“Astronomy and Development”


I would like to begin by thanking the executive authorities of the University of Leiden for the great honour bestowed on me to serve as an honorary professor of astronomy for development. I feel deeply privileged and humbled by this recognition from a university of such prestige.

Our continent Africa is still confronted by many intractable challenges and as leaders in Africa and the global community we need to find definitive responses to the plight of the poorest and most marginalised in the world. The global intellectual community has tremendous knowledge resources that can be put to good use in assisting the least developed to advance into increased prosperity and opportunity. It is my firm belief that science technology and innovation are vital elements of this drive to end poverty, inequality, and joblessness in Africa.

The astronomy sciences have proven to be an interesting component of this still dormant promise of change. South Africa is a country that believes in ambitious possibilities. This year we are celebrating Mr Nelson Mandela, the first ever democratically elected president of South Africa. He would’ve turned 100 years old this year. So we decided to mark 2018 as his centenary year - dedicated to celebrating his life, his values and the commitment to humanity that marked his life. He was a political prisoner for most of his adult life, but on the day he won his freedom he took the first steps towards shaping a South Africa that focuses on national development and on using our talents for the benefit of all.


A little acknowledged fact is that Mandela's freedom not only set South Africa free but also set Africa free. For example, we are now able to share our relatively advanced science and innovation resources with other African countries. In South Africa we’re often in the unique position of both receiving support as a recipient of development aid from developed partners for science and technology programmes, and being a donor in our own right by providing aid to strengthen other African countries’ science capacities. In the past decade we’ve done this extremely well in the various disciplines of astronomy.


Today, I would like to share with you our vision for astronomy and development in Africa and the opportunities opened up by the innovation potential that exists on our continent.


The concept ‘astronomy for development’ is one that has been coined recently by the International Astronomical Union (IAP) to describe the emergence of astronomy sciences and associated disciplines as knowledge fields that hold great promise for the research and innovation ambitions of developing countries. The IAP has even gone so far as to establish an international office. South Africa hosts the office.


Astronomy sciences have been an important vehicle for science development, technology innovation, human resource development, and expansion of scientific infrastructure in South Africa and our various Africa partner countries. Many people, including some colleagues in the science system, view astronomy as a rather old and dry science full of white-haired middle-aged males. If I had not learned the lessons from championing SKA, I might have believed them. Astronomy sciences have proven to be an incredible means of driving demographic change in the South African astronomy community, firstly, and developing a very dynamic and productive science relationship with the African continent, secondly.  Both aspects of “development” are critical to contemporary South Africa.


We inherited an extremely skewed science system from apartheid South Africa – globally competitive in some respects, entirely unreflective of South Africa in others.  Not only were many of the premier scientific and technological programmes and institutions irrelevant to South Africa as a developing country, but also the development of the science sector was premised essentially on the skills and intellectual capital resident among white South Africans – effectively excluding the country’s majority from participating in the development of science and technology in South Africa.  Clearly, this is not a sustainable approach to the development of a national science system.  And in the field of astronomy, participation was especially skewed.


However, through the strong and determined development of this field, we have been able to make significant progress in this “developmental challenge”, and are beginning to emerge with a sector that is transformed both in terms of its participation rate from across South Africa’s population, and in the substantive contributions it makes to national socio-economic development.  There can be no doubt that our investment in astronomy is driving development in South Africa across a number of national imperatives.


The benefits we have derived nationally from our efforts in astronomy are also enabling us to support development elsewhere in the continent.  African countries have made a determined effort to increase research, development and innovation (RDI). The past fifteen years have witnessed focused interventions in higher education in science councils, and in science academies.


Many countries have begun to budget for science, technology and innovation (STI) and most of them have targeted 1% of GDP as their future contribution to research funding. However, we continue to face several daunting challenges.


While there has been a positive shift in RDI, we have not yet begun to generate the levels of success we agreed when we developed our first Africa Science, Technology, and Innovation Plan of Action. In 2015 we adopted our second Africa STI Plan. The new strategy prioritizes the use of research to drive economic and social development across the continent. It commits signatory countries to six goals, including tackling hunger, disease and unemployment, and will set up structures to pursue them.


African research and innovation programmes are progressing in a number of disciplines. The complex challenges confronting our continent have created an opportunity for Africa to be at the forefront of global scientific discovery as highlighted, for example, by the pioneering work undertaken in South Africa in areas such as microbicides to prevent HIV-Aids, as well as drug and vaccine development for malaria and tuberculosis. This work has benefited immensely from a wide range of collaborators and international funding partners.


