The sky is the limit in science innovation

12 November 2013

Phumla WilliamsSome believe the stars can foretell the future, but back in 1994 naysayers would have scoffed at the prediction that in less than two decades South Africa would lead the scientific world in one of the biggest experiments of the 21st century.

Since the advent of democracy we have hosted the international community for summits, conferences and world cups, but the field of science is a new addition to our repertoire. Our successful bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), together with eight other African partner countries and Australia, signifies a new chapter for the country.

Some may question why we are spending energy on a project focused at finding answers to the creation of the universe while the country is facing numerous socio-economic challenges. The answer is simple; the field of science and technology holds the promise of solving many of the challenges we face. We will gain new knowledge that will lead to innovations that will accelerate economic growth and increase the country’s competitiveness.

Former Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor explained the role of science when she said: “Science and engineering are critical for innovation and economic growth, and for tackling the development challenges that face many of the most vulnerable communities in the world.”

The SKA is starting a three-year design phase which will draw on the expertise of more than 350 scientists from nearly 100 institutions in 18 countries. Not only will South Africans have the opportunity to work and learn from the best in the field, but also lead two of the 10 SKA design teams.

The SKA associate director for science and engineering, Professor Justin Jonas said: “Whatever the SKA looks like in the end, it will be designed by South Africans.”

This project has created excitement in the country’s science and engineering fraternity, which has been presented with an unrivalled challenge. Not only is the project presenting opportunities to the science and engineering field, it is drawing the most prestigious scientists and intellectuals to our universities and the country. Earlier this year, Professor Jonas highlighted this, stating that South Africa has now become one of the main destinations for scientists and engineers interested in radio astronomy.

This project has in many ways become the face of science and engineering and we are convinced that more young people will be drawn to these fields because of it. South Africa has a shortage of scientists and engineers; this is a matter of concern, as these professions are instrumental in economic growth and in reaching our National Development Plan objectives.

To meet the country’s needs, the Department of Science and Technology encourages studies in science, technology and innovation. During the 2012/13 financial year alone it supported 3 076 researchers financially. Its continuous support has ensured that over the past five years South Africa’s contribution to global scientific output has doubled from 6 000 to more than 12 000 scientific papers a year.

The SKA South Africa Human Capital Development Programme has also provided more than 500 bursaries, which have led a number of groundbreaking master’s and doctoral papers. This new body of knowledge will not only benefit the SKA, but will also create new innovations.

Valerie Chiriseri, a SKA development programme beneficiary and a masters student in Electrical Engineering, strongly believes that “science is the backbone of any economy”.

The SKA project has created a wealth of skills - development opportunities, which have had a ripple effect on other sectors. The SKA has shone a light on South Africa as a viable investment destination, and it has increased the world's confidence in our capabilities," she said.

Although the SKA gives South Africa an opportunity to excel in the fields of science and engineering, it will also hold many advantages for Carnarvon where the core of the mega telescope will be hosted. Pre-construction preparations for the SKA site have already created 354 jobs; secondary roads are being upgraded; and the area has now a new landing strip.

One of the indirect beneficiaries of the SKA is the Carnarvon hospitality industry. Nimrod Vass, owner of the Emzini Wakuti Restaurant, saying they were still waiting for the “full impact" of the SKA, but had already seen a 70 percent increase in business.

The “full impact” to which Mr Vass referred will probably come only in 2017, when the construction of the first phase of the SKA starts.

According to Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom, the financial value of the first phase is tremendous. "Preliminary estimates for the operations cost put the potential net foreign inflow... into South Africa, for SKA phase one only, at close to R18 billion over the lifetime of the project," he stated.

Minister Hanekom added that the bulk of direct economic return on investment would be from operating the SKA. “Typical operational costs, which will be funded by the international SKA organisation, range between 6 percent and 8 percent of the capital cost, or approximately R670-million a year in direct foreign investment. This is typically to pay for electricity, data transport and infrastructure maintenance,” he said.

The opportunities created by the SKA are endless. As the SKA SA Project Director Dr Bernie Fanaroff emphasised: “The SKA is not an answer, but rather a catalyst for development. It is an opportunity for the whole country to contribute to putting us on a developmental path. Eventually what will count is what the country makes of this iconic project. It is a wonderful opportunity.”

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)