Science for Development Workshop Summary

as published on the website of the Academy of Science of SouthAfrica

Workshop website

The Science for Development Workshop hosted by the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Office of Astronomy for Development (the OAD) and the International Science Council’s (ISC) Regional Office for Africa (ROA) and supported by the Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation, as well as several other partners, brought together researchers, industry leaders and communicators from across disciplines and across the world. The experimental workshop aimed to stimulate conversations and collaborations to find ways that science can effectively aid in socio-economic development.

Over two days, the workshop featured several talks and panel discussions and provided space to create practical solutions and projects that could be taken forward through un-conference sessions. Through these talks and discussions, several themes emerged – particularly within the workshop’s focus on Africa.

The introductory keynote from ISC President Daya Reddy emphasised the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and science’s place as a public ‘global good’. He  stressed the importance of interdisciplinary work between the humanities and natural sciences in understanding and promoting science for development, and encouraged participants to use the SDGs not only as a method of measuring progress but as a policy driver. Although the African continent locally and the larger world face significant challenges, science has the potential for impact in tackling these problems. In addition, IAU President Ewine van Dishoeck shared the progress made in astronomy over the past 100 years and how the OAD’s flagship projects are promoting socioeconomic development and have championed science for peacemaking. She also spoke about the need for fundamental scientific research in the developing world as a driver of science for development. She expressed that without the professional development of a field like astronomy in a country, that country would not be able to use astronomy for development. 

The next talk, delivered by Development Economist Tawanda Chingozha, explained what scientists need to know about development economics. One of the fundamental points he made – which featured as an overarching theme throughout the workshop – was that Africa is suffering from a statistical tragedy. There is a dearth of data on the continent, which makes it difficult to measure progress and inform policy. He also asserted that Africa is a continent where small interventions can have a big impact. These interventions should not be underestimated in the pursuit of the often overwhelming SDGs.

In the following session, which focused on ‘Innovation for development: commercial, non-profit, improving practices’, there were several talks which outlined some of the challenges in Africa due to climate change and ways to develop resilience. The short, four-minute ‘lightning talks’ focused on food insecurity, predicting and mitigating risks along the West African coast due to climate change, tracking wildfires and the need for interdisciplinary work in addressing these challenges. The accompanying panel discussion emphasised working with communities and using science as a tool to create self-sustaining solutions, ways of creating economic benefits from the products of universities and harnessing the innovation brought by young people in universities to promote job creation and economic growth, and using artificial intelligence (AI) for suicide prevention. An OAD-funded project that uses astro-tourism to empower people living in the rural Himalayas was shown as an example of community engagement and how working with communities creates solutions that are self-sustaining even after the intervention has been completed.

Some of the best practices to emerge from this discussion were recognition of indigenous knowledge, to put aside one’s ego as an expert and acknowledge the expertise of communities you’re working with, to keep ethics at the forefront when innovating and to find ways of utilizing academic knowledge in the wider world.

Through the OAD and other independent projects, astronomy has demonstrated several different ways of using science for development. Astronomy’s ‘cosmic perspective’, captured by the Pale Blue Dot, and its interdisciplinary nature makes it an effective tool for outreach and for building bridges between disparate communities. This was shared in the lightning talks, which presented some of the OAD-funded projects that promoted the SDGs in different ways.  One project encouraged girls to consider a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), another used a combination of astronomy outreach and cognitive behavioural therapy to treat Internally Displaced children in Nigeria. Some of the projects showed how astronomy – through astronomy clubs, workshops and training – could increase the number of science professionals in different countries.

A panel discussion then dived into the communication aspect of science for development. It discussed apps that use pictures and other representations to assist illiterate people to interact with technology and the internet, the Soapbox Science event – which provides women scientists with a platform to communicate to the public and serve as visible role models – and discussed ways in which large science projects like the Rubin Observatory can stimulate interest in astronomy and provide resources for education and outreach.

A quick lightning session focused on data reiterated that ‘data is the new oil’ and the need for effective data in Africa and an effective understanding of data. SAEON demonstrated its new Open Data platform and its visualisation tools, which is one example which makes data accessible to the public. Underlying data is the importance of Information Technology (IT) infrastructure and knowledge, and the role of IT cannot be overemphasised – particularly when talking about data.

The interaction between policymakers, politicians, scientists and the general public generated active discussions. Policy@Manchester is an organisation that serves policymakers, the public and academics by providing evidence-based suggestions for policies. This helps make research beneficial to the general public, since it assists in informed decision-making. The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) has a similar role in South Africa and provides scientific advice to governments. The emphasis in this discussion session was on building trust between the different spheres of society to ensure that academic research does not only remain in the ivory tower but has an impact on people’s lives. Participants also expressed frustration in getting governments to fund science – many governments do not value science because they either do not understand science or they do not see it providing economic value.

