Date: September 26, 2009

Title: The IAU Stategy


Podcaster: Carolina Ödman

Organization: Universe Awareness:

Description: This episode features interviews of past and present IAU presidents as well as other stakeholders with an interest in the International Astronomical Union’s newly adopted strategic plan “Astronomy for the Developing World”.

Bio: Carolina Ödman is the international project manager of Universe Awareness. She studied Physics Engineering in Switzerland and completed her PhD in cosmology at the University of Cambridge in 2003. After working as a consultant at UNESCO and a brief lecture round at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), she joined the University or Rome La Sapienza for a post-doc. Since 2005 she works at Leiden Observatory.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Claire Weston, in honor of all those who patiently, adoringly observe the observers and keep them warm and awake with hot cups of tea throughout the night.


Welcome to the third and final contribution of Universe Awareness to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. My name is Carolina Ödman.

In the first episode aired on July the 3rd, we heard voices of children express their views of the Universe. In the second episode on August 6th, we interviewed people who work with the children, people who go in the classrooms and work with children on an informal basis as well.

In this final episode, it’s all about the big picture.

We’ve just come back from the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where a very important decadal plan for development has been adopted.

In Rio, we had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Cesarsky, then President of the IAU, √òyvind S√∏rensen from the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, Patricia Whitelock form the South African Astronomical Observatory, and Bob Williams, present President of the IAU. We also have some recordings of the vote itself, of the adoption of the plan, as well as some final words from George Miley, who led the effort of putting together this plan for the last three years.

The plan itself, still in draft form, can be downloaded on the website of the IAU at .

[First interview, Catherine Cesarsky]

I am Catherine Cesarsky, presently I am high commissioner for atomic energy in France, I am also the president of the IAU for a few more hours, and then I had it on to Bob Williams.

Indeed, during this triennium, the IAU has been working a lot in the direction of preparing for the International Year of Astronomy, which we are celebrating this year. And this of course entailed a lot of activity regarding outreach, but also education and in particular education in developing countries. Now, this is something that IAU has been doing for a long time. We have these education projects, which are exactly aimed at having schools and so on for young people in countries most often that do not yet have strong astronomy. But it gave us an opportunity to look more closely at these projects and we found that worthy as they were, because we have excellent people and very dedicated doing them, they could become, we could try to do something more ambitious by organising the whole thing better, completely from the top, helping them I would say, with organisation matters, and so on, and also try to do more. Of course, to do more, we also require more funds.

The IAU has fortunately a little bit of an increase in its budget and so we thought we can always dedicate this to education, and to do really more, we would have to do fundraising. And to do fundraising, you have to have a good plan, very well presented. So we decided to go from general ideas like what I just expressed, which is what usually IAU works with, to something on the contrary really well presented and in a plan, and we were fortunate that one of our vice-presidents, George Miley, who already had a very strong interest in this and in particular has always been or perhaps has been the founder, I don’t know, of UNAWE?

– Yes he is the founder.

The founder of UNAWE, was happy to do this. So he put together a group of people and worked on a plan that I think we really can say is his plan. And the idea is to create in this IAU a small global development office – to actually pay some people to run our programs in an organised way. That already is the first step but then of course, the second step we also need money to have more of these projects. And some of them would be the kind of projects that we are already doing but more and better organised, and others could be different ones, in particular that are aiming more at young people also I would say not only university level, people who we were reaching mostly before.

[Second interview, √òyvind S√∏rensen]

My name is √òyvind S√∏rensen, and I am the Chief Executive of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters.

We have just been sponsoring lunch for education in astronomy and that presented a new strategic plan for IAU.

– So the Norwegian Academy has the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, is also sponsoring and international school for young astronomers, which is one of the education initiatives of the International Astronomical Union, and now you are sponsoring the lunch where the strategic plan for development is being discussed. So there’s a very big picture here emerging. There’s research, mature research that you’re rewarding, there’s young researchers with the ISYA schools, and now, development. Is that part of the philosophy of the Norwegian Academy?

It’s something we have been talking about the last years that would like to be more visible both in the scientific area, but also to the public, and also to try to do something to support young people and to support education.

[Third interview, Patricia Whitelock]

I’m Patricia Whitelock, and I live in South Africa and I work for the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town.

And we’re doing really exciting things in South Africa. We’ve just built and are busy commissioning the Southern African Large Telescope, that’s the biggest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – 10-metre class telescope; we are participating along with the Europeans in projects like the High Energy Stereoscopic System, and we’re building a new radio telescope, called the Karoo Array Telescope, and that’s a prospective, telescope, well it’s a technology trial telescope, really, for the Square Kilometer Array because South Africa is bidding, along with Australia, to host the SKA, the biggest radio telescope ever conceived of so far.

Se we’ve got exciting facilities within South Africa, we’ve got exciting facilities for the future, but our big challenge is actually getting our own people involved in this. So we’ve developed a postgraduate training programme that takes people who’ve got BsC’s in physics and takes them through and prepares them for doing research degrees in astronomy, it’s called the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme and it’s unique in South Africa, it’s actually a collaboration of 9 universities and three national facilities, and it brings students from all over Africa to Cape Town from places like Rwanda and Zambia, about eight African countries so far.

We have involved in that now just very recently, starting last year with the National Society of Black Physicists in the United States, African American astronomers and that’s proved really really useful for inspiring young black people in South Africa to take part in astronomy.

And we certainly believe that by diversifying the people that come in to astronomy we’re providing a different perspective for investigating the problems of the Universe. And it is one of the ways that we will improve the discovery within astronomy, in the very long term.

