SA’s SKA success has been hailed as a major scientific coup which will bring scientists here from all parts of the world, offering important opportunities for job creation.
Celebrating the two-thirds allocation to SA and its eight African partners of the huge R26 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project on Friday, everyone from President Jacob Zuma to the country’s top scientists were upbeat, brushing off any disappointment that the entire project did not come to Africa.
Zuma said the allocation was “absolutely good news for Africa”, while UCT deputy vice-chancellor Professor Danie Visser called it a “red letter day in the development of science in SA”.
The decision, made by the five non-bidding members of the SKA Organisation – the UK, China, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada – was announced on Friday after its meeting at Schipol airport near Amsterdam.
The consortium of Australia and New Zealand will host the other third of what will be the world’s largest and possibly most sophisticated scientific instrument, construction, scheduled to start in 2019.
While a split decision had always been a possibility, especially after Australia reacted strongly to an independent investigation that recommended the African bid, it came as a surprise to many SKA watchers.
Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said she was “ecstatic”, even though she acknowledged the decision was “unexpected”.
“I’m happy for our scientists, I’m happy for our country,” she said in Pretoria after the announcement.
“Of course you want everything, but getting three-quarters of everything is pretty good in my view… I don’t like disappointment when Africa wins ... I think we should celebrate, really. What better news on Africa Day?”
UCT’s Visser agreed, saying the SKA project was one of the biggest scientific research ventures ever undertaken, and that the decision confirmed that developing nations could also be a part of solving “the big questions of our day”.
“It will bring scientists from all over the world to SA (and to UCT in particular) and thus greatly enhance not only SA’s but also UCT’s international research collaboration. SKA also brings important opportunities for job creation and the development of the country as a whole,” he added.
Wits University congratulated Pandor and everyone involved in the bid.
Expanding on what the project allocation meant for SA and its neighbours, Pandor said some of its 3 000 receiving dishes would still be built in partner countries Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia, Mauritius, Kenya and Ghana, as planned.
Although her prepared statement suggested the decision to split the project between SA and Australia was a “political compromise”, she backtracked when asked for clarity. She said she had in fact asked her staff to remove the phrase. “I don’t think it is appropriate, I’m not sure we can call it a political compromise… Is it political? I hope not.”
Rhodes University’s Professor Justin Jonas, who is SKA SA’s associate director of science, said some people might view the decision as a compromise and be “slightly disappointed”.
“But I must emphasise that we did get the majority of what will be one of the largest scientific instruments in the world.
“What makes it much more amazing is that if you think back 10 to 15 years, would we imagine (then) a situation where Africa was about to host such a large facility?” asked Jonas.
The decision marked “a real turning point in Africa, where we are becoming a destination for science and engineering, and not just a place where there are resources and tourism opportunities”.
“It really does signal a new era in Africa.”
Jonas emphasised that the split decision “in no way” compromised the science of the SKA, which had from the outset been designed for two separate frequency ranges.
Professor Brian Boyle, head of Australia’s SKA project office, tweeted after the decision: “One clear winner from the site decision. The project itself.”