Can scientific excellence be an instrument for development?

Carolina Ödman
11 min readOct 24, 2019

Perspectives from Astronomy

This is based on a keynote address at the 2019 Postdoctoral Researcher day at Stellenbosch University. The context of this address is the interplay between the scientific excellence generated in South Africa and the imperatives for development and the socio-economic challenges facing the country.

The first thing to do is to agree on a few definitions. I like to quote the definition of scientific excellence used by the Global Young Academy’s Scientific Excellence Working Group:

The Scientific Excellence Working Group takes a broad approach towards scientific excellence as excellence in all aspects of the scientific endeavor. “Scientific excellence” in this sense not only includes excellence in scientific research, but also excellence in connecting science to society, in teaching and mentoring scientists, in science management, and in science advice to policy makers, to name only a few.

source: Global Young Academy

Related to this, the three pillars of universities in South Africa are:

Then, let’s agree on the meaning of development. I will rely on the agreed definitions of the United Nations that first defined the Millennium Development Goals to be reached in 15 years, but followed by a more comprehensive set of Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. 17 goals, set out in 169 targets measured by 232 indicators.

Only certain areas of science are easily understood to contribute to development. Those are the areas of scientific endeavour that concern development directly. The connection appears clear in areas of research such as public health, energy, water management, agricultural sciences and more.

Those areas of scientific enquiry often have a voice in policy making to ensure that scientific outputs lead to policy changes. When policy is followed by implementation, this indeed leads to impact.

What about fundamental research?

The relevance of fundamental research to development is not necessarily an easy one to spot. What do astronomy, quantum computing, mathematics or philosophy add to the life of the person on the street? What do they bring to the future of the girl child, or how do they help communities grow healthier?

The low-hanging fruit when addressing this question is the development of skills brought by the higher education required to take part in those fields. Indeed, education leads to development in principle, but is that process an active one, or a passive one?

Another aspect is that of inspiration. Dreaming big should not be reserved to the privileged. The conditions of one’s birth do not determine if they are allowed to dream about going to space or not!

This notion is embedded in South Africa’s 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology. Although there is since 2019 a new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, the story I am presenting here dates back to when the 1996 white paper was adopted as a vision by the South African government.

Brief history of astronomy in South Africa

Modern astronomy in South Africa has colonial origins. The Royal Observatory in Cape Town was established in 1820, and only became South African when merged with the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg in 1972. Today, the South African Astronomical Observatory is still based in Cape Town and operates optical and infrared telescopes in Sutherland, in the Northern Cape.

In 1960, NASA established a satellite monitoring station near Pretoria and Johannesburg. In 1975, that facility was handed over to South Africa and became the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, still in operation today.

Then came SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope. Note the name is Southern, not South. This is because of the vision behind the investment in the telescope, as it should benefit not just South Africa, but the entire region.

SALT is an entirely locally built world-class scientific facility that has played a part in major scientific discoveries since its inauguration in 2005. It is also much cheaper than a similarly powerful telescope — not because it is African, but because it is ingenious. Indeed, its mirror is spherical, and not parabolic. Large mirrors in telescopes of this class are usually segmented. Normally, a telescope mirror is parabolic to ensure that it focuses the light in one point, but that would make every mirror segment unique, which drives the cost up. Here, by using a spherical mirror, all mirror segments are identical and the focusing defects this slight change in geometry introduces is compensated for by an ingenious instrument named “spherical aberration corrector”.

Just recently, SALT was part of the identification of the origins of the first detection of gravitational waves, a hot topic that earned the 2017 Nobel prize in Physics.

photo credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

Today, the next big thing is the Square Kilometre Array, the biggest scientific instrument in the world under construction in the Karoo in the Northern Cape. Currently and already operating is the MeerKAT radio telescope — 64 dishes that are photographed in the image above.

image credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

This is the clearest image of the centre of the Milky Way. It was released at the inauguration of the MeerKAT telescope in 2018 and made world-wide news.

image credit: South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

This image was part of the first scientific publication in nature coming out of MeerKAT telescope observations. Of the 74 authors, the vast majority are based in South Africa.

The MeerKAT, delivered on time, on budget and above specs, is producing incredible results already. The MeerKAT is truly scientific excellence in headline-grabbing fashion.

The SKA is an international project. It wasn’t something that South Africa decided to develop out of the blue. South Africa entered the race to host the SKA in 2003. After a long bidding process and being pitched against other countries with older and better established radio astronomy communities (and old sports rivals), in 2012, it was announced that the SKA would be built in South Africa and in its 8 partner countries for the bid, and in Australia. Both countries had already invested substantially in developing pathfinder and precursor instruments to the SKA.

This was not an outcome that the global community expected. In the global North, South Africa was generally seen as an oddity for entering this competitive bidding process. Eventually, the scientific excellence demonstrated by the South African team yielded the result that we now are working with.

The other story

But there is another side to this story; a concerted and united effort to create the right conditions for this to happen. Beside the requirements by the international community to award the hosting of the biggest radio telescope in the world, something like this would just not happen here without a substantial and demonstrable benefit to society. By adopting the SKA as a project, the government made sure that it would have beneficial ramifications well beyond the small but growing community of astronomers specialised in studying the universe in radio waves.

In 2007, the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act was adopted. This put into law protection against certain forms of development that would impact negatively on the ability of telescopes to observe the universe. In terms of radio astronomy, that means many things, among others no cell phone signal. And we know cell phones’ contribution to the development of communities. While there is some resistance to this, it has also stimulated domestic technology development.

