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Promoting Space Science in Africa

By Nick Staite, Operations Director, Planet Earth Institute

Planet Earth Institute’s Nick Staite explains how the organisation is keen to play an active role in building a critical mass of African space scientists.

Achieving scientific independence for Africa is our core objective at the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), with our team engaged in some major initiatives to achieve this, driven by Higher Education, Technological Innovation and Policy & Advocacy. These take place through us strengthening higher education institutions, helping incubate technologies that can drive scientific advancement, and campaigning for a science-led development agenda for Africa.

Within the wider field of science, the adoption of the African Space Policy and Strategy by the African Union Heads of State Summit in January 2016 was a major statement about the continent’s commitment and appetite for space science – something we at PEI recognised the potential for in 2014. The formal strategy therefore provided a major boost for this sector and our plans to stimulate it.

Addressing major challenges through space science

There’s a perception in certain quarters that pursuing space science is a controversial step by the African Union; some people view it as a “luxury” compared with addressing the major issues of poverty, public health and sanitation, amongst others. However, a close look at the African Space Policy and Strategy makes it very clear why this is such an important strategic decision by the African Union.

PEI conference

In spring 2016, we convened the first of many, we hope, policy roundtables, alongside the Satellite Applications Catapult and STARHub, exploring the potential for space science on the continent. Featuring an array of international speakers, including Dr Val Munsami – former Chief Science and Technology Representative of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, and now CEO for the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) – Satellite Applications Catapult CEO, Stuart Martin, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Lord Martin-Rees, and Anu Ojha from the National Space Academy.

During the day, we were able to explore space science – which for many is a bit of an abstract topic or alien subject – in direct application to every day challenges such as the environment, public health, water, sanitation and urbanisation. Through this, we identified that of the 40 objectives laid out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, 35 required space science to achieve them in some way. This clearly demonstrates that space science is absolutely crucial to Africa. Furthermore, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals also closely align with the African Space Policy and Strategy.

Clearly, space science is not about rockets and glamourous human space flight; it’s about addressing challenges Africa has been dealing with for decades.

Achieving scientific independence

So, how is the PEI supporting this space science activity? As mentioned previously, Higher Education is a key element of our own strategy. We recognise that we need to build a critical mass of African space scientists, equipping Africa’s indigenous youth with STEM and Big Data skills.

We’re working hard to promote and invest in PhD level science in Africa, with us sponsoring students with grants and research support across the continent. In the future, we hope to contribute to the creation of a critical mass of space scientists through our own related PhD programme.

These activities, combined with initiatives focused on the teenage audience, are all feeding towards building understanding and enthusiasm for STEM, and encouraging young Africans to study science at university and beyond.

Ultimately, space science is potentially massive for the African continent! It has the ability to catalyse and galvanise interest and excitement – not just from young people, but from donors and government representatives. At PEI, we will continue exploring and identifying opportunities, and beating the drum on an ongoing basis.