The first day of the workshop ended with unconference sessions on a variety of topics, which were summarised the following morning.

Day 2 of the workshop began with a debriefing on the Unconference sessions. The Unconference session on science and policy continued the discussion from the previous session and spoke about the need for effective science communication in ensuring that science is funded by governments. An important suggestion for scientists was to have a coordinated effort when engaging with governments and policymakers and having strategic plans in place already.

The Unconference session on women in science expressed frustration at the lack of men who attended the session. Women usually end up talking to each other in these types of discussions, and their concerns are not heard by the people in power who can affect change to keep women in science. There was a suggestion to approach young boys as well so that they don’t inherit ideas of toxic masculinity and perpetuate the cycle.

Participants in the Unconference session on science and education enjoyed the discussion and developed some foundational ideas on engaging with communities and running Science for Development projects. Authenticity was the most important step when engaging with communities, along with honour and respect. They also identified the need for developing protocols on how to engage with communities from the start, and understanding that science should help people with their needs first.

 The focus of the workshop shifted back to interdisciplinary research with a talk by the International Science Council’s Regional Office for Africa. The talk described the differences between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and highlighted the Leading Integrated Research Agenda (LIRA) 2030 in Africa project. LIRA is a project that assists early career researchers in producing solution-orientated research. These researchers are trained to work on transdisciplinary research projects that tackle some of the challenges outlined in the SDGs. Because this programme is focused on African researchers, it also helps in correcting for structural biases in research that is typically done in the Global North and creates the opportunity for novel approaches.

Following this talk, the discussion explored several of the challenges that researchers in Africa face as a whole. Issues such as a lack of mobility, funding, internet connectivity, collaboration and a lack of government buy-in make it extremely difficult for early career African researchers to conduct their research and progress towards their goals. Some suggestions were creating more African-centric academic journals, approaching various governments to spread the effectiveness of new innovations, involving industry and developing a coordinated strategy for science on the continent.

A ‘show and tell’ session demonstrated several resources, offered to participants by other participants and the organisers, that could be useful in science for development projects. These included:

–       the Deep Learning Indaba and coding resources,

–       an online software tool that converts visual astronomical data into sound,

–       the open astronomy schools,

–       the IDIA cloud computing for research and training

–       3D printing resources to improve astronomy accessibility in outreach projects. 

Throughout the workshop, participants were encouraged to collaborate and develop ideas for science for development projects. These projects were pitched by participants to invite more collaboration and resources, including some seed funding from the OAD, and for participants to offer critique to improve the quality of the projects. Some of the projects included an international intern exchange programme, using solar energy to power grinders and water heaters in Lesotho, dedicating a science for development session at the South African Institute for Physics annual conference, developing an image captioning app that uses natural language processing to improve accessibility in science communication, creating Pale Blue Dot teams in different countries, developing a 4th year undergrad (Honours) course on Science for Development at the University of the Western Cape, a project that uses AI for suicide prevention, a project to train science interns in government, a versatile, portable science laboratory for educational purposes and an invitation for collaboration and resources on the East Africa School of Astronomy.

The final session focused on ways of evaluating the effectiveness of science for development projects. The first talk discussed randomised statistical methods that are adopted by social scientists to ensure that outcomes are measured effectively. The following talk approached evaluating and developing projects at a higher level – what are the indicators of change, presenting the results of an intervention, understanding the broader outcomes and impacts of an intervention and ensuring that projects are in line with government priorities in terms of development.

After another round of pitches and critique, which attracted a lively discussion from participants, the project that was selected to receive some seed funding from the OAD was the project to develop an honours-level course on science for development.

Overall, the workshop stimulated thinking and action on several themes in science for development. It encouraged participants to interrogate how their research is relevant in people’s lives, some of the major challenges facing the developing world – particularly in the context of the global climate crisis – and the lack of data on the development, and how to ensure that projects are developed in collaboration with the communities affected so that scientists are not imposing themselves on issues they don’t fully understand. The workshop used astronomy as an example of how science can inspire and unify people ‘under the same sky’ and spur education and other forms of development. This was effective in encouraging participants to apply these principles in their own work.

Some of the lessons learnt in this workshop and questions for future workshops included the need to focus on project development rather than discussion on the broader topic of science for development. Although the brainstorming sessions generated good ideas, it can also generate bad ideas and created the opportunity to think of ways to self-regulate ideas. Science for development requires innovation and new ideas, but when implementing practices and interventions they should be evidence-based. In future workshops, the organisers would like to include more researchers and increase the depth of the interdisciplinary collaborations that may be sparked by these meetings.