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Stargazing will bring us closer to vision 2030

26 June 2013

Phumla WilliamsFor centuries humankind has looked at the stars in awe of what may lie beyond our solar system. The answer to this timeless question may be closer than ever before.

A PhD by University of Cape Town graduate Obinna Umeh titled “The influence of structure formation on the evolution of the universe.” The study revealed that “the dynamics of structures in the universe have a non-negligible effect on how the universe evolves, and that if such an effect is not properly taken into account, it could jeopardise precision measurements of some of the cosmological parameters by the next generation of radio telescopes, like MeerKAT and SKA (Square Kilometre Array)”.

On daily basis Mr Umeh’s and numerous pre-eminent researchers across Africa are contributing to the SKA, the most powerful radio telescope in the world, as the continent is playing a major part in the design, construction and hosting of the SKA.

For Africa, this project will serve as a platform to demonstrate that we can produce pioneering work in research, engineering, technology and science. To quote a March 2013 British Broadcasting Corporation Radio article: “At first sight, it seems unlikely - a continent most associated with war and famine producing globally significant scientific research. However, in many ways, the groundwork is there - knowledge, ingenuity, willingness to learn and adapt, coupled with the rapid expansion of digital technology.”

For South Africa this project brings much needed hope and brighter future for young people today and their future. It is thirteen months since South Africa, along with the eight partner countries across Africa won the bid to co-host the SKA radio telescope with Australia. The magnitude of this achievement was underscored by President Jacob Zuma during a visit to the site in October 2012: “Welcoming the SKA to Africa is a major step towards using science and technology to transform African economies and allowing African countries to participate fully in the global knowledge economy. The SKA will propel our continent to the frontline of radio astronomy and it will open many doors for Africa in decades to come.”

Our successful bid will create many opportunities in the country, in particular thousands of jobs in construction, operations and maintenance in the Northern Cape where the core of the SKA will be build.

However, winning the bid also presented South Africa with a unique opportunity to build our skills set by stimulating interest in science and engineering among our youth. It has further provided the country with a basis to start producing scientists required to contribute towards achieving Vision 2030 in the National Development Plan (NDP).

Human capacity development over the next two decades is crucial and government is currently investing in young people to meet the needs of the technology required by the SKA. Since 2005, the SKA Human Capital Development Programme has awarded nearly 500 grants and bursaries to science and engineering students from undergraduate to doctoral level, while also investing in training programmes for artisans.

In addition, the programme is supporting five research chairs at South African universities. These chairs will further increase the number of researchers and supervisors able to supervise postgraduate young peoples, manage SKA-related research projects and contribute to undergraduate course development in radio astronomy.

Although the SKA capacity development programme primarily aims to produce skills for the SKA, government believes that the programme will increase the number of highly skilled people available to the general economy of the country and the region.

To further add to human capacity in the fields of science and engineering, the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) transferred R798 million to the National Research Foundation for human resource development over the next three years.

Nurturing an interest in science among our youth, the department also spends more than R20 million per annum on science centres. These centres play an important role in promoting science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation awareness among our youth.

Furthermore, Government launched the South African Young Academy of Science in 2011, to facilitate and enhance the participation of young scientists in the mainstream of research and development, as well as in other key areas of science and technology.

To ensure learners are adequately equipped to pursue studies in technology-related fields, the Department of Basic Education offers bursaries to encourage students to become maths and science teachers. By the end of 2012 the Funza Lushaka initiative had awarded approximately 11 500 bursaries.

Our investment in maths and science will further guarantee the country is able to produce much needed engineers, project managers, among others, for the key sectors of the economy such as construction. This is crucial in stimulating growth, which should enable the country to implement the vision of the NDP.

Investment in our scientists and engineers will stimulate new research and knowledge that will contribute to innovation which in turn will have a positive impact on economic growth and increase our international competitiveness.

Through the winning of SKA bid and other mega projects we hope to create a stimulating environment that will attract our young people to the fields of science, engineering and research. By doing so, we aim to develop pioneering youngsters that will help us reach our Vision 2030 and create a better life for all South Africans.

We call on parents, guardians and teachers to encourage our learners to consider careers in science, engineering and research and create an environment in which they can reach the pinnacle of success.

Working together, we can build a society of innovators, trend setters and use our scietific capabilities to build a better country for all of us.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)