The scientific excellence demonstrated in the SKA bidding process and the contruction of the MeerKAT also sparked the interest of global technology companies and South Africa can now boast many research laboratories, such as the IBM research lab in the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein. Worthy of note is the cisco research lab at Nelson Mandela University as this demonstrates that HDIs — historically disadvantaged institutions — also benefit from the international investment.

A third element of the other story is the Human Capital Development programme that has been an integral part of the SKA story in South Africa.

To date, nearly 1200 bursaries have been awarded. SKA holds an annual postgraduate bursary holder conference that has become an unmissable event in both the national and international astronomy calendars. SKA also has a programme of research chairs that has made sure that the capacity to train young scientists is there.

I would like to mention also the establishment of Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province. The largest and most sparsely populated province of South Africa, the Northern Cape didn’t have a university until the establishment of SPU. The first programmes offered at the institution include computer science, engineering, maths, technology and science education among others. How better to answer the question “How will the communities of the Northern Cape be able to take part in the SKA?” than to establish a science and technology oriented university in the province?

Who are the South African astronomers of today?

There are many great emerging astronomers in South Africa today. I will mention just a few.

Siyambonga Matshavule — Lecturer at the University of the Western Cape where he obtained a Masters with distinction and is currently pursuing a PhD

Palesa Nombula — Pursuing her Masters while working in the Commercialisation unit at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, the organisation running the MeerKAT telescope and building the SKA.

Isabella Rammala — A PhD candidate at Rhodes University and Oxford University in the UK who worked as commissioning scientist for the MeerKAT telescope before dedicating her full time to her research on some of the observations she helped materialise in her previous position.

Aphiwe Hotele — A computer scientist and biotechnologist from the University of Fort Hare who is engineering cooling systems for the large underground supercomputer combining the signals of the MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo Array Processing Building.

Dr. Itumeleng Monageng — A recently appointed lecturer at the Astronomy department of the University of Cape Town.

Dr. Bradley Frank — A researcher at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory working at the heart of the big data challenges posed by the MeerKAT and the SKA.

Zahra Kader — An astrophysicist whose studies have led her to travel the world.

I could go on. There is really a new generation of South African astronomers, but there is still a long way to go.

We have seen legal frameworks setting the right conditions for scientific excellence and domestic technology development. We have seen the attraction of foreign investment and impact on historically disadvantaged institutions. We have seen an active human capacity development programme creating a new generation of astronomers whose footprint, both local and global is growing every day.

Education and Outreach are essential tools in this context to ensure access to this brave new world of science and technology opening up in South Africa. Here are some of the projects we are developing to do just that.

We are developing what we call a cascade outreach model. Based on the premise that single interventions from a high level international figures in a underserved communities are unlikely to have any impact on the community youth’s interest in science, we building on the model that for a primary school kid, someone in high school “has reached the next stage”, and to a kid in a high school, someone at varsity “has made it”, and to undergraduates, someone doing graduate studies in another university “has achieved something”. We seek to build relatable role models in large numbers.

It turns out that most of our graduate students are taking initiatives themselves to reach back out to their home communities, so we have a group of inspiring young scientists ready to go. So we support their efforts with planning, resources, feedback collection and analysis and reporting, whether setting up Grade 11 and 12 mentoring programmes or maths and science tutoring in their home high schools in their home provinces across the nation, and we all learn a great deal from it.

Some benefits for our role model students are effectively communication training, teaching practice, spreading a sharing mentality and truly changing the face of science in South Africa.

Starting from the development of a careers information resource featuring the voices of some of our young astronomers, and through a social media campaign to crowd-source translations of the resource, we now have a formal collaboration between university Xhosa and Astronomy departments to develop a scientific language in isiXhosa. Such deep interdisciplinary collaborations are critical to going beyond outreach and trying to have a real cultural impact and a reach to all our communities with the opportunities offered by science.

Indeed, science at schools is taught in most learners’ 2nd or 3rd language. This is not just a barrier to access, but a barrier to understanding and a barrier to sharing. How can we ensure our learners are able to seize the opportunity of the SKA if we don’t even have a common science language?

Astronomy students won’t all become academic researchers in astronomy. However, astronomy studies give students 21stcentury skills in high demand in industry and can open up great opportunities for them. But we need to equip them with the awareness of the transferability of their skills and an understanding of how the world outside university works. Therefore we offer industry skills training and carry out research into how we can facilitate our graduates transition into industry.

In conclusion

From the experience of astronomy in South Africa, we can conclude with confidence that scientific excellence can contribute to development, even in fundamental research that appears to be detached from immediate development targets.

It needs to be an active process however, and in a country like South Africa, we cannot afford the time to sit back and wait for benefits of scientific excellence to slowly trickle through to our communities. We need to actively engage in interdisciplinary collaborations. We also need to actively work on the transformation of the scientific community.

But to achieve our development goals, as described in the South African National Development Plan for example, we must also acknowledge that we are in the lucky position to benefit from being a rising star in the global scientific community thanks to a medium-long term concerted effort to develop scientific excellence in astronomy and to realise the development potential thereof.



Carolina Ödman

Assoc. Prof. UWC Physics & Astronomy. Associate Director Development & Outreach at IDIA. EPFL and Cambridge Alumna. ❤️ my family. On a cancer journey