The SALT is actually, although it’s a project that’s lead by SA and SA has a 1/3 share, it is an international collaboration involving various universities in the United States, the UK, Germany, India, Poland, NZ, and this is a huge benefit to us in Africa because although in principle we’ve got the capacity to build this telescope ourselves, by involving people from outside South Africa, we get additional skills, we get additional technology.

We’re extremely excited about the IAU strategic plan because we certainly see the future of astronomy in South Africa as wrapped up with the future of astronomy in the rest of Africa. Not just astronomy but the whole development of science and technology in Africa can be stimulated through astronomy. Our National Astrophysic and Space Science Programme and the activities that have been happening during the International Year of Astronomy have brought us much closer to people elsewhere in Africa. We can see how much we can benefit from them and how much they can benefit form contact with South Africa.

So what we’ve been doing as we got started almost leads directly into the kind of strategic plan that the IAU put forward so we’ll be participating in that in a very very enthusiastic way.

[Fourth interview, Bob Williams]

I am Bob Williams, incoming President of the IAU and I have been on the executive committee of the IAU for nine years now and interested during that time in the formulation of a strategic plan for the IAU. Something that basically represents our long-term thinking for what we would like the IAU to be and I’ve been joined by some of my colleagues on the executive committee, particularly GKM from Leiden.

– It is quite novel for a professional union of scientists to reach out to the developing world and to the world in general in this manner. Can you explain the motivation, what makes astronomy so special?

What makes astronomy special are several things I think. First of all, tis is the science that is available to everyone on the sense that every 24 hours this earth turns and different part of the sky become visible and everyone gets what we call a fair shot at the sky, the same laboratory. So astronomy is special because we have a beautiful laboratory and it’s one that everyone can see.

I think astronomy is also special because it’s one of the purest of the sciences and it is – since we all evolved on earth from this stuff – astronomy really is all about our environment, our larger environment, our global environment.

And everyone always wants to know their roots. And astronomy basically is our roots that go past where our genealogies can take us. So I think there’s something fascinating about astronomy.

Of course there’s something fascinating about the Universe in the sense that it’s out there and yet we can’t see it very well, and when it begins to be revealed through telescopes you see how really beautiful it is.

So I think that is the fascination of astronomy.

I feel very strongly about the education of people in science and particularly in astronomy because the world – there is clearly a natural tendency in humans to attribute phenomena that we do not understand to strange things. Science forces us to look at the facts and accept things that we don’t want to accept because we prefer our explanation that is based upon superstition.

That’s why science and teaching science is so important. Why, because I believe that superstition is the basis for prejudice. And prejudice is one of the worst evils in humans learning to live together with each other.

Can what astronomy teaches us because science indicate I believe rather strongly that mankind developed on this planet a long chain of processes that Darwin first tried to explain, and the conclusion of that really is that we are all brothers and sisters. And this environment is really part of us, because we’ve developed out of it, and therefore, it is imperative that we try to understand it and that we come to also understand that we’re all related to each other – brothers and sisters and therefore we should live in harmony.

Astronomy really is one of the sciences that helps us realize this process the most and so I would say that it’s one of the reasons I always have found it so appealing, apart form the fact that it’s very fascinating to contemplate the fact that there are other stars and planets out there, there may be life elsewhere. It’s rather hard to rather hard to deny the appeal that that has.

[recording of the vote of the IAU General Assembly to adopt the strategic plan for development…]

– Are there people who wish to ask questions or make comments?

– The IAU GA is preparing to vote on the resolutions that would adopt the strategic plan for development

– Yes. If not we call the vote for the resolution B1, so I am asking the IAU individual members to vote.

So. Who is against it?
Who abstains?
Who is in favour?

[ruffles… the vote is in fact unanimous!]

I believe we do not need to use the talent of the tellers [laughs] and the resolution is accepted. Thank you very much.

The Assembly claps.

[George Miley addresses the General Assembly]

I am not going to go into details today, it’s on the web, it’s a draft, the final version will be finished with about a month.

It has what a strategic plan is supposed to have. It has a vision, it has goals, it has a strategy and some important parts of the strategy is particularly to increase the number of activities but to make them bottom-up. So, much more regional involvement in planning the activities; to build on the momentum of the International Year of Astronomy cornerstones, and to exploit several new opportunities that have arisen in the past years.

Finally, I would like to recall the rationale given in South Africa, in the new South Africa, why they should do astronomy and I am going to read this because i think it is very very relevant(*).

It is important to maintain a basic competence in flagship sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future, the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, the slogan of the International Year of Astronomy was ‘The Universe, yours to discover.” A possible slogan for the decadal plan is “Exploring the Universe for the benefit of Humankind”.
Thank you.

The Assembly claps.


So that’s it. The International Astronomical Union is engaging in a 10 year effort for the developing world. But how are they going to turn these great ideas into true benefits? How are they going to turn these ideas into concrete actions on the ground? Well, time will tell of course, but a number of excellent ideas are already written in this strategic plan, and again, I encourage you to go and download it and read it; and feel free to send comments back to the authors. The URL is

That’s it for this final Universe Awareness episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. We hope you enjoyed and we hope we’ve managed to give you a big picture from the children to the teachers to the astronomers and the union itself, reaching out to the developing world.

If you have any questions or comment, you can always contact us via our website at or by email at

Thank you and we wish you a fantastic end of the International Year of Astronomy and we hope to meet you again in 2010. Bye bye.

(extract from the 1st UNAWE episode from July 3rd:)

[Game with young children repeating the names of the planets (Kenya):
…Mercury … Venus … Earth … Mars! … Mercury … Venus … Earth … Mars!…]

(*) The reference is the White paper for Science and Technology, South African Government, 1996:

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.