Star Gazing and Politics: Battling for the Square Kilometre Array

Every intellectual discipline of the human race, even those supposedly keen on propagating pure knowledge, is political. Better candidates can be shunted off from positions they are qualified for in favour of less suitable appointments; appalling choices can be made in administration over the funding of ‘science’ or the ‘humanities’. And the awarding of grants can take place on the basis of partisanship and a distinct lack of objectivity. Little surprise then, that the hosting of the world’s largest radio telescope has been less science than juggling; less astronomical than terrestrially political.

The scheme contemplated is a series of dishes, termed the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), forming what essentially constitute colossal fields of antennae which detect radio waves. Twenty countries have been involved in the project, though as ever, the big question was which location would suffice. Enter, then, the bidding war.

The Australians and New Zealanders were hoping for a considerable slice of this scientific pie, if not all of it. They were fortunate in the end to end up with a considerably downsized version. At first instance, their joint bid failed to persuade the panel in question, the SKA Site Advisory Committee, that they could offer a more desirable location over the South African-led proposal. The board of directors seemed to agree – there would be only one winner.

The principle behind the initial decision to award it to South Africa lay in remoteness. While Australia and New Zealand offer some of the most remote locations on earth, such attributes were evidently insufficient in the scientific context. Radio telescopy works best away from sources of radio waves. It had also been suggested that the South Africans were fronting the technically better bid, one that would comprise the erection of dishes in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

Then came the twist to the tale. Australia and New Zealand were not to miss out entirely. ‘We have decided,’ announced SKA chairman John Womerley at a press conference at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, ‘on a dual site approach.’ A few teasing morsels will be thrown down towards the antipodes. Australia is to receive the low frequency antennae that are stationary and collect signals from the whole sky simultaneously (Guardian, May 25). South Africa shall receive the steerable high frequency type, and the biggest share of the project – approximately 70 percent in all.

The South Africans were initially perplexed. Evidently, they thought it was all in the bag. The project director Dr. Bernie Fanaroff decided to be diplomatic, even if he was keeping the champagne on ice. ‘It’s obvious that we would have preferred the whole thing to be in Africa, but we recognise the need for inclusivity and to maximise the investments that have already been made’ (Guardian, May 25).

Suspicions were always bound to lie behind the decision and science, a mere sideshow, was hardly going to feature. The Australians have made little secret of the fact that endorsing a proposal that would involve a host of African sites could only be viewed as an economic matter. What of stability and safety on the Dark Continent? A suggestion has been made that European countries involved in the project would see such a project as a form of development aid (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 10). In 2010, the then Australian science minister Kim Carr suggested there were ‘better ways to sustain development, if that’s what your primary purpose is.’ Besides, the Australian bid offered ‘security, an attractive lifestyle and conducive business development’.

Those behind the project are attempting to excite both the public and politicians. Enchanting details on how many large iPods could be filled a day with the data generated from the array, and the depths human star gazing will be able to go, have been released. Journalists have been excited about the prospect of finding ‘alien intelligence’ given the sheer strength of the proposed project. But the most alien intelligence remains, until shown to be otherwise, human, the only animal, as Mark Twain claimed, that needs to blush.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.