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Research

The prickly politics of African e-infrastructure

Africa desperately needs foreign investment to boost its scientific research capabilities. But bricks and mortar are often not enough - even when it's the Square Kilometre Array in South Africa.

It's big, bold and very expensive. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the world's largest radio telescope, with thousands of receptors scattered across southern Africa and Australia - that's much, much bigger than the ALMA radio telescope that goes live in Chile this week.

It's the type of investment in large research infrastructure that Africa's scientific community has been calling for.

And it should come as no surprise that the South African government is hailing the 1.5 billion euro SKA project as a vindication of its long-term science policy.

Daniel Adams of South Africa's Science and Technology Department says his country is now ready to reap the benefits of the project, which will receive funding from 10 governments, including those in Germany, Holland and Sweden.

"It will translate into investment," Dr Adams says. "It will translate into benefits for the country, across a broad spectrum. It will translate into economic benefits and innovation in the country [as well as having] a social impact, in terms of improving the quality of life of the people."

Talking shop

But many of speakers at a "Promoting Africa-EU Research Infrastructure Partnerships" (PAERIP) conference in Brussels this month were more cautious about the impact of such large infrastructure spending in Africa.

Dr Edith Madela-Mntla, director, International Council for Science's Regional Office for Africa (Photo: James Panichi)

Edith Madela-Mntla says Africa lacks the skilled technicians for the SKA

While the initial spending earmarked for research infrastructure on the part of European governments and international donor agencies is welcomed, there are fears that Africa's scientific community will not be ready to benefit when the bricks and mortar are in place.

Edith Madela-Mntla, the director of the International Council for Science's Regional Office for Africa, says human capacity development at the margins of the SKA project still gives cause for concern.

"We need a lot of training, we need a lot of technicians," Dr Madela-Mntla says. "The SKA Project [is] going to need a hell of a lot of technicians. It's a complex project. And the question is: do we have what it takes to actual develop the necessary human capacities that will support the project? Most probably not."

Human resources

The problem identified by donor countries and agencies is that research institutes in Africa are often isolated by their own lack of infrastructure - particularly in the area of access to high-speed internet connections. This, in turn, becomes an impediment in the training of high-level research staff.

The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in South Africa

The SKA - an international project - will be the world's largest radio telescope

"Most places in Africa don't interact because of the difficulties in accessibility, or in the interacting between the countries," Madela-Mntla says. "The bandwidth in some countries is an absolute shambles. And access to computers themselves in most countries is still quite a challenge. So, if you talk e-infrastructure, that is the biggest challenge in Africa."

It's a view shared by Viola Tegethoff, who is working on the SKA project with the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn.

Tegethoff argues that the SKA project could make a real contribution to Africa well beyond the science - if it gets proper assistance.

"We need a huge amount of innovation, of technical development, engineers, and technicians," Tegethoff says. "And it is also very important for the countries, where the SKA is going to be built, because it will include numerous jobs."

The funding maze

The SKA is also a reminder of how complex the building of research infrastructure in developing countries can be.

Funding from a range of governments and private players needs to come together, development outcomes have to be integrated into the project, and ancillary initiatives - such as e-infrastructure - will also have to pan out.

Communication among the participants and potential partners is therefore seen as the key to any success.

Dr Kostas Glinos, head of unit, e-infrastructures, European Union Directorate General Connect (Photo: James Panichi)

Kostas Glinos says African e-infrastructure is as much about political awareness as it is about skills

Kostas Glinos is the head of unit for e-infrastructures at the European Union Directorate General Connect - that's Europe's ministry for communications networks, content and technology.

"We need to increase the political awareness in Africa about building state-of-the-art infrastructure," Dr Glinos said at the margins of the PAERIP conference. "That has to be within the countries as well as between the countries. And we need a better coordination between international funders."

"The European Commission, through development aid, will fund a number of things," he says. "But there are many other international organizations involved. There are national European programs, for example. There are private ones, like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. There's the World Bank. There are so many. We need a better coordination between these international programs."

Funding arrangements can become a science in their own right. It's not only that the experts need to work out how to bring research infrastructure to a continent which desperately needs it, they then have to work out how to support local scientific communities once the infrastructure is in place.

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