Reaching for the stars to boost research capacity

Professor Peter Dunsby of the Universit of Cape Town has been helping to co-ordinate and train South Africa's astronomy experts. (Photo: Michael Hammond)

Professor Peter Dunsby of the Universit of Cape Town has been helping to co-ordinate and train South Africa's astronomy experts. (Photo: Michael Hammond)

Sometimes you need to look to the stars to solve a challenge, and Peter Dunsby, Professor of Cosmology and co-director of the Astrophysics, Cosmology and Gravity Centre in the department of mathematics and applied mathematics, University of Cape Town (UCT), has been doing just that.

At the end of 2001, the entire South African astronomy and cosmology community consisted of just 50 or so scientists, located at five institutions. There were only three black PhD astronomers active in South Africa and no strong postgraduate degree programme existed.

At the same time the construction of the South African Large Telescope had just begun. There was a realisation that a significant national intervention was necessary if South Africa was to remain globally competitive, given our advantageous geographical location and access to world-class astronomical facilities.

“Astronomy in South Africa was very fragmented, and something had to be done to draw everyone together and create something bigger than the sum of the parts,” says Dunsby.

Pooling national teaching and research expertise

During a national strategic gathering of the entire community in 2001, the idea of a National Astronomy and Space Science Programme (NASSP) was born. It had the ambitious goal of pooling the national teaching and research expertise available to train a new and diverse generation of South African researchers.

These new researchers would form part of a close international network of African astronomers, space scientists and citizens. They would be uniquely positioned to make the most of the opportunities presented by the South African government’s support of astronomy.

A national steering committee, led by Professor Patricia Whitelock, was set up to develop a new curriculum and co-ordinate a bidding process to determine which institution should host the programme. 

On the April 26 2002, a decision-making meeting was organised and chaired by the National Research Foundation in Johannesburg. A unanimous decision was reached to host NASSP at UCT for an initial period of five years. Dunsby, who had led the UCT bid and played a key role in curriculum development, was appointed the programme director.

Dunsby and Whitelock embarked on an extensive fundraising and marketing campaign, securing grants for the first three years from the Ford and Mellon foundations. Funding from the department of science and technology followed in 2006.

The programme was officially launched in February 2003, with 13 honours and five master’s students. Thirteen years later, it’s regarded locally and internationally as South Africa’s flagship programme in astronomy, cosmology and the space sciences.

National Astronomy and Space Science Programme

The NASSP is run as a two-and-a-half-year programme leading to a bachelor of science with honours after one year and a master’s after a further 18 months.

Between 2003 and 2012, Dunsby built up an outstanding record of attracting and successfully supervising graduation research students in cosmology, astrophysics and space science. During this time, NASSP graduated a total of 156 honours students, 98 master’s students and 29 PhD students. Dunsby has also graduated 10 of his own PhD students, with three more completing in the next year. 

“Investing in research and, in particular, blue sky sciences has been shown globally as a way of boosting a country’s economy,” says Dunsby. “Completing a PhD in any subject — not just in applied maths, cosmology or astronomy — teaches the fundamentals of research and independent thinking. It’s an enabler, a vehicle for getting people into a space where they’re well trained, have a remarkable set of skills, and have the mind-set to be able to do anything they set out to achieve.”

Unforeseen challenges

While the NASSP programme has achieved results lauded in the cosmology and astronomy fraternities worldwide, Dunsby admits that there were some unforeseen obstacles along the way.

“Many of the students coming into the programme from historically black institutions were underprepared academically. Even though they were incredibly talented people, they came from a system that didn’t prepare them for an Ivy League-level institution.”

To increase the number of black South African students graduating from the programme, a one-year postgraduate intervention (or bridging programme) was developed by Professor Saalih Allie of the UCT Science Academic Development Programme unit, Centre for Higher Education. Its main purpose is to address the issue of equity in the NASSP, drawing from historically disadvantaged communities who typically complete their first degrees at historically black institutions.

Another unexpected challenge has been the reluctance of postgraduate students to go all the way to PhD level. Many graduating from the programme’s first level were headhunted by the private sector, which offers salaries far more appealing to young people expected to support their own, or extended families.

Involving other people

“When people ask why I balance my time between human capacity development and my own research work, I emphasise that any research is far more productive and successful when you involve other people, whether they’re postgrad or post-doctoral students. Also, it’s so much more fun than when you’re working alone!” says Dunsby.

Although no longer the director of the NASSP after handing the reins over to Dr Kurt van der Heyden, Dunsby is still actively involved in several of its committees. In his own time he researches the nature of dark matter. In January 2017, he will take up the post of head of mathematics and applied mathematics at UCT, which will be a “new and exciting challenge”.