by Kevin Govender

iau wbMy first GAM blog in 2012 was on “Astronomy for a Better World” where I wrote about the very big picture of how we can use astronomy to make the world a better place to live in. Last year (2013) I was less visionary and more practical in terms of what we were doing and how you could be a part of it. This year I want to write about some of the lessons we are learning along this journey of Astronomy for Development – lessons that are helping to shape the implementation of a great vision.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) established its Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) – our office – in Cape Town, South Africa, in early 2011. Since then it has been quite a rollercoaster ride, delving into the task of implementing the IAU’s visionary strategic plan for the decade 2010-2020. We’ve had our highs and lows in these first 3 years of the OAD, but the important thing is that we’ve been learning and growing, using the experiences to shape this effort towards the bigger picture. Some (and I stress, only SOME) of the lessons from the first three years of the OAD, which would probably be useful for any large international development project…

1. Ask for advice - communicate:
The OAD was a new thing in the astronomy world, and largely in the science world. The mandate is so broad and the office so small that there is no way to have all the answers. The choice to involve as many people as possible in the execution of its mandate has given strength to the OAD. All decisions made in each of the focus areas (universities, schools, public) are run via advisory bodies called Task Forces. Regional nodes provide local and cultural knowledge and guidance. Oversight is conducted by an experienced Steering Committee and the highest levels of the IAU. By regularly communicating with all its stakeholders the OAD taps into the collective experience of many people.

2. There are always more people than you think who are willing to help
The people we interact with never cease to surprise me in terms of their willingness to volunteer or offer assistance of some kind. I believe this is true for most development-oriented projects. Taking this into account the key lesson is to plan for additional offers of assistance. The OAD has over 500 volunteers registered and we largely rely on requests for volunteers in order to advertise opportunities. We should be creating more opportunities because there will always be more people looking for a way to contribute.

3. We can’t do everything – choose your key activities and focus:
Many people may relate to this but if we were to accept every invitation to attend an event, our calendar would be so full of travel there would be little time for anything else. It’s painful to say NO but the reality is that we simply can’t do everything. This applies also to projects that may land on our table. The OAD is small (3 staff members) and in order to optimize our output we need to select the key areas that we will focus on and do a great job with it. This will translate to growth which will lead to us being able to take on more things. By all means, keep the big picture in mind, but plan bite size steps so you don’t end up spreading thinly and not necessarily moving forward. Also focus on resources for your “ambassadors” e.g. make presentations available and ask others to present on your behalf at meetings in their areas.

4. Build on the experience of others:
As OAD-funded projects are implemented how do we ensure that the vast pool of experience (currently over 40 projects worldwide) is documented and built upon such that we don’t have reinvention in subsequent years? Each year we see very similar activities being implemented in different parts of the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we need to determine whether each project can be enhanced through the experiences of others. The OAD’s new monitoring and evaluation framework will assist in this but there is a need for a more structured approach to capturing “best practice” such as an open journal for astronomy-for-development projects (any volunteers to make that happen?).

5. Stay on top of emails, but use voice across cultures:
I’m quite guilty of slipping behind on the often 100+ emails per day that pass through my inbox (excluding spam!). Yet  it is so critical to stay on top of them. Email is the life blood of an international project and is not always given the respect or attention it deserves. We need to develop methods and time management tools to stay on top of emails. At the same time realize that when communicating across language or cultures it is often more effective to communicate by voice/video in order to avoid miscommunication in text.

6. Follow up – there’s always time:
With so many activities on the go and with the OAD relying on so many people and organizations around the world, it is key to follow up on things regularly. This is easier said than done of course as time seems never to be on your side (especially with all those emails!). However, I have never come across someone who is absolutely perfect at time management (definitely not me). There are always more ways of working smarter and optimizing more in order to plan tasks and check off that to do list accordingly. To illustrate, during these last 3 years I became a father – and once a newborn enters your life, you suddenly think to yourself “what on earth was I doing with all those extra hours before?” – not that it’s a bad thing to be a father of course

7. Balance strategic activity with project activity:
In a project such as the OAD it is very easy to become caught up in the logistics of managing projects at the cost of the more boring bureaucracies. It is also most rewarding to see projects through to completion and to engage with people “on the ground” so to speak. However, without a reasonable amount of time spent on strategic matters and political lobbying there may arise a risk to the long term sustainability or growth and funding potential for the OAD’s activities. It’s not always easy but a balance must be struck.

8. Innovate, innovate, innovate:
The importance of innovation cannot be overemphasized. When the ratio of tasks to staff are as large as in the OAD there is no option but to work smarter, not harder, and optimization becomes key. We are also in a world with rapidly changing technologies that allow ever more innovative ways to approach our tasks. For examply the OAD recently purchased a 3D printer to expand on a project to develop tactile astronomy resources for the visually impaired. However, this new tool has also opened up a new avenue for general innovation – and we invite you to throw your ideas towards this 3D printer (and scanner I should add – awesome new toys!).

9. The demand is there – find more resources:
A big lesson during the annual call for proposals is that there is a huge demand for funding astronomy-for-development projects. The 2013 call for proposals saw a 20% increase in demand as compared to 2012. The OAD therefore has to focus on finding more resources to support those additional projects.

10. Never shy away from questions relating to religion:
In this field so far I have often been placed in positions where I would be speaking to politicians or decision makers on the benefits of astronomy to society. Answers to this question have become more developed over the years and many resources are available to address it. However, I’ve found that many decision makers choose also to tackle the question of where their religion fits into all this, especially because it may be an important issue for their respective constituencies. Big lesson: never shy away from this question. Do your homework and find peace with a good method of handling any question you may get – it’s something that is so important to so many people in this world that not answering or avoiding the topic could very well distance you from key decision makers.

11. Respect and Humility above all else:
Perhaps the most important lesson is the importance of humility and respect above all else. It is paramount to carry out activities humbly and with respect for the knowledge of others, be that scientific or cultural knowledge relating to the people of a country or region. One cannot achieve the deep levels of impact we strive for within a global developmental environment without these values. The effect of a humble and respectful approach to any situation is readily observable and has been a key ingredient for the OAD’s success so far.

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kgKevin Govender began work at the OAD on 1st March 2011 as its first Director. He has extensive experience using astronomy for development, acquired during his previous position as the Manager of the Southern African Large Telescope Collateral Benefits Programme at the South African Astronomical Observatory (Cape Town and Sutherland sites). During that time he chaired the Developing Astronomy Globally Cornerstone Project in 2009 and served on the IAU Executive Committee Working Group for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. He was also part of the development of the IAU Strategic Plan since 2008, mainly due to his activities in developing astronomy across Africa. Prior to his work in astronomy-for-development activities, he held the position of Fast Neutron Scientist at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). During his time at Necsa he was also closely involved with promoting physics at school level through the South African Institute of Physics and Necsa, serving also on the South African national steering committee for the International Year of Physics 2005.


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