For example, in the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), a multi-billion Euro project, African countries collaborate to accelerate vaccine and drug development targeting the major poverty-related infectious diseases such as HIV-Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. The EDCTP is public-public partnership between 13 European and 13 sub-Saharan African countries. The ten-year budget is €1.9 billion. All Sub-Saharan African countries are eligible for EDCTP funding. The EDCTP is co-owned by African and European governments. Co-ownership has enabled a greater African strategic input into the design and implementation of the programme. Not only will this approach build Africa's research and innovation capacities but it will also enhance Africa’s profile as a science and technology partner for Europe. 


South Africa’s decision to invest in astronomy research has given meaning and content to the notion of astronomy for development. We have made important investments, both in infrastructure and human resources, to position South Africa as an international partner of choice. A decade of investment in this area of comparative advantage has given us many economic opportunities. Some of our telescopes are located in remote rural areas – we have had to build roads, ensure energy supply and connectivity for all our projects. All this astronomy work has brought economic opportunity to vulnerable communities and supported the development of science and mathematics at local schools. The astronomy sciences have given life to a re-invigorated science focus in South Africa and several African countries.   


Our major investment in astronomy is the Square Kilometre Array global infrastructure project. We are immensely proud of winning the bid to host SKA, which is global recognition of the progress of African science and technology. For the first time, Africa will host one of the world’s major large-scale research infrastructures.


MeerKAT, the South African SKA precursor, is already contributing to the development of astronomical and engineering skills across Africa. Since technologies being developed for these telescopes will be commercialised in the next 10-20 years, young Africans currently working on the project will be in high demand around the world. Embedded in the wider international perspective of the SKA, the building, commissioning and operation will significantly enhance their science and engineering experience.


Radio astronomy is a powerful driver for innovation in domains such as information and communication technologies, including high-speed networks and super-computing, advanced materials and manufacturing and renewable energy.


It is imperative for Africa’s scientists to work in Africa if they are to support development on the continent, if they are to play a role in smooth technology transfer and if they are to drive innovation. A global project such as the SKA is giving effect to all these objectives.


Because of the long lead time on construction of the SKA, South Africa initiated the development of an African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (or VLBI) Network (known as the AVN), focused at this stage on the African countries targeted to host SKA telescopes during Phase Two of the project’s rollout.  Through this project we hope not only to assist African SKA partner countries to prepare for the SKA, but also to develop a legacy project putting Africa on the global VLBI map with the eventual establishment of a network of VLBI-capable telescopes linked to the European VLBI network (JIVE), in which the Netherlands plays such a central role through Astron.


The AVN project is aimed at strengthening the necessary scientific and technological capacity, and facilitating the evolution of the required institutional infrastructure.  In August last year we achieved a major milestone with the launch of a refurbished 32m dish at Kutunse in Ghana, and the establishment of the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory.  Although this initiative involved strong scientific, technical and engineering input from South Africa, it resulted in significant educational upliftment and skills development of Ghanaian scientists and technologists, and catalysed Ghanian internal counter-investment in the refurbishment.


With support from the UK we have also established the Development of African Radio Astronomy (DARA) project, in support of the AVN initiative.  DARA involves intensive human capital development initiatives in the form of scientific and technical training and also supports infrastructure establishment.


The AVN project and SKA-related cooperation activities with several of our African partners have also given rise to a revival and the establishment of new programmes in astronomy and physics at various universities.  Hundreds of young people from African countries have been trained in South African astronomy programmes, and are gradually returning to their countries to take up new positions established there in response to these efforts.  We are starting off a very small base, that is true, but the developmental achievements are significant nonetheless.


This astronomy infrastructure presents a massive leap forward in terms of IT infrastructure, bringing enhanced high speed connectivity and computing capability to Africa.


Following global trends, we are investing in the modernisation of research and development infrastructure, and in particular, new instruments and facilities (like the Centre for High Performance Computing) as key components in the drive to ensure that there is the requisite capacity to generate new knowledge.


Through the Centre for High Performance Computing, we hope for the development of nodes and partnerships with higher education and research institutions as well as industry – in South Africa, the rest of Africa and the rest of the world.


In parallel with and in support of the AVN, we have also established the Big Data Africa project, which aims to develop the ICT capacities of our African partner countries.  With the support of the University of Texas, we have deployed supercomputer racks in six African countries, where they have catalysed high performance computing developments – new infrastructure has been put in place, new academics programmes are emerging, new science is being done, and the concept of Big Data is beginning to take shape and meaning in their context.


The best investment in Africa’s long-term sustainable development is an investment in the continent’s indigenous research and innovation capacities.


I believe there is now a golden opportunity to develop new, strategic and mutually beneficial African science partnerships. These are partnerships that will not only enrich the global scientific knowledge base but also transform scientific disciplines to the benefit of us all.


Prosperous African nations are those with governments that create the right enabling environment for science and technology innovation to flourish. Determining the best technology policy is relatively straightforward, but having the people ready to take advantage of resource-rich opportunities is the real challenge. The most important new technology driver is highly skilled human capital. We all compete in a global market for scientists and entrepreneurs.