Nithaya Chetty

    • Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, South Africa

&Bullet; physics 14, 52

To fight poverty and promote equality, developing countries should pursue the highest levels of unrestricted, open scientific research.

Artistic rendering of the MeerKAT radio telescope in the South African North Cape. The instrument addresses fundamental issues in astrophysics, but it also triggers commercial innovation and attracts many young science and technology students.

The ideas for developing African countries have evolved considerably since the 1960s. In the early stages of post-colonial Africa, development assistance was often distributed to dictators who channeled these resources into their own bank accounts. Today, more democratic governments have shifted their priorities to strengthening education, promoting scientific research, promoting innovation, and developing talent.

However, the progress of African societies is painfully slow. Science and technology can be powerful catalysts for change, but the lack of skilled scientists and low levels of research funding are huge obstacles to overcome. To remove these barriers, African governments should support basic research without compromising their standards. In this way, they create an environment that strengthens economic development and weakens the mass migration of people to foreign coasts.

An all-too-common view held by international institutions and government agencies in Africa and elsewhere is that for the foreseeable future, African countries should focus their efforts on education, rather than research, by improving math and other practical scientific skills of pupils and students. The argument is that if we get the basics right, we will ultimately produce a critical mass of quality graduates who will continue to make important contributions to society. And when it comes to driving innovation, governments in developing countries, with their limited resources, are expected to invest primarily in applied research, with the scientific agenda primarily based on finding solutions to the practical problems of their people.

Obviously, it is important that African countries prioritize education and support applied research. However, I contend that it would be a grave mistake to do so without an excellent basic research agenda. Unless African countries pursue the highest levels of scientific research in an environment of unrestrained research, the continent will continue to suffer on the treadmill of poverty and inequality. By pursuing open, curious research, we will be better able to take advantage of education and stimulate innovation. While paying attention to our local problems, we must aim for the sky.

Astronomy in South Africa is a telling example. The MeerKAT radio telescope – named after a beloved Karoo mammal – cost the South African government more than 5 billion South African rand ($ 334 million) to build. As the forerunner of an even more ambitious project – the Square Kilometer Array – MeerKAT is the most sensitive telescope in a high frequency range that is important for cosmology and astronomy. Radio astronomy seems far removed from everyday life – how does the study of distant planets, stars and galaxies bring a roof over your head or a plate of food on the table? However, we have to take into account that an important part of research is attracting new generations to science.

From my point of view, astronomy is arguably the discipline that can best achieve this goal across cultures, geographic regions and generations. It is crucial that this field can create hope, the importance of which in Africa should not be underestimated. MeerKAT has motivated science teachers, engaged the public and trained hundreds of PhD students who have found employment either at home or in another African country. In addition, astronomy has exposed our best students to new problems in computers, communications, data science, mechanics, electronics, and optics, all of which are applicable to other fields.

The researchers’ response to the pandemic is a compelling demonstration of the tangible benefits of basic research for the real world. When COVID-19 hit South Africa, particle physicists at the Witwatersrand University (Wits) used artificial intelligence and machine learning methods to monitor and predict the evolution of the pandemic, and made valuable contributions to government policies that helped make life-saving decisions. Building on their successes in South Africa, these researchers are now helping other African countries.

What can developing countries learn from this success? How can they use the applied potential of basic research without diluting the rigor of academic degrees and without turning universities into technology centers that merely support industry? A promising approach is to introduce students to the ideas of innovation during the course of their studies, not after them. At Wits, we run a dual study program in which selected doctoral students from various disciplines simultaneously acquire an M.Sc. in innovation. During their doctorate, students get to know entrepreneurship and work with mentors who transferred ideas from basic research to economic success.

We are confident that the program will show that fundamental research and innovation are not mutually exclusive. If we train bright, inspired students, it doesn’t matter whether they are into string theory or commercial devices – they will simply change our societies for the better.

About the author

Image by Nithaya Chetty

Nithaya Chetty is Dean of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is the past president of the South African Institute of Physics. During the construction of MeerKAT, the forerunner of the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope, he was Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors of the South African National Research Foundation, responsible for astronomy. He is currently Vice President of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and responsible for membership affairs. He received two Fulbright scholarships that allowed him to study and research in the United States.

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