26-03-2012Launch of EU Universe Awarness Workshop

Scientists and policymakers gathered at the old Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands to attend the launch of the Lorenz Centre EU Universe Awareness (EU-UNAWE) International Workshop. EU-UNAWE is a project initiated in the Netherlands that is presently being funded by the European Commission under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It uses astronomy as a tool to inspire children from aged 4 upwards, focusing on disadvantaged communities. The goals of EU-UNAWE are twofold, to introduce children to the fun of science, and to broaden their minds, thereby stimulating a sense of world citizenship and tolerance during a formative stage of their development. The participating countries are Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and the UK (Northern Ireland).

The welcome address was given by Professor Verduyn Lunel, Dean of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Leiden University. Professor Lunel specifically highlighted the unique potential of astronomy as an exciting medium for introducing very young children to science.

Professor George Miley, Vice President of the International Astronomical Union, discussed the valuable role of astronomy in building capacity at all levels across countries – both in terms of science and technology but also culture. He further outlined the potential of EU-UNAWE as a network for professionals to exchange ideas, develop fun materials for children and promote teacher training. Professor Miley also proposed that Europe can learn a great deal from South Africa in terms of its public outreach efforts. Professor Miley later called attention to the recent adoption of Written Declaration 45 on Science Capacity Building in Africa: supporting European-African Radio Astronomy Partnerships. With the signatures of nearly 400 MEPs, he described the declaration’s adoption as a tremendous feat that is very encouraging.

Mr Gay Mitchell MEP, Member of the European Parliament Committee on Development, drew attention to the potential benefits of large radio astronomy projects in Africa, particularly in terms of science education, human capital development and the Millennium Development Goals. Mr Mitchell argued that future growth in radio astronomy projects  could change the face of science in Africa and suggested that projects such as EU-UNAWE could “put inspiration on the agenda” of the European Parliament.

The Right Honourable Dr E. N. N. Ngcobo MP, Chair of the South African Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, addressed the steps that South Africa has taken and continues to take to usher children towards science and technology and enhance the country’s class of young researchers. Dr Ngcobo also discussed South Africa’s long history of astronomy, going back to the 1820s, before bringing attention to existing projects in South Africa such as KAT-7 and MeerKAT.

Dhr. B.J. van Bochove, Chair of the Dutch Parliamentary Committee for Education, Culture and Science, spoke of the importance of education as the foundation for a healthy society and praised the EU-UNAWE aim of stimulating curiosity and tolerance in young people.

Professor Teresa Riera Madurell MEP, Member of the European Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, addressed the conference via video link and echoed Professor Miley in highlighting the adoption of Written Declaration 45 on Science Capacity Building in Africa. Professor Riera Madurell also argued that Horizon 2020, the EU’s next Framework Programme for Research and Development, should advance radio astronomy research.

Dr Tanja Zegers of the Space Research and Development Unit at DG Enterprise and Industry (European Commission) outlined the objectives of Horizon 2020 in terms of space research. Dr Zegers specifically argued that space will have an increasing role in society in the future and that this needs to be prepared for in order for maximum benefits to be reaped. Highlighting the role of global space partnerships in Horizon 2020, Dr Zegers noted that when the inclusion of such partnerships were announced as part of the programme, much attention was focused on the potential of partnerships with South Africa rather than more traditional partners.

Addressing the conference by video link from South Africa, Mr Kevin Govender, Director of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development, underlined the potential of astronomy as a “gateway science” which can inspire young people, engage the public and promote scientific thinking.

Dr. Cecelia Scorza of EU-UNAWE Germany discussed the wide-ranging potential of astronomy in terms of education, from science to environmental awareness and human values. Dr Scorza then brought the conference to a close by introducing guests  via video link to a group of schoolchildren  in Sutherland, South Africa.

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