Oz telescope body under microscope after ex-chairman raises difficult questions


Avery Carpenter

AUSTRALIA’S bid to house the SKA mega-telescope has been questioned by a former member of its team.

Peter Viney, who was an Australian SKA committee chairman until 2009, e-mailed The Star a detailed list of risks associated with the Australian site, which included concerns about costs, mining interference and land agreements:

Viney’s contract with SKA ended in 2009 and he went on to serve as executive director of science, innovation and business in the Western Australia Department of Commerce. His contract with the Department of Commerce was not renewed on February 12, and he sent the e-mail a week later.

SKA Australia said it was “deeply stunned and disappointed” by the e-mail.

Viney said his cautionary notice was not meant to delegitimise Australia’s bid: “My aim is not to degrade the Australian bid but to ensure it stacks up against key success criteria. I would hope the South African bid is also subject to thorough due diligence.”

The hurdles Viney said Australia will face include:

l Cost – A resources boom in Australia has made labour prices skyrocket. Viney said: “Labour costs for occupations including truck drivers, electricians etc often substantially exceed US$100 000 (R766 000) per annum, and this demand for labour is expected to be maintained for several decades.”

In addition, he said there were natural resource projects totalling well over $100 billion in progress, which would make labour even pricier.

l Mining interference – The Australian site at the Murchison Radio Observatory is surrounded by significant iron ore deposits, and Viney said the Australian government would deal with demands from the mining industry that compromised radio quietness.

SKA SA team members said their Australian counterparts would need to deftly negotiate with peripheral mining activity. “The mining issue is real,” said SKA SA associate director of science and engineering Justin Jonas. “Australia will need the political will to counter mining activity.”

l Land agreements – Securing land from Aboriginal people might not be swift or cheap. The SA site is on privately owned land already secured, while the Australian site is on land protected for Aboriginal populations.

Viney said no native title agreement existed to allow any use of land in Western Australia for the purpose of the SKA. According to his e-mailed statement, the Australian government has only secured land for its precursor project, a smaller template telescope similar to SA’s MeerKAT.

Viney said: “Other native title negotiations for major resource projects in Western Australia, such as the acquisition of land in the Kimberley area for a natural-gas processing plant, have been very difficult, have involved significant protests and controversy between affected Aboriginal people, and have involved costs exceeding $1bn.”

SKA SA manager Adrian Tiplady said native title agreement presented a potential complication, which Australia may have addressed.

SKA Australia has not responded specifically to any of Viney’s points, but has issued a general disclaimer. Patricia Kelley, the current chair of the SKA Australia co-ordination committee, sent an e-mail to SKA director Richard Schilizzi that said: “The ANZSCC was deeply stunned and disappointed by the e-mail communication from Mr Peter Viney. The issues Mr Viney seeks to raise in the e-mail have been canvassed exhaustively in the Australia and New Zealand submission for site selection.”

The SKA board received a technical evaluation of both sites on Friday. The board was to meet via teleconference today to discuss the evaluation.


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