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WisBusiness: UW Telescope May Help State Firms See Success in South Africa

By Brian E. Clark

Thanks to its geography and its clear skies, South Africa has long been a prime location for astronomy.

Which is why UW-Madison – plus a dozen other international organizations - signed on a little more than five years ago to help build and fund SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope.

Faculty and administrators will travel to this emerging economic powerhouse on the African continent’s southern tip in November when SALT – the largest telescope in the hemisphere - captures its first light. They also hope to open doors to Wisconsin business leaders accompanying them on the trip, nurturing what they foresee as a two-way commercial exchange that will benefit both the Badger State and South Africa.

The two economies already have some significant financial ties. Nearly three years ago, South African Breweries bought Milwaukee’s Miller Brewing Co. But officials say the business links could be much greater. Last year, according to state Commerce Department records, Wisconsin firms exported $62 million in products to South Africa, making it the 24th most important international market.

Companies involved in the trade ranged from Accelerated Genetics in Baraboo, which sells beef and dairy semen around the globe, to Zenar Corp. in Oak Creek, which builds high-tech overhead cranes. And while Gov. Jim Doyle has made trade visits to Asia, Mexico and is planning another to Poland and the Czech Republic in November, commerce officials said he has no plans to travel to South Africa.

Matt Bershady, an associate professor in the Astronomy Department, said the SALT project extends the “Wisconsin Idea” from the state’s borders to southern Africa and even the outer reaches of the universe – thanks to talented telescope builders at the UW and the university’s widely respected African studies department.

UW astronomers’ main contribution to the $30 million telescope, garnered from building lightweight instruments for the U.S. space program, is the Prime Focus Image Spectrograph (PFIS) - a multipurpose instrument mounted high above the telescope’s mirrors.

The university paid for 15 percent of the telescope – roughly $4.5 million - second only to South Africa’s investment of 30 percent. No Wisconsin taxpayer dollars were used, Bershady said, and half came in the form of spectragraph.

“Through this effort, we have begun to bring the resources of Wisconsin to South Africa,” Bershady said. “We think the potential for all of this is great.

“The Wisconsin Idea means finding a way to connect the intellectual efforts of the university into the practical realm of the business in Wisconsin.

“Historically, that meant agriculture and now it means business in general,” he said. “Where this goes with South Africa is wide open, but we certainly want to explore how Wisconsin companies can benefit from what started with SALT.”

At the outset, the South Africans said they did not want SALT to be a one-way street, in which foreign scientists used simply used the telescope to gather information that they would take back to their universities.

“They wanted what they call ‘collateral’ benefits, they made that very clear from the beginning,” said Jim Delehanty of the university’s African Studies Program.

“They want to rejoin the scientific community with this project,” he said. “This telescope says they are now joining the modern world.”

Eric Wilcots, chairman of the Astronomy Department, said SALT is “extremely symbolic” for the South Africans.

“They want to use astronomy to inspire math and science students,” he said. “They want it to be a jumping off point, a beacon for science and technology in South Africa and the region. We’re glad to be a part of that.”

Because of its nearly half-century of apartheid – an Afrikaner word for separateness – nearly all black and mixed-race students were denied the chance to study math and science.

As a result of its racial policies, South Africa was boycotted by most of the international community – a stance eventually adopted by the U.S. Congress starting in the 1986 during the Reagan Administration. Because the country was shunned, it had to develop on its own, Delehanty said. It had some successes -- the first heart transplant was done in South Africa, and because of its advanced mining industry, South Africans are considered the best tunnelers in the world -- but it suffered economically.

Aside from the economic isolation, another repercussion of apartheid was that many of the country’s most highly trained white citizens began leaving the country in the 1960s, though Delehanty said some are now returning.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “We get a lot of Africans who study at UW-Madison. Many want to stay here. But South Africans have an immense love for their country. They almost all want to go back.”

Since the white-ruled apartheid government gave up power in the early '90s, the country has been trying to improve its majority schools, but the effort has a long ways to go.

“The main collateral aim of SALT is to develop greater technological and scientific literacy in what was a disenfranchised population,” Bershady said. “This telescope is the flagship for that effort.

“They want to make the transition and lead the continent in science, technology and business,” he said. “To do that, they need majority science, technology and business educators.”

Almost immediately after beginning work on the telescope, UW-Madison created a teacher training program to live up to its end of the collateral bargain.

Now in its fourth year, the SALT project tapped into a 20-year-old course called WisTEP, which stands for the Wisconsin Teacher Enhancement Program. It is funded mainly through contributions from the Madison-based Evjue Foundation. To participate, South African educators must promise to return to their native land and continue to teach science and technology.

Headed by UW-Madison genetics professor Raymond Kessel, nearly 40 South African teachers have been trained through the program to date. Some participants take science and health courses during the summer. While some classes focus on up-to-date research and information on the subject, others emphasize effective science teaching methods, Kessel said.

UW-Madison helped train South Africa’s first black post-doctoral astronomer, Wilcots said.

“South Africa needs scientists and it certainly needs a trained workforce to move forward,” he said.

For Wilcots, who is African-American, the project has special significance.

“As an astronomer, I never imagined I would go to Africa,” he said. “In fact, my first thought when I heard about this was ‘can I go there?’ because of the country’s history of apartheid.

“But it has been great,” he said. “It is no small thing that I get to be a role model for an under-represented majority – not a minority.

“It’s a different sort of onus on me,” he mused. “In a way, I’m carrying the burden for blacks. In any case, this is an exciting project for a whole variety of reasons.

“I’m hoping it will lead as well to new opportunities for Wisconsin businesses,” he said. “Africa is one of the last untapped markets.

“And South Africa, which is very open to international investment, is trying to lead the way for the whole southern end of the continent,” he added.

In addition to the telescope and the teacher education program, UW-Madison is now sending between 15 and 20 students a year to study at the University of Capetown.

Other collateral projects in the works deal with law and public health to improve life in the country. Unfortunately, not all is rosy in South Africa, where up to a third of the population is HIV positive. Public health efforts could help reduce that negative statistic and improve the lives of the people there, he said.

“This telescope project is building a bridge between South Africa and Wisconsin,” Wilcots said.

“The door is open now and we were pleased to get the science education program up and running fast,” he said.

“Now, with the November inauguration of the telescope, we hope Wisconsin companies will be able to make links and partner with South African firms in everything from medical technology and engineering to whatever can be imagined.

“This bridge can be as wide as we want it to be,” he said. “We can have an exchange of ideas, culture… and commerce.”

--For more information on making business connections in South Africa, email James Delehanty, associate director of the African Studies Program, at jmdeleha@wisc.edu, call him at (608) 262-4458 or write him at James Delahanty, African Studies, 205B Ingraham Hall, Mark H, 1155 Observatory Dr., Madison, WI 53706.


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