A Win For the South

The announcement that the SKA will be split between Australia/New Zealand and South Africa seems too good to be true.

Ever since the field was narrowed to the two finalists I have felt conflicted about the decision. Winning the SKA would be a huge boost for Australia, I reasoned, and even as an internationalist there is a patriotic streak to consider. As a science journalist who specialises in Australian and New Zealand research it would also provide a not-inconsiderable boost to my own career. Others are better qualified than I to assess the scientific merits of the two bids, but the radio-quiet of the West Australian site, and Australia’s more developed scientific infrastructure sounded like a powerful argument to me.

On the other hand, winning such an enormous piece of infrastructure would be a huge jobs creator, and in South Africa that means lives saved, and many more transformed. Not something one can say for WA in the midst of a mining boom.

The decision to build one component on each continent means Australia will still get plenty of great scientific stories – and might even do something for the pathetically low status science will likely hold under an Abbott government. On the other hand, while not quite as many South Africans may escape poverty as a consequence, many will. Presumably the opportunities for scientific careers there will go through the roof.

Presumably it will be more expensive to build two major sites and many more minor ones rather than if the low and medium frequency telescopes were co-located. No doubt some of those costs will fall on the tax-payers of the hosting countries. However, the whole thing depends on a huge amount of money from the world’s largest industrial nations – the ones whose scientists will be making the most use of the telescopes. Going for a more expensive, but scientifically better, option means the project involves even more of a transfer of money from the northern hemisphere to the south.

And I’m pretty happy about that.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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