NRF CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld has said that astronomy could make South Africa a world leader. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)
Sutherland - Engineering of scientific instruments continues in order to make South Africa a world leader in the field of astronomy, the National Research Foundation (NRF) has said.
"Engineering is never complete. Already with the Salt board partners, we've brought the telescope to this point. The next phase is to say: What do we do over the next 10 years to make sure the facility remains competitive and remains at the cutting edge?" CEO and president of the NRF Dr Albert van Jaarsveld told News24 at the site of the Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland.
The Salt has been re-launched following months of engineering to correct imaging problems of the telescope which is the largest in the southern hemisphere.
The site has attracted a range of international experts and observing equipment, but Van Jaarsveld said that continued investment was critical to retaining the competitive edge.
"If we want to make sure that the investments we've made on Sutherland hill goes into the future, and that astronomy grows from strength to strength the way we anticipate it will, then we have to make sure that we continue to invest in our human capabilities, but also in the infrastructure."
SA has recently established a space agency called the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) which is directed to promote the use of space and development of space sciences in the country.
Van Jaarsveld said that the development of space science would also lead to innovation in other areas of technology which could play a role in driving the economy through the establishment of businesses and technologies.
"Space science speaks directly to the mandate of the newly created space agency. But all these investments in areas of science... are aimed at not only providing top class, world leading science, but to serve as incubators and areas where new industries and innovations can emerge from to drive our economy forward.
"I think we understand that our economy is growing in the direction that will position it hopefully as a knowledge economy in the global emerging economy."
Some countries, particularly those in Asia have built economies through the use of cheap labour to produce mass-market consumer goods, but Van Jaarsveld insisted that South Africa's strength lies in building a knowledge economy.
"I don't think we see ourselves as producing cheap products or having cheap labour. Our advantage is going to lie in knowledge and what we put into the global economy as a knowledge economy.
"That's why these development areas are critical to get that spin-off."
He said that it was important for a country to choose an area of specialisation and provide the resources to grow that area.
"India has made those investments in areas like ICT [Information and Communications Technology] for example and I think it's critically important for every economy and country to decide which are the niche areas in which they're going to specialise.
"So we are going to have to make some tough choices and say: 'This area; that area'. One area we have chosen is astronomy and one area we have chosen is space science," Van Jaarsveld said.
He conceded that agencies like Nasa had a role to fulfil and that SA could and should not hope to compete with those types of organisations.
However, he insisted that the country had the capacity to grow expertise in focussed areas.
"So those are the areas we are going to grow - in niche areas - we're not going to compete with Nasa. We're going to be working in the area of micro satellites."
One of the keys for growing the industry remained human capital development and the NRF, through the department of science and technology (DST) has been investing in education programmes to spur interest and development in space.
"Critical to being successful in any one of those ventures is the quality of the human resources that we can put into that industry. And that is what the NRF is all about: The heart of the NRF is about human capital development.
"You will see that investment in human capital development that have happened over the last four years has more or less doubled through the NRF and DST investments," said Van Jaarsveld.
He acknowledged that more could be done to promote the field of astronomy.
"We're doing a lot; we're not doing enough yet. I think we can do better. And around those issues as well, we have to ask ourselves: 'How do become the best in astronomy?' That's why we've put in five research chairs and five universities around the country to make sure that we have the people who can train the next generation of skills that we require."
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