How to calculate returns on stargazing

South Africa's R2-billion MeerKAT telescope will be absorbed into the SKA. (AFP)

South Africa's R2-billion MeerKAT telescope will be absorbed into the SKA. (AFP)


Countries do not buy into massive scientific projects just for the prestige or to placate their scientists. Even projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest scientific instrument on Earth, have to offer member countries something other than collaboration and advancement.

This is why the principle of juste retour (fair return on investment) comes up in relation to the SKA.

“Governments put in several tens of millions, contributing to construction. They expect approximately the same coming back to their national industries,” SKA Organisation director general Phil Diamond said in 2013.

The SKA is in its pre-construction phase, which is capped at €650-million. Construction of phase one, which will begin in 2018, will extend South Africa’s 64-dish MeerKAT to about 200 antennae and about 100 000 dipoles built in Australia. Dipoles look like one-metre-high cellphone masts.

The 10-member SKA Organisation – Australia, Canada, China, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, Britain and associate member India – are drawing up a convention for a treaty organisation to be responsible for the funding, procurement and construction of phase one of the telescope.

The organisation expected new members to join and swell its ranks, said new SKA Organisation board chair Giovanni Bignami after the board’s meeting in Cape Town last week. More members equate to more money, and in-kind contributions, to build the SKA. This funding is needed to build the giant telescope, which has a total price tag of about €2-billion.

Bignami hoped the convention would be complete by mid-2016.

This treaty organisation’s procurement policies will guide which contracts go to which country’s industry.

“Countries that put in x million will expect a fair return on that investment, and there will be a competitive process within the membership. Some countries have given in-kind contributions, and we will have to put a value to that,” Diamond said after the board meeting.

For example, South Africa’s R2-billion MeerKAT telescope will be absorbed into the SKA, but how much is that worth in comparison to other country’s monetary or technical contributions? And how will it be offset against the benefits and operational funding that South Africa will receive as a host nation?

Bignami said the treaty organisation, which will be created once countries have ratified the SKA convention documents in their parliaments, would be similar to the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – Cern – which “has its own policy for procurement and return on investment”.

“The rule of the game there is to try to be flexible and have vision: it does not work if you impose juste retour on a day-by-day basis … for a nation, it must balance over a year over several dimensions,” he said.

The scale of this project, and the cost involved, heralds a new era for radio astronomy as a discipline.

“For the SKA to have control over its income, it has to limit access … you have to be a member to be involved in the core science. If you don’t have the countries coming in, you won’t have their scientists doing the science,” said Justin Jonas, SKA South Africa associate director of science and engineering.

Historically, radio astronomy has been collaborative “and very little money changed hands”, he said. “[Now] individual countries putting money into a common pot, which must take money away from national incentives, must change the politics.”

Asked whether large quantities of money and the accompanying politics would negatively affect the SKA, Jonas said: “It’s an engineering process that is bedevilled by nonengineering problems.”

SKA South Africa funded Sarah Wild’s trip to Cape Town.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild


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