Global Astronomy Month (2016) Blog

Astronomy for Development: Recognition and Consolidation

On the 30th March 2016, just before the start of GAM2016, the work of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) was recognized through a very special international event in Edinburgh, UK – the award of the 2016 Edinburgh Medal. This award has placed the IAU and the work of the OAD (which I humbly represented at the awards ceremony) on the same list of awardees as Prof Peter Higgs and CERN (2013), Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1999), Sir David Attenborough (1998) and Prof Abdus Salam (1989). The associated attention has been humbling and the recognition has been valuable for the huge global network that has developed around #astro4dev. For this year’s GAM blog I’m therefore taking a moment to reflect briefly on the very full past (which has led to this award) and describe how we aim to consolidate and take things forward.

The first 5 years of the OAD’s life have been eventful and busy (to put it mildly), and hopefully rewarding to all who have played a role in it. It was a time during which the vision captured at the 2009 IAU General Assembly, in the form of the IAU Strategic Plan, had to be translated into the activities of the OAD and its partners. With a small team at our headquarters in Cape Town, we took on the challenge with the passion of a global community keeping us airborne. Within the first year of the OAD we had called together stakeholders from around the world to provide input and insights into this concept. By year 2 we had established three “Task Forces” and launched the first open call for proposals, which was so successful it quickly turned into an annual call.

During that second year we also launched the first two of now nine regional offices (based in Armenia, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Nigeria, Portugal, Thailand and Zambia). These are self-sustaining staffed offices hosted at institutions around the world who share the OAD vision. Together with these offices the OAD has the structural ability to scale up projects and activities that show promise for global impact. These offices provide input about each of their target countries such that we are able to understand how appropriate any particular intervention may be in a region. It is the spirit that no single office can know what is best for the entire world – we need regional leadership to provide those informed links to societies globally. Setting up these offices have been essential for the realization of the astro4dev vision.

By year 3 we had hundreds of volunteers register their skills for projects. In that year we set up a monitoring and evaluation framework for funded projects, which was to evolve in years 4 and 5 to the Impact Cycle that I wrote about during GAM2015. Year 4 saw a detailed external review of the OAD take place, which was extremely complimentary on the work done thus far. This positive review report (publicly available) contributed to the successful renewal of the IAU-NRF agreement in year 5, extending and increasing the OAD funding and support until the IAU General Assembly in 2021, including the approval of two new staff appointments. Year 5 was also significant as the 2015 IAU General Assembly passed a resolution both for the continuation of the OAD until 2021 and for the development of a new strategic plan (which addresses what happens beyond 2021), which will be presented to the 2018 General Assembly. This means that over the next 3 years we will be calling out to the world for input into writing that new plan.

With all these structures in place, an expanding office (an astronomer and a fundraiser currently being appointed), and all the experience gained, we are ready to go big! So far we have been operating on a limited budget for projects of around €110k per year. We are now ready to go for larger scale projects. Let’s say for example we want to introduce an astronomy-for-development activity in every community in this network. The hands are available on the ground and in the volunteer space to make this happen. The global structures have been built so that funds raised can be effectively used. It would have been easy to set this up with lots of money at the outset. The OAD did it on a (relatively) small budget and lots of passion. We prepared the ground for investment and we’re ready for the next step. Our work is far from over.

Over the next three years the OAD has set itself 5 specific goals, to be realized by the 2018 General Assembly, with the key messages being that of consolidation and impact:

1. Strategic Plan: We will seek to use input from the OAD’s international networks and the experience gained since the OAD’s establishment to inform the next IAU Strategic Plan (due in 2018). Ideally, the structure and content of that plan would allow for the adoption of similar plans within other sciences.
2. Regional Offices: Synergised regional leadership should provide input to the OAD in a systematic way, especially with regard to the annual call for proposals. Offices should lead the local (regional) coordination both for the implementation of pilot projects and for taking successful (evidence-based) projects to scale.
3. Impact Cycle: A user friendly and practical “impact cycle” for projects, containing a library of best practice resources and evidence on what works and what doesn’t work. This cycle should include support and partnerships for rigorous evaluation of impact as well as a project monitoring system for OAD funded projects.
4. Focus projects: The OAD should ensure that at least one and ideally a few projects are selected for focussed evaluation and expansion. By the 2018 GA there should be sufficient progress in this area to illustrate the principle of testing and expanding projects seeded through OAD funding. External funding should be sought for additional resources and staff to manage the process for each focus project.
5. Volunteers: The OAD volunteer management system should be put in place and serve the volunteer community, providing a user friendly platform to allow for the flow of skills from the astronomy community to other regions and fields.

As we embark on this journey into the future it is a useful point in time to reflect on what the recognition of the OAD work through the Edinburgh Medal means. The reality is that there are always going to be unsung heroes who give of themselves more than society could reasonably expect of them. People who may in fact never have the stage, or voice, that we have been given through the IAU. I am privileged to know many of them, albeit a small fraction of those out there, and I am more privileged, as part of the OAD team, to be able to serve and support them. My role, and that of the OAD, is that of a servant. We are merely servants to a global network of people who believe that astronomy can contribute to making the world a better place. We enable and assist people to make a difference in their environments. This award, by recognizing the servant, places the people we serve many fold in higher regard. I am deeply grateful for this and am inspired to continue this spirit of service to the global community. The image that I’m choosing for this blog is therefore one of people – in early March 2016 we brought together our nine regional offices to coincide with a meeting of the OAD steering committee in Cape Town. This is but a small subset of a global team working to serve you in the field of astronomy-for-development.

Source – GAM 2016

This blog was written by Kevin for Global Astronomy Month 2016 run by Astronomers Without Borders