Africa’s bid to host the giant Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope was significantly better than Australia’s in terms of its proposed array of the receiving dishes, or antennas, and in the provision and cost of electricity.
These two factors were critical in the unanimous decision of the independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) to recommended to the SKA’s parent body that the African bid should get the nod as the preferred site, although it noted that the instrument could be constructed at either site.
But the SSAC also raised serious concerns about security for the project in Africa, saying it was likely that it would be more difficult, but not impossible, to recruit high quality non-local staff.
And, in terms of political, socio-economic and financial factors, it said Australia had “significant” advantages over Africa, scoring it 14.5 against Africa’s 5.5 in its weighted scoring system in which 10–10 represented no significant difference and 20–0 represented “very serious” differences.
“It became clear that Australia and New Zealand are fully developed countries comparable in all respects to Europe and North America, whereas South Africa is still developing and, although far ahead of most African nations, is generally significantly lower than ANZ in international rankings in political and socio-economic indicators. South Africa’s partner countries are well behind it in most key metrics.
“Each site makes its own impressive case for hosting the SKA and the SSAC agrees that both sites can provide a suitable environment for the SKA on the understanding that the African project would be headquartered, managed and funded in and through South Africa, as proposed.”
The committee’s report was kept under wraps until Friday’s decision to share the telescope between the two bidders was announced, although some of the details and the recommendation were leaked last month, causing major consternation in Australia.
The report concluded:
“The SSAC analysed, evaluated and scored the 13 technical, science and other selection factors using the factor weights given. The outcome was in favour of southern Africa.
“The SSAC also evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the four implementation plans and costs factors. This outcome was also in favour of southern Africa. Consequently, the SSAC recommends southern Africa as the preferred site.”
The SSAC, with 12 members and one non-voting executive secretary, was chaired by Professor James Moran of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. It met three times and held four teleconferences between September last year and February.
In all, five of the seven technical and scientific factors were judged to favour the African bid.
All six of the other selection factors favoured Australia and New Zealand.
“For the (African) bid, much of the concern in these (other) factors derived from the difficulties of co-ordinating the laws and procedures among the six partner countries in southern Africa, as well as the security and political challenges in the region,” the report stated.
SA has eight African partners: Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia, Mauritius, Kenya and Ghana.