NRF-SAEON Lauded for 21 Years of World-Class Environmental Research Platforms for a Sustainable Society

NRF-SAEON Lauded for 21 Years of World-Class Environmental Research Platforms for a Sustainable Society

The South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON) has been hailed as one of the country’s post-apartheid successes. A public institution launched in 2002 following lobbying of the government by environmental researchers, it has been lauded for its growth, impact and sustainability at its 21st anniversary celebration ceremony.

About 200 people, consisting largely of scientists currently and previously associated with NRF-SAEON, attended the anniversary event at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront, Cape Town on 07 September 2023. Also in attendance was NRF-SAEON’s founding Managing Director, Johan Pauw (now retired), who is widely credited for building the organisation from the ground. 

Growing in leaps and bounds over the two decades, it went from employing one employee (Mr Pauw) at its inception to 115 currently. The employees, mainly environmental scientists, are spread across the country in NRF-SAEON nodes.

The nodes are centres through which NRF-SAEON performs environmental monitoring and research, in the interest of Southern Africa’s biodiversity, landscapes and oceans. These are four terrestrial nodes, two marine nodes, one data node and three environmental research infrastructures of the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR). The nodes are the Arid Lands Node, Egagasini Node, Elwandle Coastal Node, Fynbos Node, Ndlovu Node, Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node and uLwazi node. The Research Infrastructures are the 1) Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network; 2) Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI); and 3) the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI).

Paying homage to the researchers who identified the need for NRF-SAEON, National Research Foundation (NRF) CEO, Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, said, “Two decades ago, in a world grappling with environmental challenges, a group of passionate individuals united under a shared purpose to champion the cause of sustainability, to safeguard the delicate balance of our ecosystem and of course to inspire a global movement towards long term research for a more sustainable future. Little did they know that their vision would ignite a revolution in environmental research and catalyse change on a global scale.

“Today we stand on the shoulders of these dedicated scientists and researchers who have fearlessly marched forth in the face of adversity, tirelessly working to unravel the complexities of our ecosystems and expose the urgent need for environmental action. Their wavering dedication and effort have not only raised awareness but have also led to the transformative policy changes and tangible environmental outcomes,” added Dr Nelwamondo.

He lauded NRF-SAEON for succeeding in fulfilling its mandate. “As we celebrate this significant milestone, let us reflect on the profound impact of our environmental research platforms containing monitoring science, data management systems and research facilities. From Limpopo to Antarctica, NRF-SAEON scientific platforms have helped us to understand the complex dynamics of our environment. The knowledge that has been gained has led to informed policy interventions aimed at the conservation of our precious biodiversity, the mitigation of the impacts of climate change and the sustainable use of our natural resources. NRF-SAEON provides the necessary infrastructure and this supports the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation goal of building a robust science and technology infrastructure in South Africa and beyond.”

Dr Angus Paterson, Acting NRF Deputy CEO, reflected that NRF-SAEON started with “limited resources, but a big vision, and 21 years later it’s a very different organisation”. He added, “Often we talk about the challenges that South Africa faces, with organisations really struggling. One looks at what the NRF has built along with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) over the last 21 years; it’s an unequivocal success story.” Dr Paterson further described NRF-SAEON transformative organisation in terms of both its staff complement and the environment discipline and sector. 

Dr. Ashley Naidoo Chief Director responsible for Oceans and Coasts at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) stated that the operational link between DFFE is crucial for environmental management and policy as NRF-SAEON provides knowledge derived data on Marine Spatial Planning (Sustainable Ocean Economy and Jobs), Marine Protected Areas, Management of Top Predators and the Oceans & Coastal Information Management Systems (OCIMS). The event also featured presentations by SAEON kids, Alutha Botha, a Grade 11 learner at Nombulelo Secondary School in Makhanda, Alizwa Mbiko, a grade 10 learner at Luhlaza Secondary School and Ntobeko Nqunqa, a grade 10 learner at Sophumelela High School who shared information their marine biodiversity and sea surface temperatures projects. The Graduate Student Network ( Alumni also shared information on how the GSN was founded.

Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, the Managing Director of NRF-SAEON, recognised the contribution of those working behind the scenes such as those in the finance, human resource and supply chain management departments who are crucial for the success of the NRF-SAEON.

NRF-SAEON’s open data platform earned an international accreditation recognising trust and sustainability as a repository just some two days ahead of its 21st anniversary celebration event. Leo Chiloane, Ulwazi Node Manager at NRF-SAEON, announced that the organisation has been awarded the CoreTrustSeal, a certification that promotes sustainable and trustworthy data infrastructures. “There are currently just over 160 global systems recognised in this accreditation. It may seem like a lot, but just think about the number of systems that are out there in the world. We’re one of them, and we’re currently just one of two in Africa,” said Chiloane.

The uniqueness of NRF-SAEON is in its reach and spread, placing it in good stead to make impact on the country’s ecology and policy, pointed out Dr Gilbert Siko, the DSI’s Director: Marine and Polar Research, Palaeosciences. “In the next decade NRF-SAEON will contribute to ensuring delivery of priorities that have been set in the STI decadal plan. The decadal plan intends to take the NSI (national system of innovation) to another level and address societal challenges, and also contribute towards accelerating knowledge, digital and innovative. On behalf of the DSI, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate NRF-SAEON on the splendid job well done over the last 21 years. We’re looking forward, as the DSI, to working with NRF-SAEON to grow the South African knowledge economy.”

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