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How will SAEON be affected by the new South African Government Science, Technology and Innovation Policy?

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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A White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation was approved by the South African Cabinet in March 2019.

This policy document, conjunction with the merger of the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Higher Education and Training in April 2019, will positively influence the role of SAEON by its emphasis on three main principles – ethical research, social and economic justice, and environmental sustainability.

In particular the main objectives of the White Paper are to promote a practice of continuously valuing public-funded science from the perspectives of society; to promote inclusivity across the different sectors of society (demography, culture, industry, civil society); to align public budgeting with public policies; to improve the conditions for innovation; to grow the research system, its available budget and efficiencies; to improve the national levels of human capabilities for science, technology and innovation; and to promote science, technology and innovation across the African Continent.

Importantly, the White Paper’s emphasis on “environmental sustainability” endorses and promotes the overall goal of SAEON. In return at the research entity level, SAEON is already contributing to relevant objectives of the White Paper. Some examples follow:

1) Determining and delivering societal value from public-funded science

Although the definition of public value generally remains highly subjective, SAEON aims to meet the expectations of its wide range of stakeholders by the provision of relevant and internationally competitive national ecosystem research infrastructure platforms to researchers and their students, publishing excellent scientific papers, compiling evidence-based technical and policy reports, developing human capacity for scientific research, responding appropriately to stakeholder requests and obtaining technical and policy advice via formal and informal stakeholder interactions.

2) Promoting inclusivity across societal sectors

SAEON’s primary stakeholder is government, the representative of society at large. SAEON is indeed serving the interests of relevant government departments and their respective entities, e.g. the Department of Science and Innovation and associated Science Councils (e.g. the National Research Foundation – NRF, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity); the Department of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries and associated entities (e.g. South African National Biodiversity Institute, South African Weather Service); Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Affairs and associated entities (Agricultural Research Council, National Spatial Infrastructure Framework); the Department of Higher Education and Training and public universities; the Department of Basic Education and public schools; and the Department of Water Affairs and associated entities (Water Research Council, Water Boards).

Equity and transformation objectives are pursued across the board, supported by several systemic interventions such as the SAEON Graduate Student Network and Environmental Science Education Programme (ESEP).


SAEON established its Environmental Science Education Programme with a view to teaching critical thinking and guiding high school learners to aspire to careers in science through hands-on science projects inclusive of results presentations.

SAEON data are openly accessible. Collaborations with industry, including mining, forestry, agriculture and fisheries, are ongoing. Public advocacy campaigns are diplomatically pursued.

Moreover, decision-support tools such as the Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, which is available online, assist national and local governments with adaptation and mitigation policies directed at climate change. This work in itself is an innovation and part of the 4th Industrial Revolution which the White Paper sees as the next economic growth area.

3) Aligning public budgets with public policies

The establishment of SAEON was a direct result of a policy decision taken by Dr Rob Adam, then Director-General of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. At the time (2001), Dr Adam considered his mandate in terms of the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology and took advice from the research community, the NRF, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Water Affairs.

His advisors emphasised the importance of the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which was hosted by the South African Government in Johannesburg in 2002. They advocated that the establishment of SAEON would be an appropriate development.

In 2008, the Department of Science and Technology launched the Global Change Grand Challenge and incorporated SAEON into the design of the focus area. Over the years, SAEON has made a substantive contribution to achieving the objectives of the Global Change Grand Challenge as well as the Johannesburg Declaration which followed from the WSSD. In recent years, more than 50% of SAEON's available budget is provided by national government departments under contractual agreements – direct evidence of how SAEON's budget is aligned to public policies. 

4) Growing the reseach system, its budget and efficiencies

As an instrument of government, SAEON excelled in growing its available budget nearly 100 times over a 17-year period. To achieve this, SAEON adhered to several business principles and also took certain risks.

Some of those principles were to recruit the best available (and affordable) human resources, to foster interinstitutional collaboration instead of direct competition, to rapidly demonstrate political legitimacy by establishing an education-outreach schools programme at each node before any science was undertaken, to launch the science before establishing an administrative hub, to offer users open access to resources and data, to share intellectual property with collaborators, to allow nodes the freedom to develop research questions and approaches at sites where they would expect to be able to detect ecosystem changes to develop, to refurbish historical research infrastructure and to take responsibility for associated long-term data sets and others that might be lost, to establish a Graduate Student Network, to consult and take advice from a broad range of stakeholders, to promote comprehensive coverage of terrestrial and aquatic systems within a unified organisation and to be responsive to the needs of government by offering services as required.

