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Astronomy in a Developing Country

Posted on April 19, 2011 at 1:14 AM

IAU blog by Dr. Romar Sese

Astronomy is considered as one of the oldest branches of science. Ever since early man made patterns in the night sky and charted the behavior of heavenly bodies, we have always been fascinated with astronomy. Thanks to the contributions of numerous scientists such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton, we now have a deeper understanding of the Universe. However, when we look at the recent developments, we can see a pattern. Most of the astronomers come from developed countries such as US, Japan, EU countries etc.. Very few astronomers come from developing or the so-called Third World countries (I hate using this term). The realm of modern astronomy is dominated by those who can afford to launch satellites or build huge telescopes. What about the others?


The sad reality is, astronomy is not a priority area in developing countries. I cannot speak for other countries but in the case of the Philippines, most students choose courses such as Accounting, Engineering or Nursing. These courses produces graduates that have good chances of working abroad, a common dream for a lot of Filipinos. Very few take physics or astronomy courses. For them, the common question is “What job can I get after I graduate from physics/astronomy?”. Even in the government, most of the research funding is funneled to applied research. Politicians want tangible and economically viable products.


Astronomy in a developing country is in a dismal state. There are very few students interested in it. The research facilities are very minimal. A university is considered lucky if it has a usable 0.5 meter optical telescope (or any telescope for that matter!). This pales in comparison with behemoths such as Keck, Subaru, Gemini, etc.. However, I think the more pressing problem is the lack of dedicated people who are willing to do the grunt work and start astronomy from scratch. The job is a tall order and anyone in his right mind would be daunted by the task. Some scientists wants to return only if the facilities are already existing or the salary is reasonable (I can’t blame them! We all need to earn a living somehow). But unless someone starts developing astronomy, someone sacrifices to pioneer astronomy, nothing will happen. It’s a risky move but hopefully it would be fruitful in the future. As a Chinese proverb once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


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