Astronomy Town Meeting 2022

The town meeting was held in a hybrid format on 8 & 9 September 2022. 124 participants registered for the meeting, 70 of those were online attendees and 54 attended in person. The aim of the meeting was to provide an opportunity to:

  • Look at the current state of the South African astronomy landscape in terms of research, infrastructure, human capacity development and broader impact.
  • Discuss the governance of astronomy in South Africa, including the role and function of the astronomy advisory council.
  • Highlight challenges facing astronomy and science in South Africa, and discuss solutions and make recommendations.
  • Provide networking opportunities and potential collaborations after 2 years of Covid-related physical isolation

Outcomes & Recommendations

Download Outcomes & Recommendations as pdf.

A. Operational outcomes

  1. There is an appetite for an annual astronomy town meeting in conjunction with an astronomy science meeting in South Africa. There is, as yet, no consensus on the best vehicle for such a meeting, e.g. through the SAIP conference, the SARAO bursary conference, alongside the AfAS annual meeting, in association with ASSA, or entirely independent.
  2. The Astronomy Advisory Council has been discontinued.
  3. An HCD task team should be constituted, comprising Heads of University Departments, NASSP, NRF facilities and DSI representatives, to take immediate action on late payment of student bursaries. Key issues are summarised in §C below. The interim committee (see point #A.5, and afterwards the Astronomy Community Task Team) will follow up on the progress of the task team.
  4. There is a need for a community-led team, the Astronomy Community Task Team (ACTT), that can a) organize town and science meetings, b) coordinate operational aspects of Astronomy in South Africa, and c) establish committees or teams that can address the variety of strategic issues listed in 2 below.
  5. An interim committee [1] has been established to a) refine these outcomes, b) draft terms of reference for the ACTT and c) set up the ACTT through an open call to the South African astronomy community.

B. Strategic outcomes

  1. While the South African community currently has access to state-of-the-art research equipment, planning is required for renewal or new investments on a 10 year horizon. The current multiwavelength strategy was developed for the period 2015 to 2025. The ACTT should coordinate the process for renewal of the strategy for the 2025-2035 period.
  2. In the short term, the optical community will focus on growing the research user base for existing infrastructure while building capacity and expertise for home grown instrumentation and astronomy research infrastructure development.
  3. The community needs a consolidated policy and meaningful, actionable roadmap for South Africa’s development of an SKA Regional Centre (SRC). An SRC is essential to ensure that South African scientists are effectively enabled and supported to compete for leadership and involvement in SKA Key Science Projects.
  4. There is a gap in the South African radio research community with very few local pulsar astronomers. A well coordinated human capacity development strategy is required if South Africans want to participate in and lead pulsar science in both the MeerKAT and SKA eras.
  5. The state-of-the-art observational facilities in South Africa may be leveraged to participate in large international projects (e.g. Euclid, JWST) or to ‘timeshare’ with observational facilities in the northern hemisphere.
  6. The 20-year experience in the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) should be leveraged to ensure fit-for-purpose postgraduate training in a very dynamic and different South African astronomy landscape. This process will begin through regional discussions and a curriculum review.
  7. A small diameter, low-cost EHT station in South Africa could offer a high return on investment for developing VLBI capabilities, and could be used as a driver of multiwavelength and multi-messenger astronomy.
  8. Future and current strategies for astronomy in South Africa should build in the value of computational and theoretical support for the observational facilities. These are essential for producing the science and informing the next generation of observational facilities.

C. Key issues around student funding: to be taken up by the HCD task team

  1. There is a perception that funding levels have dropped in a highly inflationary environment, and new funding rules have capped top-ups from supervisors’ grants.
  2. Timing around student recruitment is challenging, coming too early in the academic year.
  3. Can we broaden the scope to make bursaries available to students from other African countries?
  4. Tying student funding to individuals has the unintended consequence of delaying science projects. Good scientific ideas for student projects may take years to get funded as a PhD project.
  5. Student payments are late in the year. Students are borrowing money to survive until NRF funding comes. The recent revamp of the system was intended to prioritise those who are most needy, but these very students are left without means.

[1] Membership of this committee: Sunil Chandra, Daniel Cunnama, Kelebogile Gasealahwe, Marisa Geyer, Munira Hoosain, Lucia Marchetti, Lia Labuschagne, Vanessa McBride, Itumeleng Monageng, Jack Radcliffe, Patrick Woudt


Link to detailed notes.

Venue: South African Astronomical Observatory & Zoom

Thursday 8 September 2022

09:30 – 10:00




10:00 – 11:30 Welcome Imraan Patel, DDG: Research and Development Support (DSI)
Motivation for and outcomes of the meeting Petri Vaisanen
Astronomy governance in South Africa Chair: Vanessa McBride
Update on Astronomy from DSI Takalani Nemaungani
The National Research Foundation and astronomy in SA Clifford Nxomani
Overview of the Multiwavelength Strategy Kevin Govender
11:00 – 11:30


DISCUSSION: Astronomy governance


11:30 – 13:00 Overview of current research facilities in SA Chair: Petri Vaisanen
MeerKAT & SARAO Rob Adam
SALT Lisa Crause
SAAO & hosted facilities Ramotholo Sefako
SAAO’s transition to the Intelligent Observatory Steve Potter
VLBI in South Africa Roger Deane
SA-GAMMA programme David Buckley
ilifu/IDIA Jeremy Smith
IDIA Vislab Lucia Marchetti
12:30 – 13:00


DISCUSSION: Ideas for future research facilities in SA.


13:00 – 14:00




14:00 – 16:00 Human capacity development Chair: Zara Randriamanakoto
NASSP Ros Skelton
SARAO HCD programme Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka
Undergraduate astronomy at UCT Sarah Blyth
Astronomy at UniZulu Cebo Ndlangamandla
Meaningful, measurable and sustainable change for transforming astronomy in SA Tana Joseph
Instrumentation hub/training Lisa Crause
Growing a South African radio pulsar community Marisa Geyer
NITHECS Francesco Petruccione
SKIES project Lucia Marchetti
15:30 – 16:00


DISCUSSION: HCD in South Africa


16:00 – 16:30




16:30 – 17:30


Discussion: Science Priorities in South Africa


Chair: Vanessa McBride


18:00 – 20:00 Braai at SAAO

Friday 9 September 2022



Reflections from Day 1


Chair: Vanessa McBride


09:45 – 10:45 GA2024 and its legacy for South Africa Chair: Kevin Govender
Current status of GA2024 TBD
Symposia & Focus meetings Brad Frank
Preparation of SA astro sites for IAU excursions Ian Glass
South Africa’s interface with the African astronomy community Charles Takalana
10:30 – 10:45


DISCUSSION: Brainstorming/Call to action on GA2024


10:45 – 11:30




11:30 – 12:30 Outreach, Education and Broader Impact of astronomy Chair: Charles Takalana
SALT Collateral Benefits Programme Sivuyile Manxoyi
Role of ASSA in astronomy community Daniel Cunnama
Wits Digital Dome Roger Deane
Astrotourism strategy Audrey Dikgale
Astronomy for Development Kevin Govender
12:15 – 12:30




12:30 – 13:30




13:30 – 15:30


WORKING SESSION: SWOT analysis of Astronomy in South Africa; potential steps towards a new multiwavelength strategy




Closing and acknowledgements