There are several distinct roles and responsibilities in an assessment: the authorising body, the guiding committee, the technical panel, the assessment leader, the assessment coordinator, the review editors, the lead authors, the authors, contributing authors, expert reviewers, and stakeholder reviewers.
The Authorising Body (in this case, the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism, under its Minister, the Hon Marthinus van Schalkwyk) is an agency that has a legitimate mandate to make decisions in the sphere of the assessment, and thus creates an authorising environment for assessment.
The Guiding Committee is appointed by the authorising body. It represents the stakeholders of the assessment, and is charged with defining the scope and questions (in dialogue with the technical panel, to ensure that they are feasible and well-understood), approve the composition of the author teams for expertise and balance, and accept the assessment when it is complete.
The Technical Panel consists of the Lead Authors of the chapters, plus the Assessment Leader (Dr Bob Scholes of the CSIR in this case) and the Assessment Coordinator (Kathleen Mennell, CSIR). Its job is to run the assessment, especially during the working sessions.
The Assessment Leader (Dr Bob Scholes) is appointed by the authorising body. He chairs the technical panel, and is overall responsible for the assessment, and in particular the appropriate use of its funds.
The Assessment Coordinator (Kathleen Mennell) undertakes the day-to-day administration of the assessment. She handles queries, documents, communications, and interactions with authors, publishers and stakeholders.
The Lead Authors are responsible for the delivery and scientific quality of specific chapters. There is one per chapter. Lead Authors sit on the Technical Panel and interact with the Assessment Leader and the Review Editors.
The Authors help to write the chapters. They are collectively responsible for the factual correctness of the entire chapter (including, but not restricted to, their own contributions) and the correctness of references. They take collective responsibility for the assessments they make and the uncertainty ranges they give.
Contributing Author generally make smaller contributions to the chapter (a paragraph, or a sidebar).
The Review Editors oversee the review process. They do not conduct the review themselves but they see that it occurs, and is responded to in a balanced and justified way, and are final arbitrators in disputes between Authors and Reviewers.
The Expert Reviewers are domain experts (‘peers’) who comment on issues of factual and technical correctness and completeness of the first and second drafts. There are typically several per chapter.
People or groups who have a stake in the outcome of the assessment, and any interested parties make up the Stakeholder Reviewers who comment on the second draft only. They may be experts in their own right, but they mostly address issues of adequacy, clarity and balance. There are typically many per assessment.
The appropriate management South Africa’s elephant populations is the focus of a national debate. In terms of the Biodiversity Act of 2005 and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the ultimate responsibility for establishing national policy in this regard is the Minister of Environment Affairs and Tourism. The Minister convened a Scientific Roundtable (SRT) in January 2006 to advise him on policies regarding elephant management. The SRT concluded that in key aspects, the available scientific information was insufficient for a fully-informed decision (Statements from SRT 1 and 2, summarised in Owen-Smith et al. 2006).
The Minister mandated the SRT to propose a research programme that would reduce the uncertainty regarding the consequences of various elephant management strategies. The first activity initiated by the research programme is a scientific assessment of the state of knowledge regarding elephant-ecosystem-society interactions. The aims of the assessment are: 1) immediately mine the extensive existing information that has not yet contributed to policy; 2) establish an information baseline against which to judge the success of the programme, and 3) identify the critical research gaps that the programme must address.
The Assessment of South African Elephant Management aims to evaluate the large amount of information regarding South African elephants and provide a clear, scientific picture of the state of our current knowledge at multiple scales: small- medium- and large conservation areas. This assessment will also identify and evaluate the policy and management options while including economic agendas, and socio-cultural aspirations.
The management of South Africa’s elephants is a lightning-rod for a whole range of associated values-based policy issues, and this assessment may pave a way to better resolution of this type of issue. It is essential to remember that an assessment is not an advocacy piece; that different views must be incorporated. Note also that assessments don’t prejudge the outcome or make the hard decisions: they just provide the information, as it exists, on which decisions can be made by appropriately-mandated bodies.