar research for technicians, engineers, scientists of all disciplines, learners and students, government, private business and civil society and to further accelerate the implementation of the pan-African Science, Technology and Innovation agenda. In doing so, SAPRI will create a co-designed, sustainable and responsive research infrastructure which produces Big Science stimulating innovative research and intellectual property generation that is of global relevance and services the needs of all.

In the Austral winter of 2013, a nine-week expedition was led by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) and several collaborating international institutes, including SAEON, to investigate the relationship between biological and physical sea ice conditions and the condition of krill, especially the larval stages.

High-impact science for the benefit of society 

The SAPRI strategy is to ensure that the investment in research infrastructures translates into the generation of high-impact science for the benefit of society, as well as the development of internationally recognised scientists, engineers and technicians and the retention of this capacity.

Through SAPRI, the government and the research community will join forces to:

  • contribute to the national obligation in terms of treaties, international agreements and scientific bodies by means of sustained long-term observations (that are instrumental in monitoring environmental change and vulnerability at this critical time) and a single entry-point for expert consultations;
  • grow the scientific understanding of the incredibly large region of ocean and territories surrounding Southern Africa, through a substantial increase of state-of-the-art infrastructure in support of research outputs and training capacity, in addition to the establishment of physical and digital infrastructures to simulate the polar environment in Africa and increase the diversity of contributions;
  • improve the relationship between polar science and society, by showing the relevance and scope of scientific and operational activities in this region through the Antarctic legacy and the use of advanced digital technology; and
  • unleash the innovation and commercial potential linked to developing instruments and services for operating in extreme and remote environments, such as the design of new sensors, polar vessels and the development of services from digital twin models.

SAPRI will build on the suite of observatories, sentinel site and research platforms already established and maintained by the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) community (see Figure 1).

The uniqueness of SAPRI is better represented by the concept of unitedness: the creation of a unified but distributed infrastructure that will coordinate, combine and strengthen the existing fragmented components.

Figure 1. Observatories, sentinel site and research platforms established and maintained by the SANAP community.

The vision of SAPRI is to enable balanced and transformed research across polar disciplines, and to maintain and further expand the world-class, long-term observational research infrastructure and datasets already established within South Africa’s polar and oceanographic research.

Human resources and governance 

To achieve its vision, SAPRI requires not only well-trained scientists and technicians to operate and maintain the infrastructure investments, but also a mechanism to process, store and distribute the data being generated for impactful product development that will best serve the societal community and stakeholder interests in adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Finally, this coordinated vision of SAPRI will require authentic leadership, dynamic management, innovative thinking and out-of-the-box problem solving to deal with not only the multiple stakeholders involved with SAPRI, but the extreme conditions in which these infrastructural resources will be deployed and used.

SAPRI is an institutional entity, governed by a management team that will be appointed in the next year. The advisory panel is composed of key members of the DSI, Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) and the consortium partners, with the aim to develop a common understanding among the stakeholders and for advising on strategic directions for the sustainability and development of SAPRI.

The science community is represented through the scientific panel, which is informed by thematic user fora, in recognition of the specific requirements of the multiple disciplines involved in polar sciences and served by SAPRI. The user fora will be an integral component of the advisory structure, made up of self-nominated members of the community.

Stakeholder engagement 

The lead up to this process involved detailed engagement with stakeholders within the marine and polar communities. However, a key part of the SAPRI design is to integrate those researchers, technicians and early career scientists who have not yet engaged within the SANAP community and to broaden the stakeholder group.

There are various steps planned that SAPRI will take to ensure that people who have not engaged with or been successful with SANAP projects in the past are supported moving forward. These include a professional development programme, a mentorship programme and transparent and open access to infrastructure and data.

User fora groups are currently being established to provide direct community input into SAPRI, including recommendations to the scientific committee. The form to (self) nominate members to the committees can be found here.

Expression of interest 

Additionally, interested parties are asked to submit an expression of interest for their institutes to host one of the SAPRI professional development positions, which will be advertised as soon as the hosts have been established. These positions will be fully funded by SAPRI in areas of interest such as benthic biodiversity, atmospherics, space science, autonomous ocean platforms, polar lab, geomorphology in Antarctica and top predators, to mention a few.

This list is not exhaustive, and diversity and transdisciplinarity in research is encouraged. The aim is to bring on board Black (African, Indian and Coloured) PhD graduates who have the requisite qualifications and skills, but not necessarily polar experience, to be trained for three years (with a possible two-year extension) in their area of interest but shifting to a focus on polar science as well as learning how to manage the scientific equipment and develop other professional skills sets such as science management and budgeting.

The form to host these positions can be found here; at this point it is not a binding document and will be a starting point to begin formal discussions with the candidate’s institute around the hosting agreement.

A final request to the community is to (self) nominate (to be) a mentor on the transformation mentorship programme. Further details and the link can be found here. Additionally, to (self) nominate early or mid-career Black (African, Indian and Coloured) scientists who are interested in polar research but who may have missed or been under-supported in previous SANAP calls. Details and a link can be found here.

This is an expression of interest and the programme still needs to be finalised. We appeal to the community to get involved at this level to ensure that SAPRI is a success and is responsive to the needs of the community.

SAPRI would not have come to be without the dedication and support of the community and the key government stakeholders.