Speech: Inauguration of West African Regional Office

Esteemed guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

We gather here during a time of many global challenges. Wars are being fought. Resources are dwindling. The climate is changing. Economies are struggling. Amidst all these challenges we find ourselves looking to the skies for answers. Sometimes we look up to pray for solutions. Sometimes we look up to escape from our daily battles. Sometimes we look up because we seek new knowledge. With this west african regional office of astronomy for development, and the IAU strategic plan, we look up to the skies to find answers for our challenges on earth.

In exploring the universe we do more than satisfy our collective human curiosity. We explore like we’ve never done before. We travel unimaginable distances with our minds. We probe stars and galaxies of incomprehensible sizes. We travel back in time to predict our future.

Astronomers are the ultimate explorers, and during these journeys we push the limits of our technology, we force lateral thought that require interdisciplinary collaboration across sciences, we push human perspective and understanding of our place in the universe. These characteristics of astronomy – its links with technology, with science and with culture – form the foundations of why we are here, and why we believe that astronomy can influence human development.

Astronomy is a science that pushes our thinking and our capability. It all starts when we look at a star in the night sky and wonder “what is that object?” – that natural human curiosity, which is common across all cultures in some form or the other, pushes us to innovate. It pushes us to try to solve that problem. To invent technology like telescopes to catch the light from that star. To build instrumentation like spectrographs to analyse the light from that star. To develop computational models to explain the origin of the light from the star. To solve complex mathematical equations to explain why we see what we see, and answer the question that started it all “what is that object?”

These skills along the astronomy value chain are essential in todays world that is driven by big data and increasingly complex systems. Astronomy has the potential to stimulate the thinking and problem solving skills at all levels of the education system to respond to the daily challenges that we face as a society. It can do this because of the power of human curiosity and thought, which we must see as an untapped resource on the african continent.

This is the spirit of the IAUs strategic plan. This international body of professional astronomers, with a membership of over 11000, came up with a plan to use astronomy to stimulate global development, and subsequently set up an office of astronomy for development, with several regional offices, to implement that plan. Today we celebrate the inauguration of one of those important regional offices.

It is fitting that Nigeria, a giant on the African continent, is host to this office. Nigeria has seen an incredible growth in astronomy and astronomers over the years. Through the tireless efforts of Prof PN Okeke, who should today feel proud of his life work in this field,  opportunities were afforded to young skilled Nigerians to be trained in astronomy and space science. Today, as Prof Opara continues the incredible work of his predecessor at CBSS, we see the fruit of their efforts in the form of skilled, capable young leaders who are taking astronomy and development to the next level.

These young astronomers are shaping our future as they build on the shoulders of their teachers. The energy and capacity of Nigeria’s next generation of astronomers, which I have had the privilege to witness over the years, is to be celebrated, and something I’m sure Prof Okeke and Prof Opara reflect on with great pride and achievement. Nigerian champions of astronomy are building bridges with their counterparts in west africa and beyond. Today we are honoured to have among us representatives from Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Gabon, each of them a leader in their own right and champions for their countries.

This generation of young astronomers, engineers and scientists are leading collaborations with some of the biggest astronomy projects on the planet and earning significant international respect for their work. This is not just good for astronomy. What these young stars are achieving is a fundamental shift in the global view of Africa! They are changing the rhetoric (that we all too often hear) that Africa is consumer, rather than producer, of human knowledge. They are making people stand up and take notice of our continent, of the west african region, of Nigeria, and of Enugu! Together they are changing perspectives of who an African is, and we must continue to empower and support these individuals who, besides being excellent scientists in their own right, are the de facto global ambassadors for our continent and the region – and doing an excellent job of it.

Let us together move africa forward and upward as we reach towards the stars. May our common humanity and humility guide our efforts to make this region greater than it already is.

I look forward to continuing and expanding our work with this regional office and commit my personal support and the intitutional support of the International Astronomical Unions global office.

Transcipt of the speech by OAD Director, Kevin Govender, on the occasion of the inauguration of the West African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development.