Rural communities embrace big science - and God

2014-01-22 08:30
Minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom leans on one of the KAT 7 radio antenna dishes on the site of the SKA outside Carnarvon. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom leans on one of the KAT 7 radio antenna dishes on the site of the SKA outside Carnarvon. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Poor and generally conservative communities are accepting of cutting edge science projects that may contradict their beliefs, the science and technology minister has said.

The major science projects like the Salt (Southern African Large Telescope) in Sutherland and SKA (Square Kilometre Array) near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province seek to answer question about the age and dawn of the universe.

These projects though, are surrounded by poor and generally, deeply conservative communities.

Sutherland has its fair share of religious buildings and ecclesiastical officials are widely respected in the community.

However, despite the fact that Salt science may contradict beliefs about the nature and origin of the universe, the community accepts the science community with open arms.

Local benefit

"To a large extent the communities that host the cutting-edge science are receptive to these projects, as there are many collateral benefits that accrue to these communities," Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom told News24.

He said that at the site of the SKA outside Carnarvon, there were plans to ensure that the locals benefited from the giant science project that aims to look 13 billion years back in time.

"The SKA SA Project Office has worked with the communities of the towns surrounding the SKA site in the Karoo since 2005. The community initiatives aim to improve quality of life and provide economic opportunities."

Carnarvon is one of those towns that seem stuck in a time warp with infrastructure that urban dwellers take for granted like 3G connectivity and broadband largely lacking or inaccessible.

The wide roads are mostly quiet and many unemployed locals spend days at watering holes in the conservative and impoverished community.

Projects like the SKA bring hope of not only employment, but also hope of escaping the poverty trap in the rural town.

The project has recruited maths and physical science teachers in both Carnarvon and Sutherland as an attempt to improve the learners' opportunity for further study.


"SKA SA has over the last two years provided bursaries to 27 grade 12 students to study toward a further education and training (FET) certification. Eight of these students have already been employed by the project as assistant technicians and report to the site operations team," Hanekom said.

He added that the SKA project also made extensive use of local labour where it was possible and that around 900 jobs had been created in site operations.

"These jobs include the civil works for the construction of buildings, roads, the landing strip and the construction of camps, as well as for the electrical and optical fibre ducting reticulation."

Salt is the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and the SKA will cost around €1.5bn and it is expected to be completed by 2024.

Hanekom said that Carnarvon High School is the only one in the area that offers the subjects of maths and physics and the expansion of science education is part of the department's vision to produce PhDs.

"Informed by the understanding that a PhD is a driver of innovation and global competitiveness, the National Development Plan sets a production target of 100 doctoral graduates per million of the population by 2030, which translates to 5 000 PhDs per year from a base of 1 420 in 2010."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    derek hanekom  |  kimberley  |  astronomy  |  ska

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