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Workshop in Namibia brings together high-level scientists, policymakers, and diplomats from 17 African countries

Group Work Namibia Workshop

Group work during the AAAS-TWAS Science Diplomacy Workshop in Namibia | Credit: Marga Gual Soler/AAAS


The border-jumping Ebola outbreak and development of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope prove science diplomacy is essential for Africa and beyond. For Dr. Bernie Fanaroff, a distinguished radio astronomer who until 2015 led South Africa’s SKA Project and currently acts at the project’s strategic adviser, science diplomacy is paramount. Fanaroff spoke at a science diplomacy workshop led by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Windhoek, Namibia on May 22, 2017. The workshop included the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the TWAS Regional Office for Sub-Saharan Africa (TWAS-ROSSA) as partners. More than 70 participants from 17 African countries, as well as a delegation from the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), attended the one-day workshop, which also coincided with the annual conference of the Southern African Research and Innovation Managers Association (SARIMA).

For Fanaroff as well as other workshop speakers, science diplomacy – or the use of scientific collaboration among nations to build international partnerships – has been integral to their work, even if they did not realize it at the outset. Fanaroff explained that although he expected the scientific and engineering aspects of the SKA project to dominate his work, he found that the project’s international governance structure meant he was often working in the world of diplomacy just as much as in the world of science.  He also emphasized the importance of SKA to develop human capital, bring about local and regional innovation, and expand capacity for data science in Africa.

U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, Thomas Daughton | Credit: Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

“[These telescope projects] need great coordination and intergovernmental agreements on the specifications of the equipment, software, human resources and leadership – among many other issues,” Fanaroff said.

When SKA is completed in the late 2020s, it will be the world’s largest radio telescope and science infrastructure, with the total area of the dishes measuring one square kilometer. The project is being led by South Africa and Australia, in partnership with eight other countries. Additional dishes will also be built across southern Africa as well as Ethiopia and Ghana.

Thomas Daughton, U.S. Ambassador to Namibia, also emphasized the importance of science over his 30-year diplomatic career. He opened the workshop by outlining a number of diplomatic hurdles encountered, for example, when trying to arrange a multi-partner climate research project between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and universities in the U.S., South Africa, and Namibia.

Marga Gual Soler, Project Director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, and Peter McGrath, TWAS Science Policy/Science Diplomacy Programme Coordinator, introduced the history of science diplomacy, and highlighted a number of examples of science diplomacy in practice. SKA is one textbook example of ‘diplomacy for science’ – or how countries come together to create major scientific infrastructures that would be too complex and too expensive for any single country to build and maintain on its own.

A panel of international experts then presented case studies from the southern Africa region. Speakers included Dimitri Prybylski of the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Namibia office, who was involved in coordinating the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa; Markus Theobald of the EU Delegation to Namibia in Windhoek; and Pierguido Sarti, Italian science attaché to South Africa, Namibia, and other southern African countries.

Prybylski outlined some of the factors that facilitated the rapid spread of Ebola, and which also served to illustrate how science, public health, cultural practices, and diplomacy are all intertwined. For example, frequent travel across porous borders, poor nations with limited health infrastructure and no prior experience with Ebola, a history of regional conflict, and local customs (e.g. burial practices) contribute to how quickly and easily outbreaks can spread. According to Prybylski, the biggest lesson learned from the epidemic is the need for strengthened international frameworks for responding to emerging threats in an increasingly mobile, interconnected world.

Too often large international science facilities neglect the impact of the infrastructure and operations on local communities. Fanaroff said that SKA was committed to societal engagement and included indigenous knowledge from the start, and he used the Shared Sky exhibition as example. Shared Sky is a collaborative art exhibition based on the SKA vision that aims to bring together under one sky Aboriginal Australian and South African artists to celebrate humanity’s ancient cultural wisdom and embody “the spirit of the international science and engineering collaboration that SKA represents.”

Participants stressed the need to work across silos and overcome insular practices of one-country approaches that suggest “scientific colonialism,” a recurrent theme brought up by the participants.  One success story in this regard is the development of Peace Parks – cross-border wildlife reserves that allow for shared expertise in biodiversity, monitoring natural routes of wildlife migration and fighting illegal poaching, and training staff, among other joint activities.


Namibia Workshop participants and speakers
Speakers and Organizers, AAAS-TWAS Namibia Science Diplomacy Workshop | Credit: Marga Gual Soler/AAAS

For the final session of the workshop, participants were divided into three groups (East, Southern, and West & Central Africa) to discuss reactions to the presentations, and to identify challenges and opportunities in science diplomacy for their region. Among the common challenges cited were issues such as the disconnect between ministries of science and ministries of foreign affairs in many African countries, as well as the absence of science advisors to government officials and the lack of science attaches at embassies.

Since 2013, TWAS and the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy have organized a joint annual summer course on science diplomacy at TWAS headquarters in Trieste, Italy, which now has over 200 alumni from around the world. TWAS and AAAS will use the feedback from organizers and participants to develop a weeklong course tailored for sub-Saharan Africa, which will be rolled out in 2018.


Peter McGrath, TWAS Science Policy/Science Diplomacy Programme Coordinator, co-authored this piece