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Astronomy for Africa – the SKA will lead to ‘brain gain’

Hosting part of the Square Kilometre Array is a victory for Africa, but much work is yet to be done. EPA/

On Friday, we learned that South Africa and Australia/New Zealand will jointly host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, rather than the facility going to just one of the bids.

The split-site arrangement poses many opportunities, not only for the people of these countries, but also for the rest of the world.

South Africa has gone through many changes since it achieved democracy in 1994, but naturally much still needs to be done. One question that ought to be dealt with in light of this weekend’s announcement is how the SKA can advance intellectual, social and economic empowerment for South African society, in particular, and the peoples of Africa in general.

What’s to gain?

The SKA is essentially a large collection of telescopes which will now be spread across continents. The images captured by these facilities will be combined to look at the universe much closer than has ever been possible – helping us to understand the universe, where it comes from and how it is evolving.

The SKA will be 50 times more sensitive and 10,000 faster than any other telescope but clearly, for the SKA to be functional, a great deal of work needs to be done.

We first need to build the components that make this vast array of telescopes, assemble these components and, eventually, get the SKA up and running. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 with the first science to get underway in 2020.

For these deadlines to be reached, sufficient manpower will have to be present within South Africa, not least in terms of scientists and engineers.

This will require South Africa to produce more scientists and engineers of a high quality. It will also require us to import skills into the country from the rest of the African continent and indeed the world.

This flow of scientists and engineers into South Africa will further facilitate “knowledge production” enterprises, such as universities, science councils and industry.

By doing so it will effectively reverse the massive brain drain that South Africa has been experiencing in recent decades, leading instead to a brain gain.

Knock-on benefits

The SKA requires extensive communications infrastructure to be put into place to capture and transmit vast amounts of data. Its dishes will produce enough data every second to fill more than 5,000 160-GB iPods.

When the bandwidth of communication channels between South Africa and the world increases, the benefits will spill over into the rest of the continent. Because of the expanded telecommunication infrastructure it will bring in its wake, the SKA will improve connectivity, allowing vital initiatives such as e-health, e-education and e-government.

That could mean a medical specialist based in Sydney could offer medical advice, in real-time, to doctors in a rural hospital in Venda, South Africa, or a class in a top high school in London to be accessed, live, by a rural school in Mbabane, Swaziland.

In other words, such technology will allow many opportunities that were not previously possible. Also, increased connectivity will lower the cost of doing business in South Africa and increase economic activity.

Countering superstition

To state the obvious, science and technology are important areas for industrialisation, and South Africa aspires to increase levels of industrialisation.

The presence of the SKA within South Africa will likely generate interest in science and technology, resulting in many more people pursuing careers in science and technology. This, in turn, should lead to increased activities in manufacturing, industrialisation and other areas vital for economic expansion.

The SKA will help drive scientific literacy within the general population and contribute, in the long-run, to the elimination of certain elements in our society, such as superstition, that have held us back.

R&D for SA

One area Africa has been falling behind in is research and development. The majority of universities on the continent do not participate in research and development at all.

Both the high science the SKA will bring to Africa and the collaborations that will result between the rest of the world and African universities will increase Africa’s capacity to meaningfully contribute to the knowledge-production enterprise.

Power to the people

The SKA will require vast amounts of energy to operate. That will require South Africa to expand its energy-generation capacity and to diversify energy sources to include renewable energy such as solar energy. This should result in more people having access to electricity and better standards of living.

A multi-country management of a complex project such as the SKA will require mature leadership. Integral to that leadership will be a recognition that the SKA is there to develop humanity as a whole, not just one, two or even three countries.

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