On Africa Day, Friday 25 May, South Africa and its eight partner countries were awarded the hosting of two thirds of the SKA – Square Kilometre Array – project. Is this an opportunity for Africa to create its own currency in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century or will it be yet another occasion where the continent’s resources are pillaged?
Anita Loots, associate director of SKA SA, spoke to Frieda le Roux, ForesightforDevelopment’s project officer, on the role Africa will play in the “world’s largest science project”1. This is the fourth article in a series on regional integration (Issue I) (Issue II) (Issue III).
The interview couldn’t have started in a place less favourable for regional integration and development than the South Africa of the previous century. But that is exactly where Loots picks up the thread that eventually weaves an inspiring and uplifting tale.
“At the end of the 1990s, early 2000, word came through of a new international telescope project. At the same time, within the Department of Science and Technology (DST), people … realised that the previous government had a lot of really big initiatives going, for instance the defence initiative, the petro-chemical initiative – all projects that mobilised the academic world and the industry into creating very innovative technology. Unfortunately to use in warfare. So [the DST] started wondering what can be done that will be big enough to stimulate new industries and get the academia to participate across their various disciplines.”
“When word came through of this new huge radio telescope, they recognised in it a project that is potentially big enough to do the same as those old programmes but in a more harmless way.”
However, the way South Africa saw itself in this project, grew incrementally. “The SKA initially only entailed the site bid. Well, not even that, really!” From the outset, South Africa would not have been able to house the telescope on its own, as the country isn’t big enough to allow for the high sensitivity the instrument needs. In SKA’s case, the receiving stations will extend to a distance of about 3 000 km from the central core (or collecting area)2. In total this collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre – from there the project’s name.
According to Loots the whole world was vying for the site. But because South Africa expected quite a lot of negativity to its bid, the team decided to see what problems they could anticipate, and in this way increase the country’s chances. Speak of foresight!
“When we went to Canada in 2004 for the site bid, we started to look at the risks for South Africa. The international community said things like we’ve never even designed and built a radio telescope. We do have the satellite station at Hartebeesthoek, but there the instrument was converted into a radio telescope [by South Africans]3. We’ve never had to think about the entire process. So, they said we can’t do it. And even if we [South Africa] can, Africa can’t.” Upon their return, the team suggested they design and build a telephoto-lens. (A telephoto-lens, also used in photography, can ‘reach’ much further than the more conventional long-focus lens.) The next step was to implement a scholarship programme, allowing South African’s to attend international conferences and workshops, all the time building their knowledge and experience. “At that stage we didn’t plan to build anything big. We were going, as with all radio astronomy projects, to develop different parts piecemeal."
“But we were in a very unique situation: South Africa’s engineers are among the best but we hardly had any practising radio-astronomers at the time – maybe five or six?” For this reason it was decided to approach the project from an engineer’s point of view. In 2004 Loots was asked by dr. Bernie Fanaroff (SKA South Africa’s project director) and prof. Justin Jonas (Associate Director of Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa) to put together a team and also oversee the necessary engineering processes. The only catch was the very short deadline: the instrument they were planning to build had to be completed by 2009. “A reasonable deadline for a radio telescope, once you have all the technology, is about 15 years.”
The only way Loots could see the project succeeding, was to run it like an engineering project. “In the past, radio astronomers built instruments by applying for a research grant to develop a certain component. And if that is done and you’ve proven yourself, you will apply for some more money and work on the next part.” While the team knew what they had to do, by when and what the budget was, it was often necessary to improvise on the ‘how to’. “We also looked at the different elements in the system: there’s a dish, an antenna and the signal. We assessed what would be the most expensive part of this chain. If we wanted to focus on so-called mission driven innovation where we create new industries and knowledge at South African universities, we had to identify the component or aspect that would have the greatest impact. And for us that is the antennas. Next we started looking at the cost of the antenna system and how to reduce that."
“From there we started with our first prototype dish. We had to build our own expertise, understand how to correlate all the signals from different instruments, the technical issues – we’ve never done it before.”
