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Continent-wide space sciences initiative gathers support

A group of researchers is proposing a 20-year continent-wide push to strengthen teaching, research and innovation in the field of planetary and space sciences in Africa, where research in the field remains scattered and underfunded.

The Africa Initiative for Planetary and Space Sciences, or Africa PSS Initiative, outlined in a 14 June document published in Earth and Space Science News, has already been endorsed by a number of scientists and institutions, as well as national and international organisations located in Africa and worldwide.

"The call for endorsement is just a first step; strong international support, cooperation and significant investment will be needed to run various research, education and outreach programmes that will be part of Africa's planetary and space sciences initiative,” David Baratoux, lead author of a 13 June report entitled "The State of Planetary and Space Sciences in Africa," told University World News.

The Africa PSS Initiative is an idea that emanated from a panel discussion during the planetary science sessions of the 35th International Geological Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2016.

International partners

The new initiative envisages coordinated actions with international partners aimed at training MSc and PhD students, as well as the development of locally-based scientific facilities, and the progressive integration of the fascinating discoveries about the solar system into university curricula.

A preliminary scan of articles published between 2000 and 2015 in four representative planetary and space sciences journals – Icarus, Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, and Meteoritics and Planetary Science – reveals that Africa produces less than 1% of the world output of scientific publications in planetary and space sciences, despite having more than 15% of the world’s population, according to the 13 June report.

The reasons for Africa's low scientific output are complex. Most glaringly, several countries lack a critical mass of requisite experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects and they lack large, dedicated (and well-funded) planetary and space sciences programmes with international visibility.

The benefits of space science programmes are wide-ranging. According to Amanda Sickafoose, head of instrumentation at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, planetary and space sciences are particularly accessible and inspirational topics of scientific study.

Encouraging STEM studies

“Young children and adults alike are fascinated by the Moon, planets and human exploration of the Solar System,” she said. “More exposure to these topics can encourage students to study a broad range of maths, science and engineering, or STEM, fields.

"The net result is a more scientifically educated population and increased technological advancements, which contribute directly to social and economic growth … Africa traditionally lags behind in these studies and is well poised to improve," she said.

Hasnaa Chennaoui Aoudjehane, director of the GAIA Laboratory at the Faculty of Sciences at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco, said Africa was in danger of missing opportunities to develop the continent by neglecting planetary sciences, which are “important sciences for the next generations”.

“Studying planetary and space sciences develops the knowledge of populations, opens minds and help to counter obscurantism. It may help the development of industries, telecommunications and innovation in general. It may inspire young generations to study STEM subjects which could help to develop the entire continent," Aoudjehane said.

Key aspects of the Africa PSS Initiative include a five-year programme prioritising MSc and PhD scholarships, temporary study-abroad fellowships for masters and doctoral candidates, and visits of researchers from outside the continent to Africa for the purpose of knowledge transfer.

In addition, it is proposed that planetary and space sciences experts and advocates in Africa encourage existing research groups to take advantage of opportunities within NASA, the European Space Agency, and other space agencies to contribute to missions. To consolidate resources, the few African universities that already have emerging planetary and space sciences groups are encouraged to commit to close interaction with key overseas partners, including universities and funding and space agencies.

Open access data

The initiative is also intended to foster greater use of open access data and publications and leverage Africa’s geological record which offers fertile ground for understanding processes on other planets.

The initiative will build on the grassroots networks of African researchers, starting, for instance, with the UNESCO-driven African Network of Earth Science Institutions, the African Academy of Sciences, the African Association of Remote Sensing of the Environment, the Geological Society of Africa, the Young Earth Scientist Network, and the Arabian Geosciences Union.

After a four-year review, it is envisaged that the programme could be renewed for another five years, with the longer-term goal of building a 20-year plan.

The relationship between the Africa initiative and some of the other space sciences projects taking place in Africa is yet to be negotiated and formalised. These projects include the Pan African University Institute for Space Sciences, due to be established at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa, and the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, which is located in South Africa and eight other African countries.

On links between the Africa PSS Initiative and the Pan African University institute, Baratoux said: “Tough interactions will be likely in the future."

"At this stage we are involving several countries and partners that are not necessarily involved in the Pan African University space sciences initiative, because they have very little activity in space sciences in comparison with Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, which are the most advanced countries in space sciences."

Africa’s best students

"Our Africa PSS Initiative will also probably help to identify the best students in African countries who may be selected to be enrolled in the institutes affiliated with the Pan African University space sciences institute using Pan African University grants," Baratoux said.

John Bosco Habarulema, a researcher at the South African National Space Agency and co-author of the Africa PSS Initiative report, suggested that once the Pan African University institute was operational, it would help to accelerate the development of skills. “Perhaps one of the future interactions between the two initiatives would be for scientists to assist in training students enrolled in the Pan African University," he said.

With reference to SKA, Baratoux said: "We have not formally contacted SKA yet. SKA is a vast project … but there are some applications for the solar system too."

"We hope that our initiative will also contribute to strengthening the local expertise in planetary sciences, for a greater participation of Africa in the research related to SKA," he said.

Building capacity in universities

A key aim of the initiative is capacity building in African universities.

Sickafoose, who is also a visiting scientist at the department of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences of the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "Besides increased exposure to basic astronomy in high school throughout Africa, topical courses and lectures could be offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

"Because there aren’t a large number of planetary and space scientists actively carrying out research in Africa, visiting scholars from other countries could be invited to share their expertise and co-supervise projects,” she said.

“Here in South Africa, we currently collaborate with planetary astronomers from the United States. These collaborations benefit both sides: our geographic location allows unique observations, while external skills and knowledge are being transferred to local students. Such activities require funding, and we are specifically advocating for an initial five-year programme including MSc and PhD scholarships and bidirectional travel-abroad programmes.”

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