SKA calls for skills strategies

2012-10-24 07:25
The SKA project requires engineering and technical skills, Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The SKA project requires engineering and technical skills, Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld has said. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - South Africa will have to find many different strategies to find technical skills as the country prepares to deliver the MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) as a precursor for its share of the SKA (Square Kilometre Array).

"We're going to have to do many things to have the people because it doesn't help us having a world leading instrument and as South Africans, we're not active participants, using that instrument to its full capability," National Research Foundation CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld told News24.

SA was awarded the majority share to host the SKA which will be built in the Northern Cape province outside the town of Carnarvon.

But the massive science project will require many highly skilled engineers and technicians. The department of science and technology (DST) has already begun a process of granting bursaries for post-graduate studies and there are plans to expand the training programme.

"We have to train South Africans - many South Africans - so they can build careers and they can grow their career paths in the context of this huge instrument that's going to be on our doorstep," said Van Jaarsveld.

Maths decline

The country is hamstrung by relatively few matrics who finish school with the required skills in the key subjects of mathematics and science.

In 2011, although 70.2% students out of a total of 496 090 passed matric in 2011, only 24.3% obtained a university entrance.

Also troubling are the statistics that show a decline in the number of learners passing maths, despite the subject being compulsory at schools.

According to the department of basic education, 300 008 wrote maths in 2008, but that number declined to 224 635 last year, as more students chose maths literacy.

The problem is exacerbated because only 89 788 achieved above 40% in 2008, versus 67 541 in 2011. 

"It is a huge problem; I think it would be naïve to say it's not a problem, but I think we all recognise it is a problem. We want to have a big enough pipeline for people to grow into that instrument and become very active in that area," Van Jaarsveld said.

He added that the country had some students with the required skills, but they were not effectively being used in the expansion of science programmes.

"But on the other hand, we have 50 000 kids a year in the system who graduate with maths so there's a lot of talent out already that we could be using much more effectively so we have to grow the pipeline, but we also have to create opportunities for the people that we do know have the skills and the talent to pursue a career in that particular area."

Science research

According to the Cesti programme at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Gerd as an indicator of science research activity in the country stood at 0.92%.

"As a country we understand that we have to push up our investment in the science system over time; I think the department [of science and technology] has put out targets of 2% that they think we should be investing," Van Jaarsveld said.

Developed countries in Europe usually invest around 4% in science research and while South Africa's number is low, it is one of the highest in Africa. The NRF would like to see a move toward 2%.

"I think 2% would be the middle of the playing field; it would be a middle level of investment and I think it would be the sort of right level for us to start off with," said Van Jaarsveld.

The DST has lauded it 10 year innovation plan that seeks to grow scientific innovation with social-economic benefits in the country.

Van Jaarsveld warned that investment into science would be subject to the social and economic needs of a country.

"We also have to make sure that our economy is growing before we can actually invest more and when we have a global economic crisis as we have at the moment, one has to be realistic.


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