External Review Panel Lauds OAD’s Work and Recommends Continuation

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The report from a recent external review of the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) has just been released to the public by the National Research Foundation. The review, covering 6 years of OAD operations, concluded with a commendation on the OAD’s work and a recommendation to renew its hosting in South Africa until 2027.

The second external review of the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), conducted in 2021, found its performance “outstanding by any standards, and exceptional given the small size of the core team, its global remit and its relatively modest resources.”

The objective of the review panel was to evaluate the performance of the OAD for the period 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2020 and to make recommendations to optimise the future development of the OAD. Initially delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a panel of 3 experts was constituted to evaluate the OAD: 1. Prof. Ian Corbett (Convener), European Southern Observatory (retired) and past General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union, 2. Prof. Daya Reddy, University of Cape Town, South Africa and President of the International Science Council (2018-2021), and 3.  Prof. You-Hua Chu, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taiwan.

As per their terms of reference, the panel members read and analysed relevant documents such as strategic plans, agreements, annual reports, business plans as well as the report from the 2015 external review of the OAD. The OAD website served as an essential reference for projects and activities. This was followed by interviews and written input from a number of stakeholders including the OAD team, steering committee, other IAU Offices, OAD principals- the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), host South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), regional offices, partners, and project leaders.

Overall, the panel provided a glowing evaluation stating that the OAD has turned the somewhat abstract concept of “astronomy for development” into a reality. The review panel commended the OAD for providing the astronomy community with an effective focus and conduit for its engagement in socio-economic development. The panel further recommended that the OAD continue at the SAAO under its current arrangements with major efforts made to increase resources for the Flagships and Regional Offices.

Recommendations by the review panel:

  1. The OAD should continue at the SAAO with funding from IAU and DSI via NRF.
  2. The IAU-NRF Agreement, modified to make explicit reference to the Actions in the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan, should be extended to the 2027 IAU General Assembly.
  3. The IAU and NRF should consult each other on appointments to the Steering Committee to ensure it has the appropriate spread of expertise required by the ‘development’ mission of the OAD. This should be incorporated in the modified IAU-NRF Agreement.
  4. A major effort, through fundraising and/or otherwise, should be made to increase resources, particularly for the proposed ‘Flagship’ programme, and to put more resources into the Regional Offices.
  5. The Regional Offices are an important adjunct to the OAD and would benefit from increased funding and carefully monitored autonomy.
  6. The OAD, working with the Steering Committee, should develop a prioritised strategy for addressing the actions for the OAD set out under Goal 3 of the IAU Strategic Plan 2020-2030.
  7. In this context, consideration should be given to prioritising projects with demonstrably longer term development benefit.
  8. A ‘development’ specialist would be a valuable addition to the core team; the optimal way in which this expertise could be provided should be studied urgently by the OAD working with the NRF and IAU. In addition, the OAD should explore and leverage closer relationships with development specialists at the regional universities.
  9. The members of the Steering Committee should be encouraged to take a more direct interest in the progress of the Regional Offices.
  10. The OAD should not be expected to take responsibility for fundraising, which would divert it from its core mission: that is an IAU responsibility and the OAD should provide appropriate assistance.