Loots says the small successes along the way resulted in growing international recognition – and a project that kept evolving in scope. “In 2010 the government said that they are going to allocate an immense amount of money to the project and they want us to build a world class instrument. So, whether we won the [SKA] bid or not, we will fulfil a leadership role in radio astronomy for the next thirty years.”
The year before, the DST started to organise so-called Africa Working Groups – mostly government officials working within science and technology. The aim was to collect certain crucial information that was eventually included in the bid. It also created a forum where information could be communicated back to the partners: where the bid is at the moment, what the instrument looks like, how many stations will be in your country, etc.
“Once we mentioned the building of African capacity, people within those working groups started to put up their hands saying that their government might give money for science and technology, how must they go about it.”
This willingness to invest in science and technology that has been, up to now, quite foreign in Africa, is a crucial step in the development of knowledge capital.4 As stated in an article prepared by the Institute for Security Studies for the journal foresight: “Knowledge production infrastructure and on research and development (R&D) systems is even more critical for African governments since the world economy in the twenty-first century has been described as the knowledge economy. This necessarily means that today and tomorrow’s economic success depends on the ability to generate knowledge and to apply that knowledge in order to create new innovations that can be used in the development of communities and human capacities, for greater competitiveness (South African National Centre for Informatics, Knowledge Management and Knowledge Economy (SANCIKMKE) (2008)).”
The commitment the South African government showed to the Africa network – a project that includes more than the already mentioned eight African countries and with interest from as far as the Middle East – gave Loots and the rest of the team involved in the SKA bid the assurance that none of their work will go to waste, even if South Africa did not win the bid. According to Loots the Africa network will be funded by the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA).
She stresses the care they put into knowledge transfer when dealing with the African partners. “The Australian bid was much more straightforward in the sense that it all happened within a single country – they added New-Zealand to show their willingness to include another country. But the technical expertise to service this instrument – it doesn’t exist. So there anyway has to be an educational programme. And maybe the African programme is a bit more complex, but even if it takes five times as long, we try to be very sure that we are training people to look after the instrument themselves. We must build the technical knowledge, train the technicians and engineers who will understand how the instrument works and build parts themselves, academia that can use the data that is produced.”
Again in foresight, Gatune and Najam write5: “Knowledge and education are going to drive the future everywhere, not just in Africa. But they become even more important for Africa’s future because the continent lags so far behind other parts of the world in these areas. While the forces of globalization and technological dissemination may be providing Africa with important opportunities to catch up – maybe even leapfrog – in some areas, the essential knowledge challenges of Africa remain deep. Without the driver of knowledge and education being mobilized, any gains from other drivers of change could be lost.”
May the successful SKA bid by South Africa and her partner countries, be one of the great African mints, creating a new knowledge capital in the continent’s role in science and technology.
1Knight, M. 26 March 2012. Super telescope will search for secrets of the universe. [O] Available: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/03/26/tech/innovation/ska-telescope/index.htmlv
Accessed 29 May 2012.
Alfreds, D. 2 April 2012. SKA is a big science project for SA. [O] Available: http://www.news24.com/SciTech/News/SKA-is-a-big-science-project-for-SA-20120402
Accessed 29 May 2012.
2SKA for Africa and Africa for SKA. Fact Sheet 3. [O] Available: http://www.ska.ac.za/download/fact_sheet_skaafrica_2011.pdf
Accessed 29 May 2012.
3“The observatory was originally named Deep Space Station 51 and was built in 1961 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In this role the station assisted in tracking many unmanned United States space missions, including the Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft (which landed on the Moon or mapped it from orbit), the Mariner missions (which explored the planets Venus and Mars) and the Pioneer missions (which measured the Sun's winds).” - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hartebeesthoek_Radio_Astronomy_Observatory
4Thembani Mbadlanyana, Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu, Jakkie Cilliers, (2011),"Shaping African futures: think tanks and the need for endogenous knowledge production in Sub-Saharan Africa", foresight, Vol. 13 Iss: 3 pp. 64 – 84
5Julius Gatune, Adil Najam, (2011), "Africa 2060: what could be driving the good news from Africa?", foresight, Vol. 13 Iss: 3 pp. 100 - 110