A big moment for Africa: why the MeerKAT – and astronomy – matter

School children at the site of the KAT-7 radio telescope in Carnarvon, South Africa. Kevin Govender

Astronomy in Africa will take a giant leap forward with the unveiling of the 64-dish MeerKAT array in South Africa on July 13. The MeerKAT will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is completed.

Why is this such a big deal? After all, Africa has many challenges more pressing than exploring the universe. But, as my colleagues and I recently argued in an article for Nature Astronomy, astronomy occupies a special place among the many efforts to address development challenges. It has a unique ability to stimulate thoughts of “what is possible” in the minds of marginalised communities, women and children.

Astronomy connects philosophical, cultural and inspirational elements with the cutting edge of science and technology. This affords the discipline a unique advantage to foster socioeconomic development. For instance, astronomy has been used in Sierra Leone to improve middle school pupils’ literacy. It worked because they loved what they were learning.

Astronomy techniques are also used across sectors from conservation to medical imaging.

The International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development uses astronomy to drive positive developmental change. It has ten regional and language centres. Three are in Africa, in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia. The global coordinating office is situated in South Africa.

Our challenge as astronomers is not only to grow the discipline in Africa. We also need to ensure that this growth is accompanied by the educational, technology transfer and societal engagement initiatives that can drive the continent’s development priorities.

Skills training

The funding we disburse has been used to run a number of programmes aimed at developing skills among school and university students.

One of these was the Madagascar Astronomy Python Workshop in 2017. It focused on practical coding in the Python programming language for university students and lecturers. The aim was to build on astronomy tools that participants can develop for their own research and teaching, not necessarily in the field of astronomy.

At school level the Girls Astronomy Camp was held in Abuja, Nigeria earlier this year. This not only dealt with education. It also tackled the large gender disparity in science, technology, engineering and maths fields, which can be a complex, socio-cultural issue in many regions.

It’s crucial for educational interventions to address the fact that astronomy students often find employment outside the field. Students must learn science in a way that allows them to build their repertoire of transferable skills.

So the Office of Astronomy for Development has funded a number of Joint Exchange Development Initiative workshops in Namibia, Mozambique and Mauritius. These workshops focus on direct transfer of specific skills in an informal but intense learning environment. They’re also excellent for data science skills, which are particularly important for economic growth and jobs in emerging markets.

To support this need and bridge the data science and astronomy communities, the Office of Astronomy for Development hosts a repository for data science resources and code examples.

Beyond disciplinary boundaries

Astronomy can also be put to use in perhaps surprising ways to boost development.

One of our projects, Accessible Citizen Science for the Developing World, has married health issues with astronomy skills through running a proof-of-concept type intervention. Retinal defects are common, but curable. Peek Vision, a social enterprise that works to bring better vision and health to everyone, developed a retinal imaging device that can be easily used, even in rural Kenya, with an Android phone.

But there weren’t enough qualified ophthalmologists at hand to use the app to diagnose retinal problems. So Peek Vision teamed up with astronomers at a citizen science portal called the Zooniverse. In the same way that the citizen scientists had previously worked to classify thousands of galaxies, they were called on to learn how to identify retinal problems on the Zooniverse portal.

Such partnerships are quintessential examples of working together across disciplinary boundaries to achieve development outcomes.

Creating spaces

There are numerous other initiatives that contribute to development through astronomy. Large astronomical infrastructure investments like MeerKAT aim to stimulate the technology industry and advance the development of technical skills.

International aid initiatives with a science focus like Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) and its sister project, DARA Big Data, are using the momentum generated through the SKA programme to develop skills and train more astronomy students for the continent.

Of course, the few examples illustrated in this article hardly begin to address the myriad challenges facing Africa and the world. Technology and science can only do so much: these challenges have solutions that are, at least in part, driven by human values.

That’s why conversations that span natural and social sciences are key to making development progress on the continent. The Office of Astronomy for Development is one of the spaces hosting these conversations. We’re challenging astronomers and other scientists to reach across the disciplinary boundaries to explore how their skills can help Africa meet its development goals.

Author’s note: the article on which this piece is based first appeared in Nature Astronomy and was co-authored by Ramasamy Venugopal, Munira Hoosain, Tawanda Chingozha & Kevin Govender.