How to Become a Registered Scientist to Conduct Palaeontological Impact Assessments (PIAs)


Palaeontological Impact Assessments (PIAs) are crucial for preserving our natural heritage by ensuring that developmental activities do not inadvertently destroy significant fossil resources. Becoming a registered scientist capable of conducting PIAs in South Africa involves registering at the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP).  Although there is no step-by-step guide to become a PIA specialist, Here’s a comprehensive guide, enhanced with first-hand experience from Ryan Nel, a registered scientist and PhD student at the Rhodes Geology Department in Makhanda.

Step 1: Understanding SACNASP

The South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) is the statutory body responsible for the registration and regulation of natural scientists in South Africa. Established under the Natural Scientific Professions Act (NSP Act), SACNASP ensures that professionals meet the necessary educational and ethical standards to practice safely and effectively​​.

Step 2: Educational Requirements

To qualify for registration with SACNASP, you must possess a recognised qualification in a relevant natural scientific discipline, such as geology or palaeontology. Typically, this involves holding at least a Bachelor’s degree in a related field. Ryan Nel, for instance, began his journey in the PIA industry with a strong academic background in geology, supported by his PhD studies at Rhodes University​​.

Step 3: Gaining Professional Experience

Professional experience is essential for registration. This includes practical work in palaeontology, such as field surveys, fossil excavation, and analysis. Ryan Nel’s journey involved assisting his supervisor, Dr Rob Gess, with geological maps for PIA reports and participating in field visits.

“I started by assisting Dr Gess with geological maps for his PIA report and often visited sites with him. He was very supportive and referred one of his clients to me and from there, things took off. I had to register at SACNASP as a Candidate Scientist in Geological Sciencee to be able to conduct the assessment” says Ryan​​.

Step 4: Registration Process

The registration process with SACNASP involves several key steps:

  1. Application Submission: Complete the application form available on the SACNASP website. This form requires detailed information about your educational background, professional experience, and personal details.
  2. Supporting Documents: Provide certified copies of your academic qualifications, a comprehensive CV, and any other required documentation, such as proof of work experience and professional references.
  3. Assessment: SACNASP will review your application to verify that you meet the necessary criteria. This includes an evaluation of your academic credentials and professional experience.
  4. Fees: Pay the applicable registration fees, which cover the costs of processing your application and maintaining your registration​​. The current 2024 fee is R2,350.00 for applications in the Professional Natural Scientist and Certificated Natural Scientist categories, and R610.00 for applications in the Candidate Natural Scientist category. Thereafter, there are annual renewal fees to maintain registration.

Ryan explained the process, “I was not able, as a candidate, to write an assessment without Dr Gess reviewing and signing off on the reports. After conducting a few PIA projects for about one to two years, I applied for an upgrade at SACNASP as a Professional Geoscientist. The application is a long process and to be a professional, one must have a few projects to add to the application. As soon as I was registered as a Professional Scientist, I could sign off on my reports”​​.

Step 5: Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

To maintain your status as a registered scientist, you must engage in Continuing Professional Development (CPD). SACNASP mandates CPD to ensure that registered professionals stay up-to-date with the latest developments in their field. This can involve attending workshops, conferences, and additional training related to palaeontology and impact assessments​​.

Step 6: Conducting Palaeontological Impact Assessments (PIAs)

As a registered scientist, you will be qualified to conduct Palaeontological Impact Assessments (PIAs). Here’s what you need to know:

Purpose of PIAs: PIAs are conducted to assess the potential impact of development projects on palaeontological resources. This involves identifying, evaluating, and mitigating any potential damage to fossil sites.

PIA Process:
1. Initial Survey: Conduct a field survey to identify any significant palaeontological sites within the project area.

2. Impact Assessment: Evaluate the potential impact of the proposed development on these sites.

3. Mitigation Measures: Develop and recommend measures to mitigate any adverse impacts, such as site preservation, excavation, or relocation of fossils.

4. Reporting: Prepare a detailed report documenting the findings and recommendations. This report is submitted to the relevant authorities for review and approval.

5. Compliance: Ensure that all PIA activities comply with local regulations and standards. This includes obtaining necessary permits and adhering to ethical guidelines.

For more information see the SAHRIS Website, and guidelines outlined in Appendix 6 of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 2014

Ryan Nel emphasised the rewarding nature of PIAs, noting, “The benefit of doing these reports is that I can be in the field and find new fossil sites. These could lead to research projects for future palaeontologists. The PIAs also help me to understand South African broader Geology/Palaeontology and improve my observation and writing skills. There is a large market for palaeontology impact assessment practitioners and I think job opportunities will increase. “​​

While conducting PIAs can be financially rewarding, it also comes with challenges. Ryan noted, “The challenge is at the beginning of the process. You must have financial support, time and a good amount of patience – it takes time to build a name and get a steady income. I am still not fully financially independent because the payments from companies can take some time to process.  I am fortunate to have the Genus Grant, and a partner to help me during the difficult (unpaid) months”. ​​

Becoming a registered scientist with SACNASP and conducting Palaeontological Impact Assessments is a rewarding career that contributes to the preservation of our natural heritage. By meeting the educational and professional requirements, engaging in continuous development, and following the process outlined in this document, you can ensure your qualifications and readiness to perform PIAs effectively. For more information and to begin your registration process, visit the SACNASP website.

SACNASP provides resources, including the full PAIA Manual and application forms, available on their website. Regular updates and additional guidance ensure that you stay informed about any changes in the registration and assessment processes.