/ 15 December 2017

For tech to be funded, it must improve lives

The MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape is spending billions on space research seems odd when people’s basics needs aren’t met — yet technology brings development.
The MeerKAT radio telescope in the Northern Cape is spending billions on space research seems odd when people’s basics needs aren’t met — yet technology brings development.


Technology can’t solve problems. Neither can data, for that matter. It can’t plug the holes of governance and political will but, without it, we cannot hope to address the myriad problems facing African countries.

This idea permeated the Science Forum South Africa. Whether it was in the use of satellites to monitor the continent’s resources or precision medicine, we need technology to accelerate development.

“A space programme is not about satellites and launch vehicles,” said Val Munsami, chief executive of the South African National Space Agency. “It’s about addressing human needs. That’s where you start off.”

Earth observation has been flagged as a way for the continent to manage its resources, whether it is by tracking urbanisation or monitoring water resources.

And the continent’s needs are manifold: it comprises 55 countries but more than 90% of its soil is unsuitable for agriculture. About 240-million Africans suffer from chronic diseases and 40% of its population live in poverty, despite having 30% of the world’s mineral reserves.

This is not a situation that technology can simply paper over — or that imposed technology can mitigate. For science and research to play a role it has to respond to what African countries and populations want.

“We realised that it’s around user requirements,” Munsami told a session at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “You need political support [and for that] you need to demonstrate socioeconomic benefits.”

Khotso Mokhele, adviser to the minister of science and technology and former head of the National Research Foundation, was responsible for attracting international funding to build the optical Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) at Sutherland. “[In 1994], if you are a person of conscience, no matter how much you love science, how can you justify R50-million being taken away from these people who need houses, electricity, water, to build a telescope?” he asked in a session titled Big Science, Human Capital Development, and the Square Kilometre Array.

Ultimately, he lobbied for international partners to join and fund the Salt project. “But if we had not built Salt, there would be no Square Kilometre Array [SKA] now. South Africa became credible.”

The SKA will, when built, be the largest radio telescope in the world, and will be hosted by African countries, with its core in South Africa, and Australia. Radio astronomy involves detecting weak radio signals coming from space to create images of what the universe looks like.

But, in South Africa’s excitement about hosting this mega-project, its international presence is often overlooked — to “own” the project and give it local legitimacy, we ignore that it is an international project.

“Sometimes in South Africa, the international scale of the project is not as visible as it might be,” SKA Organisation director general Phil Diamond told the gathering. The different telescope sites will “work as an integrated observatory”. There are 10 member countries, and Diamond expects more to join. Some, such as the United Kingdom, have put cold hard cash on the table, pledging £112-million toward the project.

In October, at the World Conference of Science Journalists in San Francisco, Australia’s Lisa Harvey-Smith, project scientist for the Australian SKA Pathfinder, spoke in glowing terms of South Africa’s contributions. Unfortunately, we seldom get to hear about the exciting things happening in Australia.

But this misconception about the project being an African one is the price for giving it legitimacy locally: big science and astronomy is a hard sell in a region ravaged by poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The footprints of South Africa’s SKA involvement — and its projects to support the megaproject — crisscrossed the different sessions at the forum. A lot of those footprints were in data science and big data.

Munsami’s satellite Earth observation plans, for example, will “piggy-back” on some of the computing capabilities that radio astronomy has brought to South Africa. To build its own radio telescopes, namely the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) and the 64-dish MeerKAT, the government has been developing institutions and organisations to grow the country’s capabilities and skills.

Last year, South Africa’s Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy launched the continent’s first cloud-based research data centre, the African Research Cloud. Although this initiative began with radio astronomy, the ultimate plan is to build up other forms of data-intensive research such as genomics and Earth observation.

The first two projects on the cloud were in the disciplines of radio astronomy and genomics (the study of DNA), but Earth observation was also one of its planned projects.

The department of science and technology’s Glaudina Loots, director of health innovation, is also eyeing the promises that increased computing capability, such as the Centre for High Performance Computing and its supercomputer, hold for health research in the country.

Health research into African populations has lagged that of European populations, and not all diagnoses, treatments and drugs suit all people. Youssef Travaly highlighted why this was an issue during the Current Trends in Precision Health session.

“Here is a group of patients diagnosed with a standard diagnosis method,” he said. “There is the same diagnosis for everyone, and the same prescription for all of them.”

But they will not all react to drugs in the same way. For some, the drug will be toxic, for others it may not work. There is a great deal of evidence showing that different population groups respond differently to different medication, but that most drug trials have been conducted on men (women are notoriously under-represented in clinical trials) from developed countries.

“You need to Africanise test panels [which diagnose illnesses], such as those for breast cancer, so that those panels are adapted to African populations. Then treatments — the drugs or biologics — are they compatible with the genetic makeup of the African population?” Loots asked.

Panel moderator Nathalie Munyampenda, an associate director at the Next Einstein Forum, could have a career in journalism, if the difficult and pertinent questions on tailored or “diagnostic” healthcare she put to the panel are anything to go by: “Is the continent ready for diagnostic care? How do you convince a government that is struggling with basic health, funding their systems, and say ‘adopt these technologies’. How do you convince them?”

The responses from Travaly and Loots were the same as those given for satellites and astronomy: you have to make it clinically relevant, show that it will be more efficient, that it will be cheaper. You have to show that the technology, whatever it is, will improve people’s lives.

Sarah Wild is an award-winning science journalist