South Africa Bidding to Host the World's Largest Telescope

Innovative research and development in mathematics and science could spur African economic growth, according to South African astrophysicist Bernard Fanaroff.

Fanaroff is the project manager of South Africa’s bid to host the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array.

“People talk about Africa as the next great economic growth story,” said Fanaroff. “Well, what do you need in order to achieve that potential?”

The answer, he explained, is large-scale, iconic projects that will inspire younger generations and bring Africa’s scientific experts home.

The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, is just such a project, and its erection will create jobs and investment. Construction alone is expected to cost 2 million dollars. Operating and maintaining the telescope, which will be the largest ever built, would cost about 200 million dollars annually. “So there’s a direct input into the economy,” Fanaroff said.

South Africa has a history of technological research and development. Under the apartheid regime, the government built up one of the world’s most advanced arms and electronics industries – largely in response to a United Nations weapons embargo.

While most experts left the arms industry after apartheid, Fanaroff pointed to its more important legacy: “There is still a very strong high-tech industry,” he said, “not just on weapons now but on other issues as well.”

The SKA project could modernise the industry’s existing infrastructure, but it would also boost South Africa’s human capital, particularly skilled labour in the field of information and communications technologies (ICT).

“The ICT industry in Africa is growing very rapidly and it’s clearly an area that will be important in Africa’s economic development,” said Fanaroff.

On Thursday, Fanaroff presented at an event in London on the benefits of iconic science projects in reversing Africa’s ‘brain drain’ – the large-scale flight of individuals with scientific and technical know- how to more prosperous regions of the world.

He hopes the SKA can inspire some of South Africa’s best brains to come home.

“Remember, scientists and engineers are drawn by challenges, not just by money,” said Fanaroff. Since the SKA bid, he said, “we’ve started to see an increasing number of very good international researchers coming to South Africa either for the first time or coming back.”

Reversing the country’s brain drain also means preventing its most promising students from leaving. Fanaroff hopes that the SKA project will entice young people to study the sciences and provide incentive for them to stay in South Africa.

“It’s exciting,” he said, “and we’ve been able to use it as the focus of a really large programme to develop young people in science and engineering.”

The impacts of the SKA project could reverberate across the continent. Eight other countries are partnering with South Africa in its bid for the telescope, in hopes that it will inspire their young people as well.

But in a country like South Africa, rife with inequality, astrophysics can be a challenging field for the less privileged to enter, and ICT skills can be difficult to develop. Some question the benefits of advancing such an industry, and Fanaroff understands their concerns.

“We have immediate priorities like housing, poverty, education, transport,” he said, “so why would we spend money on astronomy?”

His answer lies in SKA’s long-run rewards. “I think everyone recognises that we have to deal with the poverty and inequality and the urgent priorities,” he said, “but at the same time we have to have a longer-term vision of where South Africa and Africa are going.”

The SKA South Africa Project is also offering 292 bursaries and grants to graduate and undergraduate students, 49 of which are going to students abroad. “We’re obviously not in a position to significantly change South Africa’s school system,” Fanaroff said, but he hopes the awards will encourage and help enable young people to study fields like physics and astronomy.

“What we’re trying to do is take young people from the undergraduate studies and take them all the way through to a PhD,” he said, adding, “One of South Africa’s priorities is to increase the number of PhDs we’re producing, because they’re such an important contribution to any country’s innovation capacity.”