Africa calling: stars, sky and the greater good

A newly funded project aims to bring radio astronomy to the continent, but the benefits transcend niche science

April 17, 2017
A telescope in Africa
Source: Getty

If you think about the skills required for the social and economic progress needed by developing countries, radio astronomy is probably not very high on your list. However, the assumptions one makes about applied technical sciences and their worth to such nations might be unwarranted if a new research project is anything to go by.

Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (Dara) aims to train a new, and in many cases a first, cohort of radio astronomers in sub-Saharan African countries. The University of Leeds-led project began as a Royal Society grant belonging to Melvin Hoare, professor of astrophysics at the Yorkshire institution.

Professor Hoare did some initial radio astronomy training in Ghana via the funding, before gaining a substantial grant in 2015 from the Newton Fund – which is part of the UK’s overseas aid commitments, and is delivered through the Science and Technology Facilities Council. With that grant, Dara trained scientists in Zambia, Kenya, Namibia and Botswana. Now, thanks to a further £2.7 million injection from the fund, it is being rolled out in Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius.

Under the joint UK-South Africa project, 10 scientists from each participating country will undergo basic radio astronomy training each year, with opportunities and bursaries for further research at master’s and PhD level in participating universities, and additional training in outreach, innovation and entrepreneurship.

DARA is part of a wider international scientific collaboration called the Square Kilometre Array, which aims to build the world’s largest radio telescope, co-hosted by South Africa’s Karoo region and Western Australia’s Shire of Murchison, as well as the eight participating Dara countries. However, nearly all of the Dara countries have little radio astronomy expertise, and there is no existing research community in the field to support the initiative. 

Professor Hoare told Times Higher Education that it was wrong to assume that developing countries need only disciplines such as agriculture and business in order to grow their economies.

“In the wider philosophy of the Newton Fund, why shouldn’t developing countries have aspirations in terms of big science?” he asked. “How do you tell the difference between a developing country and a developed country? Big science goes on all the time.”

He added that DARA fits into a “much bigger picture”, providing students with transferable skills to boost economic growth in their respective nations. The project was not set up simply to increase the pool of academics in radio astronomy.

“We get 30 people or so studying astrophysics [at Leeds], because they’re interested in the topic. One or two or half a dozen may go on and do a PhD, and then one might make it to being an academic at the end. Where have all those others gone?” he asked. “They’ve gone out with high-level maths, computing – transferable skills while they’ve been doing a degree – into the economy to help drive economic growth. Why should it be any different in a developing country?”

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Paul Baki, professor of physics at the Technical University of Kenya and project lead in the country, agrees, adding that developing nations cannot simply focus on academic fields that feed into immediate social and economic challenges. Professor Baki called the project a “godsend”, because it is “bridging the gap” in skills and expertise needed for hard science on the continent, and also provides students with expertise that in turn could help them address pressing societal concerns.

“I don’t think we want to limit ourselves to the view that there’s [only] hunger, poverty and other things that we need to address,” he told Times Higher Education. “Even those ones you can address effectively when you have the necessary tools and technologies that you acquire from other sectors.

“We cannot bury our heads in the sand and say we will deal with the most pressing things. You need better tools to be able to deal with those things effectively.”

Naomi Asabre Frimpong, who was trained during the project’s first iteration in Ghana, is now a doctoral student in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Manchester. As one of the beneficiaries of the PhD opportunities that the project offered, it is understandable that she is supportive of Dara. However, she believes that the wider benefits transcend her own. The skills that the master’s and doctoral students, like her, learn outside radio astronomy give them “an edge over other scientists” back in Africa. She also added that problem-solving techniques learned as part of the training are invaluable to the wider economy of developing nations.

“I’m going back to be a research scientist with the antenna [in Ghana] and help develop learning programmes for students who want to go through mainstream education to be radio astronomers or astronomers – [to] try and develop a curriculum or training programme for them,” she added.

What, then, is the future for Dara and the radio astronomy base in Africa? Professor Hoare said he was keen to build collaborations between African universities and British institutions and beyond. But he said that it was very much about creating a “pipeline” of interest in Africa.

“If we can get research groups and academics working [in the field] in the various countries, that can be showcased to the public as well,” he said. “They can act as role models within their own country; we hope this will then inspire more young people to go into STEM subjects in those countries at university level and school level.”

He joked, however, that his vision was modest when compared with government figures on the continent.

“When I met [Grace Naledi Mandisa] Pandor, the science minister from South Africa, she was very keen to [tell me that] she wanted to expand it to all of the countries,” he said.

“I said: ‘You mean all eight partner countries?’ She said: ‘No, no. All 54 African countries.’ She was very ambitious!”

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