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SAEON and environmental policy development

“I trust that SAEON will grow to reach the status of policy translator and mediator.” – Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
SAEON coordinated two chapters for South Africa's Second National Communication under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and contributed to a third. Such publications are essential references for policy development.
- Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON


In addition to obvious deliverables such as observation platforms, data management systems, scholarly outputs and human capacity development, SAEON is also expected to contribute to environmental policy processes in South Africa. This is not a simple matter.

Policy development is dependent on sufficient scientific data and evidence-based opinion from a multitude of disciplines and is moderated by political considerations. The latter is limited to the domain of government, and not of SAEON. Therefore, SAEON can only strive to make sound contributions by offering a wide range of quality data and drawing on that for evidence-based opinion.

Evidence-based opinion is in itself not just a case of providing the results of small-scale short-term research, instead, it requires comprehensive long-term observations of ecosystems because those systems are complex and dynamic, requiring analyses of patterns and trends in order to gain some insight into their functioning and states. Comprehensive long-term observations are required because the whole of the ecosystem is bigger than the sum of its parts, as Dr Manuel Maass of the Mexican LTER network reminds us elsewhere in this issue.

Any national policy process has multiple participants, therefore it could never be that SAEON is the sole influence and it would always be difficult to measure the quality and quantity of SAEON’s policy contributions. However, when such policy contributions are in published form, it becomes something tangible. A case in point is South Africa’s Second National Communication under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change for which SAEON coordinated two chapters and contributed to a third. Such publications are essential references for policy development but are not quite at the coal face thereof.

Since its core funding is received from the Department of Science and Technology and it is managed as part of the National Research Foundation, SAEON cannot participate in a non-governmental organisation’s public lobbying on environmental causes. This taboo is certainly even greater when host organisations of SAEON are targeted by the lobbying, as was the case with the Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area in the latter half of 2010.

International learning points

The literature on ecology-policy interfacing is growing and I would like to refer our readers to some international learning points. According to Sutherland et al. (2006), ecologists cannot simply provide the evidence base for policy, but need to assist the policy process by firstly identifying the policy problem correctly and then to clearly communicate ecological uncertainty before providing policy input.

Van der Windt and Swart (2008) posit that there are three positions that ecologists may assume. The first position is that of the academic and fundamental scientist who would not be willing to pronounce on environmental issues until sufficient evidence has been established. This position is not suitable for SAEON because it may ignore political and societal imperatives and may require postponement to a point when events may already have overtaken the opportunity to make a policy contribution.

The second position is called “societal engagement” by Van der Windt and Swart (2008). This position is also not appropriate for SAEON because it refers to the conservation priorities of many ecologists, especially those in government service, who would also take social viewpoints into consideration, but this may result in scientific integrity being compromised in the process.

The third position is that of the “mediator” or “translator”. This position resonates with the views of Sutherland et al. (2006), and in a policy coal face situation strives to provide as much multi-disciplinary scientific evidence as possible, but also provides context in terms of the uncertainty associated with that evidence. The emphasis is very much on an honest process weighing all interests, values and knowledge pertaining to the issue. SAEON perceives this as its ideal position.

A reliable and responsible instrument of the state

SAEON scientists and collaborators share a deep concern and interest in environmental issues. With this in mind it is still important to keep an emotional distance from individual issues because SAEON has to be seen as a reliable and responsible instrument of the state. If SAEON loses this reputation, it will also lose power as an influential insider/advisor with the ability to attract funding from government/private sector.

This does not mean that SAEON should agree with everything government and the private sector contemplate and do. No, all it means is that SAEON’s approach to the ecology-policy interface should be somewhat different from that of an academic scientist, a government bureaucrat or an activist organisation.

I trust that SAEON will grow to reach the status of policy translator and mediator. Engaging with policy makers requires exceptional courage, insight and effort. Without first practicing policy engagement at small scales (individual landowners/fishermen perhaps), we will not easily handle the larger scale policy issues that are still to come SAEON's way.


W. J. Sutherland, S. Armstrong-Brown, P. R. Armsworth, T. Brereton, J. Brickland, C. D. Campbell, D. E. Chamberlain, A. I. Cooke, N. K. Dulvy, N. R. Dusic, M. Fitton, R. P. Freckleton, H. C. J. Godfray, N. Grout, H. J. Harvey, C. Hedley, J. J. Hopkins, N. B. Kift, J. Kirby, W. E. Kunin, D. W. Macdonald, B. Marker, M. Naura, A. R. Neale, T. Oliver, D. Osborn, A. S. Pullin, M. E. A. Shardlow, D. A. Showler, P. L. Smith, R. J. Smithers, J. Solandt, J. Spencer, C. J. Spray, C. D. Thomas, J. Thompson, S. E. Webb, D. W. Yalden & A. R. Watkinson 2006. The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK. Journal of Applied Ecology, 43, 617–627

Henny J. Van Der Windt & J. A. A. Swart, 2008. Ecological corridors, connecting science and politics: the case of the Green River in the Netherlands. Journal of Applied Ecology 45, 124–132.

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