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

March 11, 2013

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.

Horizon 2020 ‘should include funding for outreach activities’

March 6, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
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.

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