Monday, August 29, 2011

Prof. Mark Bailey's Speech during the Mayoral Reception for the SALT Board Meeting

During the Mayoral Reception at Palace Demesne for the May 2011 SALT Board Meeting at Armagh Observatory, Prof. Mark Bailey made the following speech about the importance of projects like SALT. I found it was particular inspiring and applicable to South Africa, UK, and all our partners. Prof. Bailey kindly shared his notes from the event.

Minister, Mayor, SALT Board Members and Astronomers… First, I want to thank the Mayor for hosting this evening’s reception for the SALT Board and the other international visitors to Armagh this week, associated with the Armagh Observatory’s involvement together with UK University partners in the Southern African Large Telescope project. Secondly, I want to thank the Minister of the Department of
Culture, Arts and Leisure, Caral Ni Chuilin, for kindly making time to be with us this evening, from what I am sure is an extraordinarily busy schedule.

I may mention that the Observatory’s involvement in this project began a little over ten years ago. We (that is the UK SALT Consortium as a whole) and other SALT partners each managed to raise a subscription in excess of $1M to enable the telescope to be built, and we now pay an annual subscription to cover running and other operational costs of the telescope in proportion to our shareholding in the large telescope.

Reflecting on the Observatory’s involvement in SALT over the past decade, it is worth noting that the reasons for our involvement speak now just as loudly as they did then. There are many scientific benefits that flow to the Observatory and its UK partners from having access to “our own” share of a 10-metre class telescope in the Southern hemisphere, for example to develop new projects or to continue existing projects that can only be addressed by access to one of the largest telescopes on Earth; and by using our access to such a facility to strengthen our ability to attract additional research funding from the UK Research Councils; and, not least, to attract the highest possible quality of postdoctoral and postgraduate research staff to use the telescope and carry out the research on a day-to-day (or night-to-night) basis.

In addition, there are a number of very important “collateral” benefits from our involvement in the project, notably the important educational and inspirational “spin offs” from the project, and how these feed back into core DCAL Departmental objectives: for example, the growth of cultural capital, the development of a
confident, creative community, and the need to inspire young people with a love of science and mathematics — the so-called “STEM” subjects that lie at the heart of every modern high value-added economy — and which are of growing concern to governments across Europe as the EU seeks to remain competitive in relation to the other principal economic zones.

In this sense we are all part of the SALT challenge: the goal to achieve not just for South Africa but for each of our individual nations, an educated, articulate and scientifically knowledgeable citizenry, and to use astronomy as a leader and exemplar in the internationalization of science. Astronomy addresses some of the most difficult questions of existence, and yet draws people together in a shared enterprise to discover in a collaborative way the origin of our Universe and the detailed interactions and structures of all the objects within it.

At the SALT Ground-breaking ceremony at Sutherland on Friday 1st September 2000, a little over ten years ago, it was noted that what we were seeing was a reawakening of the South African nation’s awareness and appreciation of science, and also — here it was the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology
speaking “… how the investment of public funds in the construction and operation of SALT would provide distinct and substantial benefits for the development of our people, out technology and the economy”.

Others drew attention to the intellectual “spin-off” from the project, especially towards young people: “We will use this fantastic telescope to allow children to wonder about the possible and to dream about the future, and out of that wondering to cultivate curiosity about science and technology”. At that moment in the proceedings, a baby started crying; and, without missing a step, that speaker remarked that he wanted to thank that mother and father for bringing a baby to such an occasion, and urged them to stay: “The child, like SALT, represents the future!”

That child will be about eleven years old now, and it would be interesting to know whether he or she is now taking an interest in science; what that person’s goals and ambitions are; and what they will be in a further decade. Some of you here probably know who he/she is.

In the same way, and before handing over to the Northern Ireland Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I would like to emphasize an important historical lesson, namely that the principal benefit of carrying out fundamental research, and indeed of any major scientific programme like SALT, is often the discovery of the unexpected; a result totally unpredictable at the time of the project’s conception, and — like the maturity of a child into adulthood — impossible to know in advance where it might lead.

Like the child, SALT is growing up, and I would like to thank not just my own Minister for her Department’s support of astronomy at Armagh over the years but also the South African National Research Foundation and the Department of Science and Technology for their continued support for SALT, support which through the many expected, unexpected spin-offs will undoubtedly ensure for SALT a significant long-term legacy to the overall development of world science, and of South African science in particular.

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