Strengthening astronomy in poor nations can help promote socio-economic development, says South African astronomer, Kevindran Govender.
This year is the International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo Galilei first looked to the skies through a telescope.
Astronomy can unlock many of the universe's mysteries, but is that enough? People think of astronomy as an esoteric science with little relevance for development. How can countries justify large investments in telescopes, observatories and astronomical research while there are people living in poverty?
If it had to be justified on economic grounds alone, astronomy in developing countries (and indeed elsewhere) could disappear altogether. Fortunately, the Southern African experience shows that tangible economic and social returns are possible.
South Africa's investment in the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) has stimulated the country's economy, with local industry manufacturing around 60 per cent of the telescope's components.
It has also boosted tourism and created new jobs. In the first year after opening, the annual number of visitors to the small town of Sutherland jumped from a few hundred to over 13,000. As a result, guest houses, coffee shops and tourism-related businesses have sprung up. The SALT Collateral Benefits Programme (SCBP), in partnership with local stakeholders, has developed 'astro-tourism' activities. A growing number of African companies are also capitalising on the interest in astronomy, using 'amateur' telescopes to attract foreign visitors and corporate companies.
In Namibia, too, locals are taking advantage of the new interest in astronomy sparked by the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) — a system of telescopes set up near Gamsberg Pass to investigate cosmic gamma rays. Some farmers in the area, for example, have set up small telescopes in their back gardens for visiting amateur astronomers to use.
And astronomy can generate manufacturing spin-offs — extremely fast switching devices built for the HESS project are being adapted for commercial sterilisation systems because they create ozone, a strong disinfectant.
Engaging the public
Perhaps one of the most important ways astronomy can help development is to increase general interest in science, and encourage public engagement. Many cultures have long histories of indigenous astronomy that offer an easy route for introducing a modern understanding of the universe.
South Africa's observatories have always actively promoted the public understanding of science. SCBP events — from star-gazing and tours to public talks and festivals — build a dialogue with the local community in Sutherland. Regular press releases keep astronomy in national newspapers while posters and memorabilia keep the public informed and interested.
Such a flagship project can be an inspiration. Young South Africans aspire to be part of SALT — an icon of South African achievement. SALT is part of school curricula, helping teach concepts in mathematics, science and technology. Astronomy, which has always stimulated curiosity, can be a rallying point for a strong learning culture.
The big budgets astronomy projects bring can provide funds for education. The SCBP holds regular workshops for educators and learners ranging from building telescopes and spectroscopes to explaining astronomical concepts such as seasons or eclipses. It also runs science clubs and a work shadow programme, distributes educational resourcesand coordinates astronomy and physics scholarships.
The International Year of Astronomy is an opportunity to expand this support by providing teachers and students in underprivileged environments with activity books, posters, games, cartoons and competitions. It could become a launching pad for an African network using astronomy to enhance education.
Increasing public interest in science and improving scientific education helps develop a more skilled workforce.
Astronomy provides training in scientific research, both conceptual and practical, that is easily transferred to applied fields like meteorology, computer science and communications. The tools to do this are not expensive. Astronomical databases are cheap and readily available, especially compared to some remote sensing data. Yet data analysis techniques (such as image processing) are similar across the two disciplines.
The 'international spirit' of astronomy also builds transferable skills. For example, the Whole Earth Telescope (an international collaboration of scientists to acquire, analyse and interpret data) invites scientists from developing countries to the United States to work with, and learn from, the project originators. They return with new tools, software, knowledge and enthusiasm.
Projects like these let developing countries join some of the world's most advanced scientific studies, giving access to competitive associations of internationally recognised researchers.
Indeed, the potential for networking is one of astronomy's strongest assets. SALT has led to new cooperation between the North and South in developing optical astronomy.
And South Africa's National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (a consortium of 11 universities and 4 research facilities training postgraduate students in astrophysics and space science up to PhD level) has promoted cooperation across Africa. It trains students from across the continent at the University of Cape Town. Many return to their home countries to establish astronomy programmes there.
A knowledge-based economy
Astronomy is a way into advanced science that, until recently, has been the preserve of the industrialised world.
To have a knowledge-based economy and a scientifically literate population, developing countries must invest, to some degree, in fundamental science and blue skies research. South Africa has long recognised this. A government white paper, published in 1996, states that "World-wide there is a clear trend for curiosity-driven research to increase as a function of national per capita income... It is important that fundamental research activity not be regarded as impractical, because it is the preserver of standards without which, in the long term, the applied sciences will also die."
The best way to ensuring countries invest in and sustain astronomy is to realise its developmental benefits. South Africa is showing that this is possible. Observatories and astronomical institutes around the world should establish and support programmes similar to the SCBP. By strengthening their astronomy communities in this way, developing countries can make progress towards their development goals.
Kevindran Govender is manager of the SALT Collateral Benefits Programme and South African chair for the International Year of Astronomy 2009.