Speech by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor MP, at the International SKA Forum, Assen, Netherlands


Let me start by thanking the Netherlands for hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Forum. The Netherlands has made a huge contribution towards advancing global radio astronomy. I was especially honoured to be present at the LOFAR inauguration and I look forward to multiple and varied partnerships between LOFAR and MeerKAT.

15 June 2010

Professor Michael Garrett (ASTRON Director General)

Chairman of the Governing Board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Professor Jos Engelen

Minister of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands

Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Australia, Ms Kim Carr


It’s a pleasure and an honour to address you this morning.

Let me start by thanking the Netherlands for hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Forum. The Netherlands has made a huge contribution towards advancing global radio astronomy. I was especially honoured to be present at the LOFAR inauguration and I look forward to multiple and varied partnerships between LOFAR and MeerKAT.

I would also like to extend a special greeting to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research of Australia, Ms Kim Carr and the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, as well as the Minister of Defence of New Zealand, Mr Wayne Mapp. On behalf of South Africa, we appreciate the immense contribution your countries have made and are making to the global SKA project.

I would also like, on behalf of the South African government, to thank the European Commission for their visionary approach to the SKA and in particular for funding the PREPSKA project. I would like to congratulate Mr Robert-Jan Smits, on his appointment as the new Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General Research.

The development of the SKA comes at a very important moment for Africa.

The football World Cup has started in South Africa. It is an event that has excited African peoples from the Cape to Cairo. It is an event that has created a new sense of shared identity among all African peoples. It is an event that marks the emergence of Africa not only in sport but also in social and economic development.

Today Africa is growing faster than ever before and faster than most other regions in the world. Only last month the World Bank suggested that sub-Saharan Africa could become the fifth member of Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC), the four economies that many predict will become the leading economies in the future. Sub-Saharan Africa is not a country, but as a region it has a trillion dollar economy that grew faster than Brazil and India between 2000 and 2010 in nominal dollar terms and is projected by the IMF to grow faster than Brazil between 2010 and 2015.

There is a growing acceptance in Africa that it cannot and should not be left behind in the fastest developing areas of world trade in technology and knowledge products. Many African countries are putting science high up in their development priorities and investment in science and technology is increasing rapidly.

The African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology, which met in Cairo in March this year for its fourth session, resolved unanimously that all African countries should actively support the African bid for the SKA and should participate actively in our human capital programme. It also resolved, amongst other things, to launch a decade of science and technology from 2011 and to put in place strategies to rapidly increase the number of skilled scientists and technologists.

Africa is now more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. At least seven new marine cables are being laid, so that by 2013 there will be in excess of 12 Terabits per second of capacity linking Africa to the world.

Billions of dollars are being invested in terrestrial networks which will link to the marine cables. Average and peak traffic on international internet links with Africa grew at nearly 100 percent compound annual growth rate between 2005 and 2009, which according to Tele-Geography’s 2010 Global Internet Map was the fastest in the world and double the annual growth rate of the Unites States America (USA) and Canada, albeit from a low base.

The African SKA partner countries are committed to the SKA and are ready to build and operate it.

South Africa has provided over €220 million for the design and construction of the SKA precursor, the MeerKAT telescope in our Northern Cape Province and for the associated human capital development programme.

We have over eighty very bright, mostly young people, in our SKA project team. They are driving our bid for the SKA and are also building the MeerKAT.

We have established an astronomy reserve in the Northern Cape, which is one of the most beautiful, silent and remote places in the world.

Parliament has passed a very far-reaching and powerful law to protect the radio environment in the reserve and we are working on regulations to ensure that the SKA can operate in an environment of very low radio frequency interference.

In South Africa, we have utilised our collaboration with the international SKA consortium to best advantage, to develop expertise, to attract young people into science and technology careers and to develop expertise in industry, as well as to rapidly grow our astronomy community.

We are collaborating actively with some of the best universities and institutions in the world and have signed collaboration agreements with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory of the USA, the NCRA in India, the INAF in Italy, and with Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, Pennsylvania and other university institutions.

Our young scientists and engineers have been able to jump to a leading role in many of the areas of development of the SKA, because of the excellent skills imparted by our universities and the expertise and experience that they have picked up from our partners.

Our team now plays a leading role, for instance, in the CASPER collaboration, which has produced the innovative ROACH processing boards. They have produced very innovative digital signal processing equipment for the telescopes.

Our industries, too, have been very innovative. They have designed and built the first telescope made from composite dishes and have designed and built innovative equipment for the telescopes.

Together, our team, with South African industry, has successfully delivered on every milestone for the MeerKAT telescope and ahead of deadline.

The MeerKAT and the SKA have been the focus of what is probably the largest astronomy focused human capital development project in the world.

We have awarded six research chairs in radio astronomy. They are for fifteen years and are each worth just over €300 000 per year (inflation-linked). The universities have already appointed some world-class people and we will announce further appointments in the near future.

We have awarded 215 grants to young people, mainly for post-doctoral, PhD and MSc research relating to the MeerKAT and the SKA, but including some for undergraduate study in physics.

We also support a technician training programme. One of the wonderful things about the programme is that almost all of our graduates have remained in astronomy or the related technology fields, which show what an exciting and challenging project the SKA is.

These young people will be available to build, operate and use the SKA.

As a direct result of the African bid for the SKA, there are new courses in astronomy at the University of Nairobi, where 70 students applied but only 19 could be accommodated, and at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo in Mozambique, where 75 students are registered for the second-year course in astronomy and astrophysics and demand is growing rapidly. The University of Antanarivo in Madagascar will be launching courses soon. Mauritius has expanded its existing astronomy capacity.

And, of course, the International Astronomical Union has now decided to place its Office for Astronomy Development in Cape Town at the SAAO. This award represents a boost to all our current astronomy-related activities. The Office is potentially a breeding ground for African leaders in the field of astronomy and development.

All in all, South Africa and our partner countries in Africa are well set to host the SKA.

The SKA is an iconic project for world science. It brings together groundbreaking science with cutting-edge technological innovations.

The technologies that are being developed for the SKA and its precursors such as signal processing, very fast computers and data transport, image processing and wireless are key technologies in ICT for the future.

The SKA creates a unique opportunity for young people to gain expertise in science and in key and generic areas of technology.

Remember that nearly half of Africa’s population of one billion is under 15. They make up a new generation of youth hungry for science and technology, most of whom already have a mobile phone in their back pockets.

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, the South African SKA Project Director, will now show some slides that illustrate how well our excellent young people and industries are progressing on the MeerKAT and on the establishment of our astronomy reserve.

Issued by: Department of Science of Technology
15 June 2010