“There are a lot of Opportunities for Enhanced Collaborations Between Africa and Europe” – Michelle Willebrands

Michelle Willebrands

The European Regional Office of Astronomy for Development was officially established on 26 February 2018 at a signing ceremony in Leiden, the Netherlands. The event marked the formation of the tenth Regional Office of Astronomy for Development. The office has, over the course of its existence, had projects in Africa. Space in Africa met up Michelle Willebrands, Project Officer of the office, based in Leiden University to discuss some of these projects

Can you tell me a bit about the E-ROAD initiative?

Starting with the background, the E-ROAD initiative started with the International Astronomy Union (IAU) and the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), based in Cape Town, South Africa. Its mission is to realise how to use astronomy – in all its aspects – to contribute to Sustainable Development and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The Office soon realised that despite that most development challenges are global, the solution to these challenges is to be decided on a local scale. To this end, the international office opened regional offices around the world. This initiative birthed the E-ROAD two years ago (there are 11 regional offices in total, of which three regional offices in Africa – Southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa)

Can you explain some of the E-ROAD projects in Africa?

One of our programmes with Africa is the Mobility programme. The pandemic delayed the start of the programme. Through the programme, we train institutes, especially young researchers who do not have the opportunity to travel or do not have access to quality education. We try to match them with persons in other parts of the world to see if they can travel to gain research or study experience or collaborate. We also asked the different regional offices how we could help them. In their responses, they mentioned that they need training on transferable skills. While the training of scientists is quite vital, people also need to be trained on these transferable skills.

Thus, the mobility programme involves the training of such skills. We started this training through the Erasmus+ programme. The Erasmus+ programme, through its international credit mobility, allows universities to twin, and allow for collaboration. The programme was to have started this year, but for the pandemic. However, It will begin in 2022 with Leiden University in The Netherlands and colleagues in Nigeria and Ethiopia, as other regional OAD offices are based here. This programme will allow us to transfer knowledge, work with and train some of our colleagues. 

What are some of the programmes the E-ROAD has done in Africa?

Because the E-ROAD is still so young (about two years), things are only just starting now. Nonetheless, one of our programmes, which began in March, is called Skilled, Innovative and Entrepreneurial Scientists (SKIES). It is an EU funded H2020 project, but it also involves some of our colleagues from South Africa. This programme focuses on training on astronomy for PhD students and young researchers. As the name suggests, it also involves training on open science, innovation and entrepreneurship. We have realised that not all astronomy students can go into a research career. At the same time, universities do not prepare these students enough for other careers as they are all focused on academia.

This is where we come in. We try to see how students take the skills they learn in astronomy and use it to contribute to other fields like economics, society, sustainable development etc. While we coordinate this programme in The Netherlands, we have local trainers, including in South Africa. These trainers will help us tailor our content to meet the local needs of the universities we work with.

Another project of ours – which is still in the conceptual phase – is the pale blue dot. The name refers to a famous picture that the Voyager 1 probe took from the solar system’s outer regions. The renowned astronomer Carl Sagan remarked about the picture, that the impact of the photo is a cosmic perspective that makes us realise how special and unique our home planet is.

This gave us the idea that we can use this perspective in education. We can use astronomy to teach about astronomy and physics, but we can also use astronomy to teach the broader perspective of global citizenship. We can teach children to be citizens of the earth and think beyond their countries. This will give the children the mindset and skills to address global challenges – like climate change. At the moment, we are developing educational materials – based on past experiences – for young children from ages 5-10.

The project will be tested first in Germany; however, our colleague in charge of it has also contacted local teachers from Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa (and other countries) to see how they can replicate the project in their local schools. The idea revolves around the concept of storytelling interwoven throughout educational materials. The story revolves around two kids who are learning about astronomy, the planets and these global challenges. The materials are being edited to fit several locations – for example; the animated kids will undergo redesigning in different regions to be more relatable with the local audience. We hope to start implementing this on a larger scale at the start of 2022

The pale blue dot. Source: NASA
What challenges have you faced in implementing these projects?

The pandemic has been a challenge. This is because everyone suddenly had different things to do, and offices were shutting down. This paused and slowed everything down. The pandemic was a tragedy in the first place, however, it provided us with an opportunity to learn from each other as we already had a global network. We were able to talk to each other and learn ways to connect with local communities online and try to help them. It could not always be through astronomy in certain African societies as it was not the right time for astronomy education. However, as astronomers were already there, they instead started educating the locals on health and providing them with masks and sanitisers, for example. In this way, we did as much as we could, even if it was not astronomy.

However, now that the world is gradually opening up, we are trying to see how we can get started again and see what we can continue online. For example, colleagues of mine in South Africa have organised hackathons, and this is something we have now learned to do online. Despite the adverse effects of the pandemic, one thing it has shown is that online engagement is possible and is more accessible.

Before now, we have had to travel a lot for conferences and meetings without realising that many persons could not afford these opportunities. Now, more and more people realise that we can not go back to how we used to do things. Additionally, travelling is a significant contributor to our footprints on the planet. Because of the people and the planet, we need to keep doing things online or hybrid. Consequently, for us, the pandemic has also been a wake-up call.

Generally, there are other challenges. The field of astronomy for development is relatively small. While the network is global and established, at the same time, everyone struggles from lack of resources. We do not always have the human capacity or funds. Because of this, we are working with our African (and other) colleagues to see how we can fundraise and build capacity. So, as everywhere else, we do have a funding challenge. Nonetheless, we can do a lot with little resources because of the highly motivated people in the network. So, while this is still a challenge, it has also been an opportunity to learn to do more with less. 

Furthermore, concerning international collaborations, it is humbling sometimes. This is as one needs to be open-minded and learn from each other, and to accept there are better ways to do things in different regions. A project needs to be particular to the local culture which the local people will guide. This means that one would have to listen to them. Because of this, international collaborations present a valuable opportunity for us to learn from one another. 

Where do you see the union between Europe and Africa in the near future?

I see a lot of opportunities for enhanced collaborations. In my work in astronomy for development within the last decade, there have mostly been smaller and grassroots projects. In some of these projects, there have been avenues for knowledge sharing. However, it is often challenging to find the information and build on the knowledge when the project ends. So what I see this network doing is connecting more people. This will involve knowledge sharing sessions for everyone who have participated in these projects in Europe and Africa.

Furthermore, we also hope to see how they can learn from one another on a grander scale. Thus, if there is a successful project in Nigeria, other countries can implement the same practices. Consequently, a connection is necessary for parties to transfer their knowledge, so we will avoid reinventing the wheel. This is something we are trying to do from a fundraising perspective. There are multiple opportunities to raise funds for networking and capacity building. Consequently, we envision this as a series of workshops and knowledge-sharing events.  

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