Is astronomy relevant to developing countries?
This year is the International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo Galilei first announced, after looking to the skies through a telescope, that the earth goes round the sun.
Astronomy can unlock many of the universe's mysteries, but is that enough? People think of astronomy as an elite science with little relevance for development. While there are people living in poverty, isn't astronomy a luxury? How can countries justify large investments in telescopes, observatories and astronomical research while people are suffering from lack of basic amenities?
If it had to be justified on economic grounds alone, astronomy in developing countries (and indeed elsewhere) could disappear altogether.
Fortunately, the Southern African experience shows that investing in astronomy can be a good thing, both financially and for society.
Telescope stimulates economy
As the new millennium started, so did the construction work on the Southern African Large Telescope, or, as we know it, SALT. The Telescope has stimulated the country's economy, with local industry making around 60 percent of the telescope's components.
It has also boosted tourism and created new jobs. In the first year after opening, the annual number of visitors to the small town of Sutherland jumped from a few hundred to over 13,000.
A growing number of African companies are also capitalising on the interest in astronomy, using 'amateur' telescopes to attract foreign visitors and corporate companies.
Take Namibia, for example. As a result of their new telescopes in Gamsberg Pass, farmers in the area have set up small telescopes in their back gardens for visiting amateur astronomers to use.
The Namibian example also illustrates the trickle down from astronomy - switching devices developed for the telescope are now being used in industry.
But focussing on specific examples like this overlooks one of the most important ways astronomy can help development. Many cultures have long histories of indigenous astronomy that offer an easy route for introducing a modern understanding of the universe. The science of the stars really inspires the general public's interest in science.
Our telescope in South Africa is one such success story: Young South Africans aspire to be part of SALT - an icon of South African achievement. SALT is part of school curricula, helping teach concepts in mathematics, science and technology. Astronomy, which has always stimulated curiosity, can be a rallying point for a strong learning culture.
The big budgets astronomy projects bring can provide funds for education. We hold regular workshops for educators and learners ranging from building telescopes and spectroscopes to explaining astronomical concepts such as seasons or eclipses.
The International Year of Astronomy is an opportunity to expand this support by providing teachers and students in underprivileged environments with activity books, posters, games, cartoons and competitions. It could become a launching pad for an African network using astronomy to enhance education. And a better science education helps develop a more skilled workforce.
Astronomy is a way into advanced science that, until recently, has been the preserve of the industrialised world.
To have a knowledge-based economy and a scientifically literate population, developing countries must invest, to some degree, in fundamental science and blue skies research. The sort of science that is easy to dismiss as impractical hence, unnecessary, hence unaffordable. South Africa has known for a while that this isn't the case. I quote here from a government white paper, published back in 1996:
"World-wide there is a clear trend for curiosity-driven research to increase as a function of national per capita income... It is important that fundamental research activity not be regarded as impractical, because it is the preserver of standards without which, in the long term, the applied sciences will also die."
The best way to ensure that countries invest in and sustain astronomy is to realise its developmental benefits. South Africa is showing that this is possible. By strengthening their astronomy communities, developing countries can make real progress towards their development goals. In other words, though it may sound counter-intuitive, studying galaxies millions of miles away can make a real difference to lives here on earth.
Kevin Govender is manager of the SALT Collateral Benefits Programme and South African chair for the International Year of Astronomy 2009.
Kevin Govender talks to Earthbeat, click here.