Looking up at the stars for inspiring African scientists to become world leaders

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

To see a major part of scientific collaboration going forward, all we need to do is look up at the stars.

At least this was the case made repeatedly, and often passionately made by leading members of the global scientific community during the five-day EU Science: Global Challenges and Global Collaboration conference in Brussels last week.

The study and exploitation of space, offers one of the most fertile ground for nurturing the seeds of scientific collaboration and development that we have, they say.

Although other areas of science, such as health and information and communication technologies (ICTs), were also held up as examples of current and potential collaborative research, it was what exists beyond our atmosphere that received the most attention.

“The most important thing we learnt from going to the moon was when we looked back at our own tiny planet,” says Mae Jemison, head of the 100 Year Star Ship Initiative, alluding to the ability of aspirational science to frame society’s biggest questions.

“Imagine what we will learn from the nearest star,” she adds.

While the inspiring and expansive nature of space is in itself a cohesive factor, the drive for collaboration comes from a much more pragmatic source. The huge quantity of money and expertise required for space exploration or the need for telescopes spread over large regions in astronomy, for example, demand cooperation — almost as a prerequisite — to achieve their goals.

And with this promise of collaboration comes huge potential for scientific and economic development, not least in the world’s developing nations. While perhaps the most obvious tool for development, numerous examples throughout the conference highlighted how space research can touch the world’s poor.

For example, the organisation of the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform is taking shape, as is the pan-African and Australian Square Kilometre Array project. The  improvements in infrastructure that these will bring, could result in high-speed internet and renewable energy, and human capacity building in remote regions.

What is more, says George Miley, vice president of the International Astronomy Union, the relative infancy of large, multinational, radio astronomy projects offers a unique opportunity for African researchers to get in on the ground floor.

By investing now in research and capacity building, African nations with links to radio astronomy projects could establish themselves as world leaders in the field, he adds.

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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