Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net
Science has the ability to generate revolutionary inventions and innovative ideas that can have a tangible impact on people’s quality of life.
But it can also awe and inspire. And it is this side to scientific discovery that is often undervalued and underutilised by funders and policymakers, according to experts here at the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.
Speaking at a side event concerning the global development impact of astronomy, Kevin Govender, director of the International Astronomy Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), says that to encourage the next level of innovators to pursue scientific careers, support must be given to science that engages people.
“It’s great to create a new device or product, but people need to be inspired to get the training in the first place if science capacity is to develop,” he tells SciDev.Net at the sidelines of the conference.
“Of course we need to invest in new technology and basic research, but at the same time, if we leave out the inspirational aspect [of science] we are going to have a gap in the innovation landscape that will be very hard to fill.”
This knock-on effect of inspiration can be seen within the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) astronomy project — a network of radio telescopes to be spread across sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, says Govender.
Since it was announced that Kenya would host part of this network, students taking some physics courses at the University of Nairobi doubled “almost overnight”.
But traditionally, he says, EU funding has prioritised basic research over community engagement and education projects.
In order to maximise and sustain the scientific capacity building, the Horizon 2020 funding framework needs to pay attention to these important projects, he adds.
He would like to see language in the final agreement that highlights the importance of education and the public understanding of science for capacity building and research, with commitments to engage in outreach activities eventually built into funding requirements.
Anita Loots, Associate Director for Science and Engineering for the SKA in Africa, agrees that modest investment beyond the physical needs of projects can be significant.
“I think current investment into scientific infrastructure is very good, but for a little bit extra money spent on outreach, you can do a huge amount to uplift communities through science, especially in Africa,” she says.
This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.