I present below a new paper by the China Africa Research Institute (CARI) and remarks by Marie Korsaga, an astrophysicist from Burkina Faso. The common theme binding these two presentations is the importance of space technology and science education for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Not discussed by the two authors is the essential understanding that scientific discovery is the true source of economic wealth, contrary to the foolish views that Africa’s wealth is measured by the quantities of mineral resources found underground. The mind with its innate ability to hypothesize, to discover new physical principles, if imperfectly, is the underlying wellspring of progress for humankind. African nations expanding their involvement in space exploration are making an invaluable contribution to their future. Africa’s education of its large and growing youth population in science should be a source of hope, antithetical to Thomas Malthus’ evil over-population claptrap I will be posting an article on this in the near future.
May 28, 2020
Dr. MARIE KORSAGA* I am an astrophysicist and originally from Burkina Faso. My research focuses on the distribution of dark matter, and visible matter in galaxies. In simple terms, it must be said that visible matter, that is to say, ordinary matter made up of protons, neutrons, electrons, everything that is observable with our devices, represents only about 5% of the universe — the rest is invisible matter, distribute as follows: 26% dark matter and 68% dark energy.
Dark matter, with its gravitational force is used to explain the fact that galaxies remain close to each other, while dark energy causes the universe to expand faster over time. So we cannot speak of understanding the universe if we only know about 5% of its constituents. So, to understand our universe, that is to say, to be able to account for its formation and evolution, it is essential to understand what dark matter and dark energy are.
Dark matter, as its name suggests, is something that you cannot see with even the most sophisticated telescopes. So far, no dark matter particles have ever been detected, nevertheless, we feel its presence thanks to its impact on gravity. The purpose of my research is to study how dark matter is distributed inside galaxies in order to better understand the formation and evolution of our universe, and therefore, the origin of life on Earth.
Beyond my research, I am interested in the development side of astronomy in Africa. For this, I work at the Office of Astronomy for Development on a project which consists in using astronomy as a factor of development almost everywhere in the world, but especially in the developing countries, by supporting projects related to education, educational tourism and so on.
Speaking of education, it is important to remember that according to the African Union, Africa has the youngest population in the world, with more than 40% of its young people under the age of 15, which will produce a demographic explosion in the next 10 years. This population growth has disadvantages, but also advantages. The downside is that if measures are not taken, such as access to quality education for boys and girls, especially in science, these young people, instead of becoming a source of development for the continent, risk, rather to be a source of socio-economic political instability and conflict, which will further plunge the continent into misery.
However, the advantage of this population growth is that through a well-developed education system, this demographic growth, if accompanied by strong measures both on the side of public policies and the private sector, will be a great source of sustainable development, at the economic and political level of the continent. For this, it is very important to make significant investments in the field of education, with a focus on innovation, science and technology.
It should be noted that today, African graduates mainly graduate from the literary and human sciences fields. STEM students — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — represent only 25% of the workforce on average, according to the World Bank. In addition, women are underrepresented in these areas. Take my case: I am the first woman to obtain a doctorate in astrophysics in Burkina, and even in West Africa. It may sound flattering, but it reveals a rather disturbing diagnosis, despite being a light of hope. Indeed, even if the region has a dozen doctorates in the field, there are almost no women among them.
Unfortunately, this shows that we are still a long way from achieving gender parity in science, and there is still much to do. This requires a change in mentalities and the accessibility of science to women, especially among the underprivileged. It is not unknown that a career in astrophysics requires a course in physics, which is not obvious for women in our societies where the majority of people think that the scientific fields are dedicated to men, and that women must go to the literary streams. This has the effect of discouraging women from opting for long studies, especially in the scientific fields, and even if they opt for them, they tend to give up at the first obstacles, due to the lack of encouragement.
Today, I can say that I have broken this barrier, at my level, and I would like to take advantage of the privilege to inspire and encourage as many young girls as I can, to opt for it.
It is true that today there are efforts being made by several governments to break these stereotypes with, for example, the NEF, the Next Einstein Forum in Rwanda, which is a platform for popularizing science, and which offers opportunities for students through scholarships of the network of women in science, called OWSD, the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, which gives opportunities to girls and women in STEM fields.
However, there is still a lot to do, because the representation of women in science is far from being reached. Beyond research, I intend to contribute to the training of young people in science in Burkina Faso, and in Africa in general, by giving courses at universities, and also supervising masters and PhD students. I also plan to take action to popularize science education in general, and astrophysics in particular in countries where access to science is limited. This will serve to motivate young girls and boys, especially young girls, to take up scientific studies. There are also other future actions that I plan to undertake, in collaboration with other researchers, namely the establishment of scientific schools in Africa, particularly dedicated to women; the organization of workshops to enable female scientists to speak about their inspiring work, and cultivate self-confidence. The creation of an astronomy club for children, etc.
In addition to being fascinating as a science, astronomy can also be used as a development tool through, for example, education and tourism. The International Astronomical Union understands this and is making a lot of effort to address this development component in developing countries, and working to achieve a Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.
The typical example, in Sub-Saharan Africa is the case of South Africa, where the installation of telescopes in localities has not only facilitated the popularization of science and the creation of jobs for young people, but also has boosted the economy, and the development of infrastructure in these localities.
The current context in which we, notably the COVID-19 pandemic, reminds us of how important science must occupy our lives and our education system. This importance must convince the African authorities that it is more than necessary to devote a large part of national budgets to the support and the promotion of studies and of scientific research, because investment in human capital remains a secure means for the growth of a country. Above all, we must understand that to get our continent out of underdevelopment, we will have to review our way of executing these programs, focusing on education, training in science, technology, and innovation, especially space science, could not only increase our human potential, which is a source of sustainable development, but also enable the management of our natural resources and thus impact the economy in the continent.
Africa has an immense amount of natural resources, essential to the development of industry. It is necessary to arrive at a point where these resources are exploited, first for its development, by women and men trained on the continent and with compatible techniques.
Thank you for offering me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the necessity of education in science in Africa.
*Unedited remarks delivered to an international online conference organized by the Schiller Institute, April 25-26, 2020