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Africa's ambitions in space science may detract from other more development-friendly areas of science, but its strong political backing sets a good example, writes Linda Nordling.
When South Africa hosted the soccer World Cup this year, it showed the world that it could host a prestigious international project. In early 2012 the country might get the chance to take on another: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a giant radio telescope.
South Africa and Australia are the final contestants in the race to host the SKA, which will consist of a vast 'array' of thousands of linked radio antennae with a total collecting area of a square kilometre. As the most powerful radio telescope the world has seen, the SKA will be able to peer into hitherto unexplored parts of space and, in so doing, gaze back in time to the early Universe.
The bid was discussed in Brussels on 15 September at an Africa–EU summit on space science and its applications in Africa.
The South African government has come under fire for the money it has spent preparing the country to host the SKA, however. For example, a demonstrator telescope called MeerKAT is being assembled adjacent to the proposed SKA site in the arid Karoo region, and is expected to come online in 2013.
An editorial in Nature in February criticised the South African government's predilection for 'big science'. The journal pointed out that the 1.9 billion rand (US$270 million) allocated to preparing the country for the SKA between 2009 and 2012 is three times the current annual budget of the country's National Research Foundation (NRF). Instead, the editorial said, South Africa should focus on areas where it has natural and scientific advantages, such as palaeontology, mining, zoology and clinical medicine.
A slowdown in public research spending is likely to fuel such sentiments. In July, South Africa's Department for Science and Technology announced cuts for both the NRF and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research over the next three years. And data released this month show that South Africa's research and development intensity (its total R&D spend as a proportion of GDP) dropped from 0.95 per cent in 2006–07 to 0.92 per cent in 2008–09, missing the country's target of 1 per cent by 2008.
But the notion that the SKA is stealing money from other sciences is false, says Bernie Fanaroff, project manager of South Africa's SKA project. "I know that if this money hadn't gone to the SKA, it wouldn't have gone to other science projects either," he says.
The implication that Africa should stay away from big science reeks of colonialism, Fanaroff adds. "There's this idea that Africa shouldn't do big science. I think that’s completely wrong."
Fanaroff likes the World Cup analogy. "The World Cup went way beyond the soccer, and generated exposure that is going to have a very long-term effect on the way that South Africa and Africa are perceived. The SKA is like that, except it will have a longer lifetime," he says.
Supporters of the SKA argue that it would contribute to human and technological development by building capacity in engineering and information technology, and by inspiring young Africans to study science. The benefits, they say, would extend beyond South Africa's borders because the array design includes placing antennae in eight other African countries.
The bid has already had a huge influence on pan-African science plans. The EU–Africa partnership agreement on science signed in December 2007 refers to "science, information society and space".
The first of five campuses expected to open for the Pan-African University — a continent-wide research school — will be based in South Africa and focus on space.
South Africa is scheduled to launch its own space agency in October (the month that also marks World Space Week, 4-10 October), and African ministers agreed last month to look into creating an African space agency to coordinate their efforts.
Not everyone approves of the SKA's influence on Africa's science plans, however. "Projects like this do help to build overall capacity, link into networks and provide motivation," says one development expert who did not want to be named. But, the expert adds, given Africa's limited resources, there are probably other projects that would provide more development impact.
But getting a science project onto a continental plan is only a small part of the battle in Africa. Many initiatives fail at the implementation stage because of a lack of funding or political backing.
For all its controversies, space science has one thing going for it — the backing of Africa's strongest economy. This makes things happen. A meeting of the African SKA partner countries in Ghana earlier this month heard that the University of Nairobi in Kenya is expanding its space-related training course, which started last year. Training programmes are also on the way in Botswana, Madagascar, Mozambique and Namibia. The courses are funded locally, not by international grants.
Whatever else Africa needs in terms of science and technology, it also needs this kind of follow-through in its plans and projects — and more of the kind of leadership that South Africa is showing on the SKA.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.