Stellenbosch University research fellow Dr Hayley Clements was announced as the recipient of the inaugural Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Research Grant last month at the tenth Oppenheimer Research Conference held in Midrand, Gauteng.
The research grant was set up to honour the late Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer and to continue her legacy and contribution to conservation, the environment and cutting-edge science in Africa.
“The grant, which offers the successful applicant a $150 000 fund dispensed over a three-year period, is awarded to a young African-born scientist looking at African environmental issues,” notes Oppenheimer Generations research and conservation head Dr Duncan MacFadyen.
Oppenheimer Generations is the team responsible for safeguarding the long-term interests of Nicky and Jonathan Oppenheimer and their family.
Clements was awarded the grant for her project, titled ‘Quantifying the Biodiversity Planetary Boundary for Africa’, which includes developing a biodiversity intactness index for Africa.
MacFadyen mentions that Clements was selected by a panel of experts from a variety of fields in the environmental and natural sciences fields.
“We received more than 140 applications, all of which were strong in their own way.”
MacFadyen enthuses that this year’s conference embraced change through the introduction of virtual reality (VR).
The VR footage – which showcased a real-life environment and interaction with the African pangolin – was captured and developed by dynamic conference planners HabitatX.
Using technology and social media to improve science communication was a talking point at a panel discussion chaired by Oppenheimer Generations Custodian CEO Polly Carr.
The need to espouse technology and use media, particularly social media, has come to the fore, explains MacFadyen.
“We, as scientists, are preaching to the converted and need to get the information on our findings, the crux of the message, out to the man on the street, and into our schools.”
The discussion involved using print and social media as a platform for articles to be published and to align the ways in which the general population can contribute to each cause.
A second panel – themed ‘Challenging the conservation paradigm’, and hosted by Johnathan Oppenheimer – addressed the need to look at new and innovative ways of conservation.
“We can’t just put a fence around an area and hope for the best anymore – we need to look at getting creative in how we approach conservation,” MacFadyen declares.
In addition to the grant, a segment, called Creating Connections, was also a new feature. The segment offered a new approach to collaborative networking, whereby applicants had a two-minute slot in which to pitch their concept.
“This was a fun, new and quick way of networking for those that were looking for collaborators and also offered a different dynamic to the usual conferencing format,” enthuses MacFadyen.
Meanwhile, he explains that, as a funding-orientated foundation, one of the greatest challenges is selecting projects that are topical and multidimensional. A project needs to engage the community and develop key relationships locally and internationally.
“Projects must offer tangible, meaningful results and must be used by decision-makers to effect change.”
Therefore, he points out that working with government at national and provincial level is key in reaping the rewards of a successful project. “We are exceptionally happy to have the backing of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy.”
MacFadyen concludes that there are wonderful opportunities for researchers to work closely with Creecy towards a greener and more environmentally sustainable South Africa.