The International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently signed an agreement to establish an Office of Astronomy Development (OAD) in South Africa to focus the agency's mission to foster astronomy worldwide.
"It?s a really big push for the astronomy development globally, to have this office," said IAU Press Officer Lars Lindberg Christensen. "It's really a fairly big thing. It's going to be well-staffed, and well-funded. It will really move to help astronomy proliferate in parts of the world where it's really not so predominant."
Housed at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Tshwane/Pretoria, the office will be a first for the IAU. Until now, the organization, which boasts 10,000 individual members from 90 countries, has conducted its activities through a network with no central location.
So far, the office has been set up for a period of five years, Lindberg Christensen said. Hoping to extend that to a total of 10 years, the IAU plans to use the time to advance a central goal: increasing the degree to which less-developed countries participate in astronomy and fundamental science.
Current ideas on the table involve using the network of those working in astronomy and education to build resource-rich nodes in disadvantaged regions. Major components of the plan include teacher training, scientist-taught regional schools for young people, and institute twinning, where organizations in the developed world will team up with those in less-developed countries. Even brief visits and lectures by educators or prominent astronomers to certain areas of the world can stimulate interest in the topic, itself an achievement and critical step towards building a strong foundation, Lindberg Christensen said.
"In a sense astronomy is in a sweet spot compared to other sciences," Lindberg Christensen told SPACE.com. "It has unique cultural and technological aspects that make it easier to use it as a wave breaker for the fundamental sciences in general."
"Some of the other types of hot sciences have a really hard time for students to visualize the importance of what they're doing," he added. "Astronomy is so inspiring, it's so visual; it deals with questions that are important to mankind: Are we unique? Are there other planets that have life on them? And that makes it easier to open people's eyes, and that makes it easier to open them to research."
Though the UN Millennium Goals, a set of goals agreed upon by UN member states to improve the wellbeing of humans worldwide, include aims for the development of primary education and widespread networks, attention for these needs easily shifts in the face of immediate concerns like hunger and health, Lindberg Christensen said.
"Society in general is focusing more on short-term benefits. But astronomy and physics is not belonging to that category. The returns come in 50 or maybe 100 years. And this is why it is so important to open eyes to the importance of these sciences," Lindberg Christensen said.
The agreement, signed by the President of the South African National Research Foundation, Albert van Jaarsveld, and the General Sec
retary of the IAU, Ian Corbett, formalizes a decision taken in May 2010 when the IAU selected South Africa as the host for the OAD. The South African bid beat stiff competition from a field of 20 competing proposals.
According to Lindberg Christensen, South Africa was selected because of its rich tradition in astronomy, and the unique balances offered by its location in the world. As an area very important in terms of development, Sub-Saharan Africa is also not completely undeveloped, he said.
"This is a momentous occasion and the start of something really new, which should have profound, far-reaching long-term consequences for us all and not just for the developing countries," said IAU General Secretary Corbett. "It is wonderful that South Africa has joined with the IAU in this endeavor, and has demonstrated the determination and commitment necessary to make this a success."