Photo Credit: Photo credit: SKA organisation

First pan-African general science conference

Government South Africa hosts Science Forum South Africa

On 8 and 9 December, 2015 a landmark event took place in Pretoria, South Africa. The government of South Africa hosted the first pan-African general science conference, Science Forum South Africa. Minister Naledi Pandor of Science and Technology of South Africa, a regular guest at recent ESOF meetings, was the driving force behind the Science Forum and recognised in her opening remarks her inspiration by the ESOF, AAAS, AGORA (Japan) and the World Science Forum conferences.

Participants discussed and demonstrated the importance of science, technology and innovation for development and the crucial role of an African science community. The event gathered 1,500 attendees, many from South Africa but also from other African countries as well and quite a few from all over the world. Sir Peter Gluckman, the science adviser to the Prime Minister in New Zealand, Luke Georghiou, co-champion of ESOF2016 in Manchester, and Gordon Bean, the president of ICSU were among them.

Several thematic threads were constantly woven through the fabric of the conference’s presentations and discussions. These included Inspiration, giving young scientists a platform, stressing the need to attract many more women students and scientists, pointing out the vital importance of integrating social sciences and humanities in tacking the many challenges South Africa, Africa and the world as a whole are facing.

Africa wants and needs to be part of the global science efforts. And South Africa leaves no stone untouched to underline that it wants to be a key contributor to and player in this. The Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest radio telescope ever to be built figures, of course, prominently. It is an international collaboration to be constructed in South Africa–and other African countries–and in Australia. And it will no doubt drive not just science, but also education, innovation and entrepreneurship.

But many others were presented in a considerable number of parallel sessions, like in ESOF’s case, based on competition between submitted proposals. A fine example is a breakthrough in prevention of HIV infection among pregnant women, which affects in some age categories more than 50% of women. After many years, South African researchers have identified and validated a vaccine, which has recently made it to a WHO guideline.

Other interesting insights concern one of the biggest challenges of all: global climate change. Here it is important to realise the regional impact varies enormously–a 2 degrees C temperature increase will be a 4 degrees C increase in South Africa. But it is also necessary to realise that ecosystems evolution is not simply the consequence of global drivers such as increase in CO2 content. It is important to take into account local drivers such as fires, herbivores and land management. A careful study of the 8 different biomes in South Africa shows that the impact is not at all what one would expect based on global climate drivers only. And forest encroachment of the grassland savannas is far from an unmitigated blessing, probably to the contrary.

Such examples illustrate that global cooperation and learning about global variation are vital. The Science Forum South Africa shows that Africa is becoming attractive for young scientists all over the world. Much needs to be done, and building up things under sometimes difficult conditions may provide opportunities less obvious elsewhere.

There will no doubt be a new edition of the Science Forum which then may be the Science Forum Africa. But first, the Next Einstein Forum will be held in Senegal form March 8-10, 2016. It has the same overall goals, contributing to giving African science a face and a voice, and in particular creating a platform for some twenty selected young brilliant African scientists from all over the continent to present themselves and meet African scientific, political and business leaders, as well as representatives from around the globe.

European scientists should enthusiastically welcome these opportunities and try to get involved as much as possible. EuroScience will try to get grants for young African scientists to come to ESOF2016 in Manchester so that we can continue the dialogue.

Featured image credit: SKA organisation

Peter Tindemans

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