South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) research was placed front and center as the organisation’s researchers came together at Biodiversity Science & Policy Advice (BS&PA) Symposium to discuss “Research Strategy 2030” and how it could best be implemented.

The symposium was opened by the new SANBI CEO, Shonisani Munzhedzi, who emphasized the importance of SANBI’s research and how it tied in with the developmental programme of the South African government and its sectors, including among others economic, health, and water. “Researchers are very valuable at all levels of decision-making,” he said.

Head of SANBI’s BS&PA branch and event custodian, Carmel Mbizvo, said the symposium’s focus was crucial to the biodiversity institute’s mandate. Mbizvo said SANBI was globally unique in the way it occupied the dynamic space between biodiversity science and policy. She cited the strategy’s key goals of building networks of excellence in biodiversity research and development (R&D), and the provision of knowledge for effective management and value extraction of SANBI’ biodiversity assets.

For the first time in its history the event was held jointly between Cape Town and Pretoria in a virtual space. This was due to risks and challenges associated with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

While some participants said they would have liked to engage in a shared space, many enjoyed the novel benefits a virtual room allowed – like the live and interactive MS Teams chat box – which buzzed throughout the event. The programme was set in  a way that allowed for both facilitated plenary and break out group sessions. The virtual platform also allowed the programme director, Dan’sile Cindi, to keep participants engaged in the chats and incorporated inputs into  the plenary session. SANBI’s mandate is funded by a combination of money from government, grants, donors that leave money to SANBI on bequests, sometimes money is raised through SANBI projects and also substantially through revenue. “The pandemic has not helped SANBI at all in terms of those revenue streams and the organisation is under pressure, we need to use our resources smartly, which means we need to all be aligned with the mandate” said Mandy Barnett.

Global evolving risks

SANBI scientist Dr. Tlou Masehela works in the fast paced field of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and experienced the disruption by the pandemic acutely. In his keynote address he gave an overview of global risks over time with their potential impacts, and how these link to SANBI’s R&D activities.

Dr. Masehela gave an insightful account of how one of the most recent global risks, COVID-19, affected-disrupted the organisation’s R&D efforts. He cited among other things lack of cohesion, lack of resources, stretched capacity in certain areas, disruptions on research activities (including student projects), low staff morale, and the need for improved communication across the institution. He also noted that despite not being linked to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Research Strategy 2030 also identified institutional strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Masehela went on to present solutions used by other institutions in adapting to the pandemic, and  advocated for accommodating these in the Research Strategy 2030.

Break-out and engage

The symposium was structured to be interactive, and a session on the Research Strategy 2030’s objectives allowed for engagement between researchers and chief directors.

The virtual plenary session was  led by the Branch Chief Directors, namely Prof. Ramagwai Sebola (Foundational Biodiversity Science), Dr. Theressa Frantz (Biodiversity Assessment and Knowledge), Christopher Willis (National Botanical Gardens), and Deshni Pillay (Policy Advice & Information Management).

Afterwards, an engaging  break-out group session explored the promotion of “SANBI’s science with diverse publics”, facilitated by SANBI science writer, Shahieda Davids. This was again discussed in relation to the Research Strategy 2030’s objectives.

The programme concluded with a “reflections” session facilitated by SANBI Ecological Infrastructure Coordinator Dr. Pearl Gola using a virtual whiteboard – where participants were able to add their thoughts and comments throughout the event. Dr. Frantz closed the event thanking participants for their inputs and lively discussion. She emphasised that the strategy is a “2030 strategy” and that the Chief Directors’ presentations unpacked a five year plan. Most importantly, Dr. Frantz said, Research Strategy 2030 is a “living document”.

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