Avi Loeb interstellar visit to PNG raises issues around international collaboration

A Papua New Guinean international relations academic has called for more mentorship with local Universities to be guaranteed when overseas scientists visit his country.

The comments come after an exploration visit to PNG by Professor Avi Loeb team from Harvard University, US, to collect “interstellar material.”

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Bernard Yegoria

Bernard Yegoria, a lecturer in International Relations at Divine Word University in Madang, posted a tweet after the renowned Harvard professor conducted an expedition to an area 100km north of Manus Island in PNG’s economic zone.

“Greatest discovery of our time in #PNG waters not reported in #PNG media and no public announcement by GOPNG. Furthermore, no report of any #PNG university or physicists (scientists included in the project. How and Why?” Yegoria posted on Twitter.

Yegoria told Cosmos that while there is a group of dedicated researchers in PNG, “[…] a major hurdle we face is the insufficient funding available, particularly in the field of social science research.

“Additionally, there is a lack of a consistent and structured plan for training and nurturing new researchers.

“Without a proper framework in place, there is a disruption in the transfer of knowledge and expertise from experienced researchers to those starting out, leading to a lack of continuity,” he says.

Cosmos contacted Loeb and Interstellar project leader Rob McCallum.

Loeb says the project has an agreement for ongoing collaboration, and provided a letter of support from Professor Ora Renagi, Vice Chancellor of the PNG University of Technology, who said: “PNG University of Technology fully supports the research work…the objectives and outcomes are critically aligned with the research interests of the Mining engineering department and Environmental Research and Management Centre.”

Loeb added: “A department chair from that University is planning to visit us [at Harvard] very soon and take part in the analysis of our findings.”

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Avi Loeb (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

McCallum says the project has been in discussions with the PNG Government since late 2022 and they completed a Marine Science Research Permit application as requested.  

“Dr Jim Lem of UniTech will travel to Harvard University in Massachusetts, US, to participate in the testing, and to announce the test results,” MaCallum said in the email to Cosmos.  

“The Project Team consists of members from Papua New Guinea, Australia, US, UK and New Zealand.

“If the results are positive, a second expedition is planned in late 2023. 

“PNG is at the forefront of this exciting chance to improve human understanding of the broader universe.  PNG’s University of Technology is actively involved in this research,” McCallum said.  

The commitment from the project to supporting research and science in Papua New Guinea puts the spotlight on development issues in a very low income country.

Cosmos: The power of collaboration

PNG has about 8 million people. In its 2023 budget it announced ambitious plans for a new K50 million (A$20m) School of Medicine and Health Sciences at PNG University in Port Moresby, to be drawn from a total education sector which will receive just K1.3 billion (A$530m) for primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational training.

The Education Minister Rainbo Paita said in the budget statement: “There are about 36,000 school leavers every year and the higher education system can only take 8,000 of these school leavers.

“The government is also considering to introduce the Compulsory National Service to absorb these school leavers and instil discipline and mould respectful citizens for the future.”

In this environment, research relies heavily on international collaboration.

Yegoria says only very slow progress is being made in the science sector in PNG.

“There has been a shift in focus towards STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

“This shift is evident in our development plans, which now prioritize STEM-related initiatives.

“Furthermore, the Australian scholarship program has also adjusted its priorities to support research projects centred around STEM topics.”

He says the Government must compliment the international development projects.

“To tackle these challenges, it is crucial for the [PNG] government to increase funding for research activities. Alternatively, seeking donor funding could provide the necessary resources for all universities to conduct research and share their findings through national journals or presentations at national conferences.”

“The primary obstacles we face in research are financial constraints and a lack of interest from individuals who do not perceive a rewarding career path in research or academia.

“Another issue relates to the quality of our education system, as graduates often lack the higher-order thinking skills described in Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy.”

Yegoria worries about what he calls a “failure” of some individuals to inspire Papua New Guineans to pursue research careers or become researchers themselves.

“There is a noticeable absence of research mentorship and a lack of knowledge and skill transfer to local Papua New Guineans, particularly among those who have been recruited by universities and think tanks under work permits.

“I believe that mentorship and knowledge transfer should be essential conditions for obtaining work permits.”

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