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Former Director of SKA-SA wins NRF Lifetime Award

September 26, 2018 • People, Southern Africa

Former Director of SKA-SA wins NRF Lifetime Award

Dr. Bernard Fanaroff photographed by Jaco Marais for Die Burger

Today, Dr. Bernard Fanaroff who led the effort for South Africa to win the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope ‘which will be world’s largest telescope’ and the design and construction MeerKAT radio telescope, was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 National Research Foundation (NRF) Awards.

Dr. Bernie Fanaroff, who is the former Director and now the Special Adviser of the SKA SA, was acknowledged for the extraordinary contributions he has made of international standard and impact, to the development of science in and for South Africa over an extended period of time, and for the manner in which his work has touched and shaped the lives and views of many South Africans.

Dr. Fanaroff began his academic career in 1965 as an undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand where he obtained a BSc and a BSc (Hons) in Theoretical Physics. He later obtained a PhD in Radio Astronomy from Cambridge University in 1974. It was at this time that Fanaroff, together with a British astronomer, Julia Riley, made a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies and quasars when they identified two classes of radio sources which now bear their names – Fanaroff-Riley class I and class II sources, or FR-I and FR-II as they are now universally known. Dr. Fanaroff’s paper on the Fanaroff-Riley classification has been cited well over 2000 times.

Upon his return to South Africa, Dr. Fanaroff dedicated 19 years to the struggle against apartheid as an organizer and national secretary for the Metal and Allied Workers Union, which became the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in 1987. After the first democratic election in 1994, Dr. Fanaroff was appointed as the Deputy Director-General in the Office of President Nelson Mandela, and as the Head of the Office for the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). He also served as the Deputy Director-General of the Department of Safety and Security, the Chairperson of the Integrated Justice System Board and the Inter-Departmental Steering Committee for Border Control.

After a distinguished career in public service, he was asked by the previous NRF CEO, Dr. Khotso Mokhele, and the previous Director General for Science and Technology, Dr. Rob Adam, to set up the South African SKA Project Office (SASPO) at the beginning of 2003, with the vision of bringing the largest radio telescope in the world to Africa. Together with Dr. Mokhele and Dr. Adam, and renowned scientists Dr. George Nicolson and Prof Justin Jonas, Dr. Fanaroff worked towards the vision of not just hosting SKA, but also becoming a leading partner in the development of cutting-edge technology for the SKA telescope and playing a leading role in SKA Science.

As Director of the SKA SA Project, Dr. Fanaroff led the conceptualisation, development and construction of the South African SKA precursor, the 64 dish MeerKAT telescope array, which was completed in March 2018 on schedule, on budget and within the prescripts of the PFMA. This project included the construction of the prototype telescopes XDM and KAT 7 and the infrastructure to establish to huge observatory site at Losberg in the Karoo. A key part of the project has been the development of the SKA South Africa’s highly-respected Human Capital Development programme.

Despite his retirement at the end of 2015, Dr. Fanaroff has continued to work as an advisor to the SKA SA project. He has been appointed co-chair of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Working Group on Information and Communication Technologies and High Performance Computing, and as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Breakthrough Listen project. He is also a founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf); a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society; and was a Visiting Professor at Oxford University.

Dr. Fanaroff‘s contributions to science and society continue to be recognized on a global scale. He has been awarded honorary Doctorates from six South African Universities, received an award for science diplomacy from Minister Naledi Pandor, and was named Ambassador of the Year by the Cape Chamber of Business and Die Burger in 2012. In 2014 he was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, conferred by the State President, one of the highest honours in the country, not only for his tremendous contribution to radio astronomy, but also for the pivotal role he played as an activist, trade unionist, and public servant. In 2017, Dr. Fanaroff was awarded the USA’s Karl G Jansky Lectureship for his unparalleled leadership in astronomy and public service. Other recipients of the Jansky Award include seven Nobel laureates – as well as noted astronomers Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Vera Rubin. He also received the Science for Society Gold Medal from the Academy of Science of South Africa in 2017.

NRF Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Molapo Qhobela said: “Dr. Fanaroff is one of those rare individuals who has dedicated his life to the betterment of society through his innovative scientific achievements, his activism against apartheid and his unwavering commitment to public service. It is without a doubt that Bernie Fanaroff will be most remembered as the man who brought the SKA, which will be largest scientific project in the world, to South Africa and Africa”.

In his message at the awards, Dr. Fanaroff said: “Most of my life, I have been motivated by two things; one is scientific curiosity, and the other one is the desire to see social justice. And I learned both of these things form my parents. Over the years I have been lucky to be able to work on projects, which have allowed me to make some contribution in both of those areas. We often tend to see ourselves having lots and lots of problems, and we get quite gloomy. One thing that is very important to me, is that we should see these problems as opportunities. There are challenges yes, but there are always opportunities. And if we have the will, and we have the tenacity, and we work together, we can really solve any problem. We can see those problems as opportunities. We can build on them, to create a great future for our country”.

Edited by Daniëlle Kruger
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