Tuesday, August 15, 2006


S.George Philander, Princeton University.
11 August 2006

I visited South Africa from July 1 until July 22, meeting with various groups of scientists, and with government and university officials, to discuss the proposal for an African Earth Institute. (The schedule is attached.) That my very busy visit was informative and also enjoyable is in no small measure attributable to the efforts of Laurie Barwell. The following are my main impressions.

Geoscientists in South Africa are engaged in a broad spectrum of activities, each group dealing with some aspect of earth system science but there nonetheless are vacant niches. One is computer modeling of interactions between the different components of the earth system. For example, there are groups that model the atmosphere, and others who model the ocean, but nobody uses computers to simulate interactions between the ocean and atmosphere. These interactions are responsible for a host of phenomena, such as El Nino and innumerable climate phenomena. The South African scientific community supports the establishment of a group that focuses on the computer modeling of ocean-atmosphere-land phenomena related to climate.

Comment: The creation of a group with a narrow focus on computer modeling will strengthen the scientific enterprise in South Africa, but will contribute only in a very modest way to a host of other problems outlined below.

Practically all scientists complain about being overcommitted, having too much on their plates… research, teaching, serving on committees … There simply are too few scientists for the jobs to be done.

Comment: Another potential problem is the commitment to large programmes, for example those organized by the international scientific community. Such large programmes are of course essential, but their top-down, highly structured approach has serious limitations; there is a need for complementary, “small science,” bottom-up projects.

A major problem in South Africa, everyone agrees, is the small number of people currently being trained in science and engineering. At the end of the apartheid era, large numbers of technically trained people left the country; some are still leaving. Over the past ten years the number of black students enrolled in universities has increased significantly, but few study science, and a disturbing number of those have a difficult time finding jobs in which they use their acquired skills -- because of the poor backgrounds they received in schools, and because of a lack of mentoring

Comment: The education, training and mentoring of students, to be effective and successful, require labour-intensive and time-consuming methods. South Africa therefore faces a dilemma: its urgent need for a large increase in the number of people with scientific and technical skills requires more scientists than are available for this job.

Efforts to build capacity (to deal with the problem mentioned in 3 above) are numerous, but success appears to be limited. Consider, for example, the first 5-year phase of BCLME and BENEFIT, the large, partially UN funded international projects which were concerned with fisheries along the western coast, and which included computer modeling of the coastal zone.

Those projects were scientific successes, but their legacies do not include a sustainable computer modeling capability. The departure of one or two key oceanographers tomorrow will bring the modeling activity to an end. A different approach to capacity building is the creation of “Research Chairs.” This is, in principle, a splendid idea if it attracts prominent scientists from abroad to South Africa. However, prominent people are in heavy demand and very few are likely to be available for 5-year commitments.

Everyone applauds SALT (South Africa Large Telescope), not because the country needs more astronomers, but because SALT draws young students to science, brings scientists from abroad to observe the relatively unexplored southern skies, and even attracts foreign investments because the business world sees SALT as an indicator of the South African government’s firm, long-term commitment to science and technology. South African scientists agree that there is a need for additional programs similar to SALT.

Furthermore, many agree that an African Earth Institute, that integrates the various components of the earth sciences, could be such an initiative, but each one doubts whether it will be possible to persuade his or her colleagues to endorse an Earth Institute. This implies a logical inconsistency: how can everyone be in favor, but the sum of all the “everyone's” be opposed to an Earth Institute?

The inconsistency became explicit at the end of my trip, at a "national forum" at Kirstenbosch, with representatives from institutions across the country, to discuss the proposal for an African Earth Institute. The idea of a group that focuses on computer modeling was endorsed but the name “Earth Institute" met with opposition. The reluctance of groups, each enjoying some autonomy, to be integrated, is a universal problem. Somebody described earlier attempts to form, at his university, a geoscience department by merging geology, oceanography, meteorology… Apparently there was agreement on the advantages, but nothing happened in the end because each group cherished its autonomy.

Comment: Developments in the earth sciences are such that, a decade hence, it is highly unlikely that any progressive university will have separate departments of geology, oceanography, meteorology etc. Such a fragmented structure precludes the study of a host of important phenomena that require an interdisciplinary approach. It is inevitable that, in the same way that genomics centres are mushrooming, there will be a proliferation of AEONs, an early recognizer of this reality. In smaller countries, coordination of such centres is desirable. Maybe AEON should spawn nodes, each with its own focus, all with the same goal of integrating the earth sciences..

At the “national forum” in Kirstenbosch the name ACCESS == African Centre for Coordinated Earth Stewardship Science -- potentially a node of AEON? – gained acceptance. Everybody was invited to participate in the preparation of a strategy document for ACCESS. Several scientists accepted the invitation and, during the weeks after the Kirstenbosch meeting, produced parts of such a document that has the makings of an impressive programme. It appears that, de facto, ACCESS exists; several groups of scientists are interested in joining forces and in coordinating their efforts.

In summary, ACCESS has wide support in the South African scientific community. It will be concerned mainly with phenomena related to coastal oceanography, interannual climate fluctuations, and long-term climate changes in the past and future. The focus will be on computer modeling, but no theoretical (or modelling) effort can be divorced from measurements so that ACCESS will be heavily involved in observational programmes, assisting with their design, providing information for those engaged in field-work etc. It is proposed that much of 2007 be spent formulating long-term (5 to 10 year) plans, in close coordination with other ongoing programmes.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home