One of the major risks that SAEON decided to tolerate was the development of digital knowledge management capacity since 2008 on the basis of contractual income due to insufficient internal funding. Others were driving the Agulhas Climate System Array (ASCA) in one of the fastests ocean currents of the world while using run-down research vessels as well as accepting the responsibility for hosting large national ecosystem research infrastructures that jointly immediately doubled SAEON’s available budget since 2017.

Nevertheless, possibly the biggest risk that SAEON has so far taken on has been to establish itself as a unique institutionalised network in the absence of an organisational template to follow.

5) Improving human capabilities

The improvement of human capabilities in science and innovation has received support from SAEON at many levels and through various means. Adopting an educational pipeline approach, SAEON established its ESEP with a view to teaching critical thinking and guiding high school learners to aspire to careers in science through hands-on science projects inclusive of results presentations. School teachers are invited on technical training courses and supported with teaching materials aligned to the national curriculum.

After their first degrees, postgraduate students are accepted by nodes for academic supervision and research platform support. During this time they join the Graduate Student Network that exposes them to other disciplines and ecosystems as well as committee work.

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Postgraduate students are accepted by nodes for academic supervision and research platform support.

“SAEON is already contributing to relevant objectives of the White Paper.” – Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

Senior students and young scientists are strategically sponsored to undertake study tours and training courses abroad and locally.

6) Pan-African outreach

It is well understood that SAEON is in an excellent position to support and strengthen environmental research in Africa, but also that such a drive will require a substantive and sustained dedicated budget and person power to succeed sustainably.

In the absence of dedicated funding for involvement in other African countries, SAEON is making best use of available opportunities through funded programmes such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA), SASSCAL, FEROSA and Supporting EU-African Cooperation on Research Infrastructures for Food Security and Greenhouse Gas Observations (SEACRIFOG). Early attempts to develop SAEON-type networks in southern African countries unfortunately came to naught largely as a result of lack of political buy-in from both South African funders and those countries.

7) Innovation

The term “innovation” is used no fewer than 433 times in the White Paper. It is defined as: “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, or a new marketing method, or a new organisational model in business practice, workplace organisation or external relations". 

This concept is much broader than the usual interpretation of innovation as having largely to do with new high-tech products, and based on which it would be easy to imply that “innovation” is less relevant to SAEON than to commercial enterprises. However, consideration on the basis of the definition in the White Paper brings to light that SAEON’s business model is unique and therefore SAEON’s overall business model is an innovation in itself. 

This has led to a further innovation, namely the low-cost and non-commercial modular business model applied by the uLwazi Node for the development of a national earth and environmental data system with independent funding from various government departments and with international interoperability. 

In similar fashion, and resulting from a firm strategy to collaborate appropriately, many research projects are design in innovative ways. The ASCA programme is one example where a collaboration between the University of Miami, The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and SAEON relied on a business model in which expensive oceanographic equipment was loaned to SAEON and specialist scientists from those institutions have sailed with SAEON on South African research vessels in order to transfer skills to us during research cruises. The latest business model innovation that SAEON is involved in is that of a Global Ecosystem Research Infrastructure (GERI), for which the business model will be unique due to it being a first of its kind. 

Nonetheless, SAEON is also active on the high-tech innovation side. Our scientists are often customising standard research equipment through redesigning or upgrading of specifications. The same can be said of our software developers at uLwazi, who have already produced innovations such as the Risk and Vulnerability Atlas and the BioEnergy Atlas, both offering decision-making tools. 

A new development which also ticks the high-tech innovation box is the RreTool, which entails the development of rapid and repeatable tools for monitoring and mitigating global change impacts on natural resources. These tools will use remotely sensed satellite data and are based on a prototype that won the Thematic Award for Climate Mitigation for the Data for Climate Action Challenge run by the United Nations Global Pulse at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) held in Bonn, Germany.

In conclusion

The implementation of the White Paper will be based on stakeholder consultations during October 2019 to develop a series of high-level 10-year plans. Given the merger of what is now known as the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the Department of Higher Education (DHE) under a Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology (DHET), these are indeed exciting times for SAEON as the potential for new and improved collaborations will be brought into play by the application of universal implementation plans across the science, technology and innovation sector.

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