3 April 2013

South Africa: Communiqué From the Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom, MP, Following a Meeting With Representatives of the Astronomy Community

press release

"Strengthening the governance and development of astronomy in South Africa"

Astronomy is a national flagship initiative aligned with the "Areas of Geographic Advantage" approach, contained in the 2002 National Research and Development Strategy of the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The continuous development and strengthening of astronomy in South Africa remains a high priority for the DST and for the National Research Foundation (NRF). Taking into account the scale of recent investments in astronomy and astronomy infrastructure, and its international stature, the Minister of Science and Technology appointed the Astronomy Desk in late 2011 to advise the Minister and the DST on the following matters:

A governance model for the management of astronomy in South Africa,

The development of a long-term strategic plan for multi-wave length astronomy in South Africa, and Human Capacity Development

A study of the Krish Bharuth-Ram-Astronomy Working Group report on Human Capital Development in astronomy, and proposals for short, medium, and long-term interventions,

A detailed proposal for short and medium-term interventions with an estimated budget.

On 12 March 2013 the Minister of Science and Technology, convened a meeting in Cape Town of senior DST officials, the Directors of National Astronomy Facilities, the Square Kilometer Array South Africa (SKA-SA) project, the Astronomy Desk and the NRF. This meeting considered the Astronomy Desk recommendations for strengthening the governance and development of astronomy. The meeting focused on the scale of the investment in astronomy, the increasing national importance of this investment, and its expanding international character, as well as the critical need to rapidly grow participation by black South Africans.

The considerable progress made by the Astronomy Desk towards defining the parameters and conditions for a separate astronomy agency, and the delivery of a conceptual outline for a human capital development strategy, were acknowledged and duly considered by the meeting. The advantages and disadvantages of establishing a new, separate agency were discussed. These discussions took into account the current demands on South Africa's astronomy community and institutions, as well as the financial implications of such an intervention.

The meeting was informed by the Minister and DST officials that prevailing economic conditions and fiscal realities were not conducive to the establishment of new agencies at present. Establishing a new agency would require additional resources and incur overhead costs in terms of establishing appropriate financial, human resource, reporting and other compliance processes and procedures required from all publicly funded entities.

The establishment of new entities together with the formulation of new governance structures and systems, policies, processes and procedures can present a significant distraction from their core science objectives and mandate for fairly long periods of time. On the other hand, the longer term establishment of a dedicated astronomy agency was also seen to be a logical corollary of the stature of the astronomy project in South Africa and in Africa, and the role of astronomy in South Africa's international scientific profile.

The meeting was convinced that the current momentum in growing and strengthening astronomy in the country should be maintained and stepped up if possible. This was particularly important in view of the recent Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) science successes, the developing African VLBI Network, progress made with MeerKAT construction, as well as the successful SKA bid. To this effect a proposal was accepted that all astronomy activities currently residing within the NRF be consolidated in a sub-Agency of the NRF as an intermediate arrangement. This would entail the consolidation of all current astronomy national research facilities (the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory [HartRAO] and the South African Astronomical Observatory [SAAO], including SALT operations) and the SKA-SA project, as well as existing human capital development initiatives (NASSP, MWA and the SKA HCD programme) into one managed astronomy programme within the NRF.

In order to ensure that astronomy progresses in the best interests of the sector, the following measures will also be put in place to support the sub-Agency:

A Deputy CEO: Astronomy will be appointed by the NRF in consultation with the DST. This person will represent astronomy interests on the NRF Corporate Executive and will act as the NRF anchor-point for interactions with external bodies, especially the DST;

An independent Astronomy Advisory Body will be established. It will represent the astronomy community, and will advise the Deputy CEO: Astronomy and the NRF Board, through the Advisory Body Chair, on astronomy interests;

The Chair of the Astronomy Advisory Body and the Deputy CEO: Astronomy will be standing observers on the NRF board, as are other senior managers of the NRF;

The sub-Agency will benefit from shared corporate services in the NRF (HR, Finance, Governance etc.) to limit overhead costs;

The fiduciary responsibilities for the sub-Agency activities will remain with the NRF Board;

The SKA-SA project will continue to function as a project within this emerging framework, and

The roles and responsibilities, and the organisational structure of the sub-Agency will be informed by the work done by the Astronomy Desk on the astronomy agency.

These changes are intended to provide a working governance environment for astronomy to progress as a discipline and as a national, strategic scientific programme. They will also serve to consolidate astronomy in a manner consistent with the objectives and strategic intentions being developed by the Astronomy Desk and its Reference Group, particularly in the development of the multi-wavelength astronomy strategy and in human capital development. The remaining task of the Astronomy Desk will be to bring to a rapid conclusion the proposals on human capital development and the conceptualisation of the multi-wavelength strategy.

This approach will provide a platform for South African astronomy to mature as an enterprise, while longer-term decisions about its optimal governance and suitable structural arrangements can be made in line with the unfolding national and international commitments and obligations (SALT, SKA, African VLBI Network, Cherenkov Telescope Array), and relevant domestic circumstances.

The Minister has requested the NRF to proceed with the implementation of the Astronomy sub-Agency model as soon as possible, to ensure that the current momentum in astronomy investments is optimised in the national interest. The DST will in due course provide information on its response to other recommendations from the Astronomy Desk as they emerge.

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