Africa’s astronomy facilities ‘must not become white elephants’

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Astronomy facilities built in Southern Africa are likely to remain irrelevant to many countries in the region unless greater efforts are put into training the researchers needed to make good scientific use of them.

This was the warning given by Nithaya Chetty, group executive for astronomy at South Africa’s National Research Foundation, during a two-day workshop on research infrastructures in Africa held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Namibia's HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

Namibia’s HESS telescope: high-level science, but little local involvement

In recent years, it had become widely accepted that Africa was an excellent place to do astronomy because of its climate and viewing conditions, said Chetty, who is also professor of physics at the University of Pretoria.Referring to the recent decision to build part of the new Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa – the other part will be in Australia – he also accepted that construction of such scientific infrastructure was likely to have important socio-economic spin-offs.

For example, much had been made in generating political support for SKA of its potential role in boosting the country’s IT industry and capacity for high-speed data transmission.

“But attention must also be given to human capacity development,” said Chetty. “We want to go beyond simply building, maintaining and operating telescopes and making observations  –  we also want and need to be involved in creating and using the science.”

Chetty pointed to the example of the HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) telescope in Namibia, built and operated by Germany’s Max Planck Society, which had been operating successfully for just over ten years.

“HESS is now ranked among the ten most productive telescopes in the world. But the impact on astronomy in Namibia has been rather low, and this has been disappointing,” he said.

“It is a forewarning of what we may or may not achieve for the development of astronomy on the African continent. If we cannot do it in Namibia, we have an even lower chance of achieving it in countries such as Mozambique or Madagascar.”

Chetty said that it had been a similar experience with the South African Large Telescope (SALT), which opened in 2005. Apart from South Africa, there had been virtually no involvement by researchers from other countries in Southern Africa; almost all had come from Europe and the United States.

“The original idea was that SALT was to encourage growth of astronomy in Southern Africa,” he said. “But we do not have a sufficient number of scientists from other parts of Africa using SALT.”

The lesson was that it was not sufficient to build the infrastructure for doing a science like astronomy. It was also important to create a nurturing environment for the science to thrive, including building the required human capacity.

“We need astronomy researchers, engineers and technicians, we need a concerted effort to attract young people into mathematics and science, and programmes to inspire a new generation of children,” he said.

“Otherwise we will just end up building white elephants.”


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.

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