Department of Science and Technology

Monday, 14March 2016                


Lesedi Cultural Village

Prof Harald Schuh (President of the International Association of Geodesy)

Office bearers and delegates

In the past twenty years South Africa has invested increased resources in creating a productive national system of innovation. Given our limited resources it was decided to focus on a limited set of focus areas that would support our efforts to enhance innovation, increase the production of post graduate students, and assist South Africa to diversify its economy and grow new enterprises.

There are several areas in which success has been achieved. Support for post graduate scholarships has increased and university output of research has grown as has research from our science councils. These early successes have created the opportunity for us to focus on growing institutions in the national system of innovation in order to absorb increasing numbers of knowledge workers. It has also resulted in an ability to undertake large global research initiatives.

One of the decisions we made was to invest in science disciplines in which we had a geographic advantage. The astronomy sciences was one of the areas of geographic advantage. We had a national observatory in Cape Town and facilities in the Gauteng area. We also had a small yet very competent astronomy research community.

This decision created the opportunity for South Africa to become a leading partner in the SALT consortium and encouraged the research community and government to pursue the bid for the Square Kilometre Array.

The SKA is the first global infrastructure project of this size to be undertaken in Africa. Implementing the project has rejuvenated astronomy sciences in Africa and globally.

TheSKA is being co-hosted in South Africa. Through SKA South Africans will be in pole position to exploit the innovation in computing and network technology the SKA is driving. Thanks to SKA South Africa is in a good position to benefit from new developments in big data.

South Africa has already doubled its relative share of scientific output in Astronomy and Astrophysics over the past ten years.

South Africa's share of world output in 2011-2012 was 1.4% with a rank of 26 compared to its share of 0.7% and its position of 33 in 2004-2007. South Africa is now ranked 23 in the overall ranking of countries.

Energy security is high on South Africa's science and technology agenda. South Africa has developed novel metal catalysts for fuel cells from the platinum group of metals, with exciting opportunities for commercialisation. It is an example of the beneficiation of raw materials through science and technology. South Africa is expanding its work in the renewable energy field, especially solar, and is well placed to become an important player in the lucrative lithium-ion battery market – as a result of smart investments.

With regard to space science, the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) is making impressive progress with plans well advanced for the construction of a new South African satellite. South Africa is recognised as a space nation, but more specifically as a nation investing in space science to improve the quality of living of its citizens. This is, for example, achieved through making data and information products obtained from space platforms available to improve decision-making in managing disasters.

South Africa also invests in social innovation. Programmes to lift people out of poverty especially in remote rural areas through science- and technology-based interventions have attracted huge international interest from respected partners, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. South Africa is now at the forefront of innovative programmes to provide decent sanitation service delivery to impoverished communities. The CSIR’s “wireless mesh network”, which brings internet connectivity to rural areas, is narrowing the digital divide and enabling micro enterprise development in poverty-stricken areas.

The innovation system in South Africa is much wider and deeper than I have indicated. South Africa is a world leader in marine science and its potential contribution to the blue economy. South Africa is also beginning to show how, through our technology development programmes, to support the beneficiation of raw materials, such as the development of titanium metal power industry and fluoro-chemicals products. Investment in advanced manufacturing technologies continues to ensure the South African aeronautics industry is a sought after partner for global companies like Airbus and Boeing.

In summary, then, South Africa has worked hard at connecting knowledge generation to economic development. One of South Africa's main post-1994 goals has been to shift its over-reliance on it's resources base to knowledge-intensive activities. South Africa's interventions have concentrated on the exploitation of new knowledge for economic development around the mining and resource sector and the bioeconomy sector. South Africa has also worked hard at harvesting indigenous knowledge.

Returning to radio astronomy, South Africa has strong partnerships with eight other African nations that will host remote stations of the SKA, and is developing with them, in preparation of the full SKA, a new African network of telescopes, the African Very-long Baseline Interferometry Network or AVN.

The work towards the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network will add to the science that can be conducted by a global network of radio telescopes. This network will enable South Africa to make highly detailed images of radio sources in the universe.

As you will know, the 26-metre dish at one of our National Research Foundation's key national facilities, the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, or HartRAO, is part of this network. The science being done by this global Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or VLBI, Network is frontier astronomy. However, there is a significant gap in the global network between the HartRAO dish and the European VLBI network, as there are no other dishes in Africa as part of the global network.

The African VLBI Network will help to close this gap, and will also strengthen collaboration between astronomers in Africa and astronomers in Europe, North America, South America, China and South Korea.

In addition, gravimeters, automatic weather stations and other global positioning systems will be co-located at African VLBI Network facilities. These instruments will be used in mining exploration, resource mapping and climate site2016 monitoring.

This conference marks thirty years of space geodesy in South Africa. HartRAO conducted its first precise geodetic VLBI measurement in January 1986. The geodetic stations that participated were Richmond (Florida, USA), Westford (Massachusets, USA), andWettzell (Germany).

We also share the 30-year anniversary of space geodesy with the Medicina telescope near Bologna in Italy.

HartRAOhas participated in geodetic VLBI sessions ever since, and in this I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Axel Nothnagel, Chair of the IVS(present at this meeting) who undertook his PhD project work at HartRAO in those early days.

In closing, let me say that HartRAOhas an impressive collection ofVLBI, SLR, LLR, GNSS geophysical instrumentsand is able, most importantly, to act as a training facility for SKA and AVN students.

The National Research Foundation is funding the construction of the new VGOS antenna that will enable South Africa’s continued participation in the global networks of space geodetic stations.

The expansion of space geodetic observation activities into the Matjiesfontein Observatory in the Karoo, further positions South Africa as an active contributor to important research.

Through HartRAO, South Africa is able to provide the local, African and global community with accurate reference frames and an understanding of issues such as global site2016, contributing to an understanding of our complex ecological environment.