#06 2021

Spearheading SAEON’s research infrastructure and environmental data management

By Gregor Feig, Nicky Allsopp and Tim Parker-Nance

Research infrastructure

SAEON’s culture of learning has prepared us to embrace new collaborative opportunities in the socio-political context, e.g. the two South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) projects, despite the potential constraints of being in the government sphere and having a focused LTER mandate. ~ Johan Pauw

The Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Buti Manamela, is introduced to the intricacies of the savanna eddy covariance flux tower (Photo: Amukelani Maluleke)

SAEON PhD candidate Amukelani Maluleke provides insight on the sensors used to monitor gross primary production and how they relate to eddy covariance measurements (Photo: Dr Joh Henschel)


The current state of the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) Research Infrastructure is testament to the vision and leadership of two individuals that have driven the thinking and positioning around its development. These are Bob Scholes and Johan Pauw.

The development of SAEON as a distributed network with strong data management capabilities and an integrated operational focus positioned SAEON as the ideal host for EFTEON and the other environmental infrastructures in the SARIR stable. The networking that Johan has done through his involvement in the International Long-Term Ecological Research network (ILTER) and the development of the Global Environmental Research Infrastructure (GERI) has allowed EFTEON to seamlessly position itself in the global family of environmental research infrastructures.

Johan has provided a steady hand of leadership in the development of the EFTEON research infrastructure (RI). The advice and guidance that he has offered have taught me a great deal about how to navigate the development of a research infrastructure. His thinking has been integral in the stakeholder engagement systems. The approach that he has instilled on stakeholder support being what buys your legitimacy and licence to operate will continue being central to how we operate.

In starting my role at EFTEON I was grateful for his advice on how to solicit input to the advisory panels from the key stakeholders such as the Government line departments and the scientific organisations operating in this space, and how to separate this from the technical development of the thematic focus areas. His thinking around how to run the process to select the EFTEON landscapes ensured the legitimacy of the landscape selection that the RI needed.

On a personal level, the thing that has struck me most about working with Johan is his sense of patience and the deliberate and methodical way in which he operates. It is clear that Johan has always played the long game in the development of SAEON and the associated research infrastructures and I have learnt that this is the essential element in the success of the organisation.

His clear vision of where we should be going with his flexibility on how to get there has been inspiring.

I have really enjoyed how Johan has given his managers space to operate. He has never forced the direction of the organisation but has allowed debate, facilitated discussion and provided a vision of where we should be going. These are lessons I hope to take from my time working with him.

I have valued Johan’s guidance and support, and I appreciate the lessons that I have learned while working with him. I am sure I will miss his dry humour which is normally preceded by a “Ja Boet…” and some good-natured teasing where I only catch the joke 10 minutes after he has left the room.

I wish him all the best in the future. ~ Dr Gregor Feig, Manager for the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network

Environmental data 

“Data is SAEON’s currency. Without data, we cannot decipher the changes in our environment or even begin to understand the impact of people on the natural world. Long-term data gives us evidence and new insights to help formulate crucial environmental policies. In everything we do, we promote free and open access to data.”

~ Johan Pauw  

“The longer you are in environmental science, the more you respect long-term data.”

~ Dr Nicky Allsopp, former SAEON Fynbos Node manager

Gauging weirs have returned stream water level and flow estimation data for decades in Jonkershoek (pictured) and Cathedral Peak mountain catchments. SAEON has refurbished existing infrastructure and logging instrumentation to ensure long-term observations which address global change questions. (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Johan didn’t mind a bit of risk, which was especially necessary when we were resuscitating old observation infrastructure on shoestring budgets. Some people gave advice that until secure funding was secured, we shouldn’t venture here, others gloomily predicted we would be here today gone tomorrow. But with that willingness to take risks and the confidence with which he supported us, we have revived the old catchment experiments observation networks and embarked on new ventures that did not necessarily have a clear end goal when we started because of the nature of the uncharted territory being explored.

I think this is especially true for the role Johan played in developing SAEON’s data management capacity. A lot of risks were taken in pursuing a not entirely clear and tangible endpoint.

Globally there have been highly ambitious goals in the field of environmental data management over the last couple of decades but underdeveloped or absent technologies and infrastructures couldn’t support these. Johan took the risks and uncertainties on, supported the development of parallel infrastructures with some state entities to learn how to move forward and build the team of diverse data skills that is currently developing innovative solutions to data management.

While the data management project is now successful, it required 15 or so years of investment in the idea to reach this point. Definitely a long-term vision. ~ Nicky Allsopp

Johan has been very patient and understanding of the issues that have kept the Observations Database going live. Thankfully they have been resolved and part of his huge legacy will be that SAEON’s LTER data is available for all. Thanks, Johan, for your vision and dedication that has made SAEON the great institution it is today. ~ Tim Parker-Nance