We don’t deserve this huge, exciting scientific project
I’d like to be able to say that sharing the world’s largest radio telescope with South Africa is a reasonable outcome for Australia.
I’d like to be able to say we deserve to be a part of it. I’d like to be able to say that. But I can’t.
We don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve it because barely anyone knows that it exists.
Before the verdict, the South Africa’s government and its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) organisation, MeerKAT, were treating victory like it was a forgone conclusion while Australia diligently kept its mouth shut.
While news of the MeerKAT was being plastered all over South African newspapers, news websites and TV screens, the CSIRO would barely comment on the project’s progress, let alone stand up to global opinion. The SKA was a part of the cultural conscience of South Africa. Meanwhile in Australia, barely anyone knew it existed, so poor was the CSIRO’s ability to communicate the SKA’s purpose.
Few people could tell you the exact location of the site, what it did or why it was important.
It’s like the CSIRO have shrouded themselves in so many layers of pointless bureaucracy that quite frankly, WWII security agencies could go back in time and learn things from the CSIRO’s inability to communicate their own core discoveries.
This is an organisation that pioneered the heart valve, the cochlear implant, the black box that goes on to planes, yet nevertheless they seem incapable of communicating with their own people the importance of hosting the greatest astronomical discovery tool since the invention of the telescope.
Sharing the project with South Africa is a second chance for Australia’s scientific industry. The SKA will give Australia the opportunity to form lucrative partnerships with NASA, and countless universities and astronomical research departments the world over. The information the SKA will glean could trigger the growth of new industries and research. The array will let us stand on the edge of space, it puts us on the verge of new discoveries about the origins of the universe.
It certainly doesn’t help our chances that Australia is generally viewed by the international community as being epically complacent when it comes to cutting-edge technology.
And fair cop too. It’s taken us more than a decade to decide whether we should have a fibre optic internet network (the NBN) that is on par with the rest of the world, and we’re still not even there yet.
And rather than pioneering Carbon Capture and Sequestration which takes waste C02 and turns it into liquid methane which can be used to create greener energy and reduce the cost of electricity, we sold off our powers plants and did away with the scheme altogether, courtesy of Barry O’Farrell.
Of course we didn’t deserve the SKA, we couldn’t even get a consensus to be the world leader in broadband internet, to be a leader in green energy, or in scientific research. So why start now?
Whatever happened to campaigning? There should have been posters plastered all over the country telling people about the SKA. It should have been be broadcast on every TV station and written on the side of every bus in the country. There should have been ambassadors, mascots, and tracksuits.
Julia Gillard shouldn’t have been allowed to step away from a microphone without reminding the country that we wouldn’t let South Africa or the SKA panel push us around. She should have been jumping off her chair when it was announced that we won the bid. For the first time Australia could have proven to the world that we were committed to discovery, to innovation, to growth, and to looking outside of itself for a change.
But that didn’t happen. And now we’re stuck sharing the project with our worthy “adversary”, that really was the deserving winner. South Africa was the better campaigner. Here are just a few headlines run in one of South Africa’s most popular newspapers, The Mail and Guardian: “South Africa leaps and bounds ahead of Australia in SKA race”. “Pandor rankled by SKA announcement delay”.“Sabres are drawn in SKA wars”.
MeerKAT and the bodies governing it were bold and blatant in their campaigning for the project. Trying to get information out of the CSIRO on the other hand was like pulling teeth.
In April when the SKA organisation announced it would be delaying its decision on who should host the radio telescope, South Africa’s science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor came out swinging, claiming she was “rankled” and “disappointed” by the delay. Did we react? Not so much.
When the SKA organisation floated the idea that the two countries ought to share the project, the best Australia’s science and technology minister Chris Evans could summon was a fairly wimpy statement about how “it was a “tough contest” but he was hoping for the best and that he had no intention of travelling to Amsterdam, where the judges were convening to lobby for Australia. Talk about going out with a whimper instead of a bang.
And when we found out Australia would share the project, there was no objection. In fact Mr Evans called it “an outstanding result”.
I hope we make the most of it. The SKA does not deserve to become the great white elephant in the outback.
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