Pandor outlines steps to enhance South Africa’s investment in astronomy


South Africa needs a national astronomy agency, whose main function would be to bring all astronomy activities under a single umbrella body. That is one of the recommendations made by an astronomy desk created last year by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to advise the minister on substantive policy and strategic matters regarding the development of astronomy.

“Minister Pandor accepted this recommendation and will mandate the Astronomy Desk to develop the detailed plans for such move,” her department says in a statement. The Astronomy Desk was headed by Professor Manfred Hellberg and supported by a reference team of leading scientists. It submitted its report, named the Report of Strategies and Policy for the Development of Astronomy in South Africa, to the Minister in March 2011.

Regarding other recommendations, such as the merger of the South African Square Kilometre Array Project Office (SASPO) and Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRaO), Pandor had already announced in February 2010, the intention to form the South African National Radio Astronomy Observatory (SANRAO).
“Given the current focus of the SASPO on the SKA bid and the construction of MeerKAT, the timelines for the merger are being assessed.” Pandor announced that South Africa will not bid to host the Cherenkov Telescope Array as recommended in the Astronomy Desk report, but instead will support Namibia’s bid. A consortium of South Africa Universities (Wits, Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal and North West), have undertaken to support the University of Namibia and Namibia’s bid.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) welcomed Pandor’s decision. “The minister said that she accepted the Hellberg Report recommendation that the new astronomical umbrella body should be led by a ‘scientist of stature’, that the directors of optical and radio observatories should be experts in the field, with high international scientific reputations and significant management experience and that they should be supported by strong business managers,” DA S&T shadow Mariann Shinn said in a statement.
“I endorse Minister Pandor’s statement that the establishment of the dedicated agency for astronomy must proceed with haste. With our increasing collaboration on major international astronomical research projects, we must demonstrate our commitment to practising world-class astronomy through agencies and research platforms that are managed according to best scientific practise.”

The Astronomy Desk, which was established last August for a period of six months, has had its lifespan extended for three years to work on the implementation plans and give effect to the recommendations. Professor Ramesh Bharuthram, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Western Cape, has been appointed its chair. The DST has created a new post of Director of Astronomy.