Pandor hails global astronomy project for stimulating science in African universities

18th March 2011 By: Keith Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday highlighted the impetus given by the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project to the development of science programmes in Southern African universities.

South Africa and Australia are the two countries bidding to host the €1,5-billion SKA, and South Africa’s bid involves nine other African countries as partner states. These partners will host outstations of the SKA should South Africa be selected as the site for what will be the biggest ever radio telescope.

“[T]he African SKA bid has stimulated interests in the field of astronomy across the continent,” she enthused. “To mention but a few, the University of Botswana, the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar and the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique have recently introduced courses in astronomy and astrophysics.”

“The SKA will provide opportunities for practical work in these countries and will enhance the uptake of science training programmes in various countries,” added Pandor. “By way of illustration, Mozambique had 75 students registered for courses in astronomy and astrophysics by the summer of 2010, with a growing demand for placements in these courses.”

She cited the fact that Southern Africa has already emerged as a major centre for global astronomy, with the Southern African Large Telescope in the Northern Cape province of South Africa and the High Energy Stereoscopic System gamma ray telescope in Namibia.

Should the SKA be placed in South Africa, there will be further benefits for the African partner countries and the continent as a whole. The instrument, she pointed out, would represent “the largest science-based capital injection into the African economy by far”.

“Immediate benefits are in the form of research and development opportunities during the design phase,” asserted Pandor. “Scientists from universities across the continent have an opportunity to participate in the design of SKA novel technologies and instrumentation.”

There will also be long-term benefits, mainly the enlargement of the continent’s skills base and increased access by African researchers to leading global research facilities.

South Africa, of course, has its own SKA-related human capital development programme, that supports South African and other African students wishing to study astronomy, physics, engineering and information and communications technology.

“This programme has been extremely successful in attracting young African students into science and engineering and in producing a cohort of postgraduates,” she reported. “Since its inception in 2005, the programme has awarded 263 grants for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.”

Should Australia win the SKA bid, South Africa will still have its own 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope array, which would be second only to the SKA in size.

Pandor was addressing a meeting of foreign ambassadors in Pretoria.