Newsroom Special Inquiry
Smears and fury in big telescope lobbying
A top New Zealand physicist has had his conduct and mental health attacked after he criticised taxpayer funding for a telescope. An AUT lecturer warned a journalist “be prepared to have the finger pointed at you if and when mental health issues get dragged out in the media”. Top brass at AUT still back the lecturer – and insist the physicist himself is to blame. How did a battle over funding come to this?
You might have come across Richard Easther, Auckland University’s most senior astrophysicist, through his blogging or tweeting or heard him on the radio explaining black holes or dying space probes. Maybe you heard him tell Kim Hill the term “supermoon” is just a marketing label.
Or you might have come across him in a string of stories about a big, ambitious telescope that New Zealand was going to pay $25 million towards but isn't now – the Square Kilometre Array (or SKA).
When the first phase of the SKA is finished, which is currently scheduled for 2027, it will be a vast array of radio antennae and dishes in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, working together as a single, super-sensitive instrument.
The arrays will generate an almost unfathomable amount of data, which scientists will sift through to pick up ancient, faint radio signals from way back when galaxies were forming. To make sense of the flood of information, they’ll need serious help from the computing sector and tech wizardry so advanced it hasn't been invented yet.
The telescope will be undoubtedly cool, but Easther thought that joining the project was poor use of $2-3m a year of taxpayers' money. By the reckoning of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), it would take an added $2m annually to build up New Zealand’s modestly-sized radio astronomy community to the point where it could take full advantage of the telescope, putting the potential cost closer to $4-5m.
Easther told other astronomers, the government and journalists he thought the plan was over-priced, and over-hyped. He told the telescope’s biggest supporters what he thought, too. When he felt they weren’t listening, he stood up at a conference they had organised about the SKA and told them, baldly, as a group.
When Science Minister Megan Woods broke the news that the government wouldn’t be signing the SKA treaty, perhaps it was inevitable that Easther would be blamed, despite officials' firm insistence that he hadn't clinched it.
While radio astronomers are enthusiastic about joining Australia and other nations to help build the telescope, the most vocal backers locally have been a handful of tech companies and universities, especially AUT.
AUT and tech companies such as Catalyst IT have been investing in preparatory work on the telescope for more than five years, spending millions on staff salaries and expenses. Their work has been partly government-funded, and they expected they’d be able to bid for better, international contracts during the SKA’s construction. New Zealand entities would have been guaranteed at least $660,000 a year in contracts over the first decade, under the international SKA treaty. AUT, Catalyst and other supporters say there would have been much bigger benefits to the tech sector from being involved in a ‘big science’ project.
The government has invested already, spending more than $2m on contracts for pre-construction design work. In the past seven months alone, MBIE paid another $800,000 to private companies and universities to work on SKA-related contracts, with the biggest chunk, $330,500, going to AUT.
When Woods’ announcement came last April, Catalyst’s boss, Don Christie, was hosting bigwigs from the telescope’s Manchester HQ at his office. He told Woods her decision was a “kick in the guts”. Not signing the treaty was “a betrayal” of “very firm and clear commitments” by Steven Joyce and previous ministers, he added to Newsroom.
“[Ensor's email] was one of the most unprofessional things I’ve seen one academic do to another in all the time I worked as a journalist or at the Royal Society”.
- Peter Griffin
Easther wasn’t alone in his concerns about the spending - eleven other New Zealand astronomers had signed a letter calling for a re-think. Last month, two of the most prominent Kiwi-born astronomers overseas - Gerry Gilmore, who heads the Gaia spacecraft project at Cambridge University, and Warrick Couch, a leading astronomer based in Melbourne - told Newsroom that signing the treaty would not have made sense for New Zealand.
But Easther had been the most audible voice. His critiques to MBIE officials and his speech at an SKA conference started more than a year of vehement and sometimes bizarre emails about him, culminating in a claim that he was mentally ill. The messages went to journalists, officials and his employer. In the year to December 2018, staff at AUT sent at least seven emails mentioning Easther to government officials leading the telescope project, saying he was inappropriate, unprofessional, on a personal crusade, harassing people, knowingly spreading wrong information, and that there had been “complaints” about him.
Most of the emails came from an AUT lecturer named Andrew Ensor, but at least two came from higher up – from Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation John Raine, and Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack. (MBIE redacted some of the emails, so Newsroom doesn’t have a full set).
Easther knew AUT was talking about him. Still, he was floored when he saw an email Ensor sent to tech writer Peter Griffin on January 29, which Griffin decided Easther should see. At the time, SKA supporter Catalyst had hired a PR consultant to generate positive media coverage. Griffin wrote a more critical take for Stuff.co.nz, saying the SKA was not the right investment for New Zealand.
Ensor thought Easther was behind the column. He emailed Griffin in his role as the director of the New Zealand SKA Alliance, a group funded by the government to manage telescope-related activities. Ensor said he thought Easther “would benefit far more from seeking medical help rather than greater exposure in the media”. He implied he and his colleagues were refraining from criticising Easther publicly because Easther was mentally unwell.
Ensor told Griffin he was “giving him a chance” to correct what the AUT lecturer thought were errors in Griffin’s column. (Griffin asked for a list of errors, but wasn’t satisfied he’d made any). “If you want to continue providing (Easther) with a soap box ... be prepared to have the finger pointed at you if and when mental health issues get dragged out in the media,” said Ensor. “Unlike many academics such as myself, he does not belong to a professional organization that enforces a code of conduct and integrity, and this has led to multiple complaints about his antics.”
Ensor ended with an invitation to a conference: “Perhaps after attending this you may be able to have an informed view yourself of the SKA rather than being a puppet in someone’s twisted game.” (The full text of Ensor’s email is below).
Griffin has decades of experience at dealing with academics. He’s a former NZ Herald technology journalist who spent the previous 10 years as the founding director of the Science Media Centre, a science communication hub based at the Royal Society in Wellington. Griffin told Newsroom that Ensor’s email was “one of the most unprofessional things I’ve seen one academic do to another in all the time I worked as a journalist or at the Royal Society”. He shared his feelings with Ensor and an AUT media representative. Neither apologised.
For the record, Easther doesn’t have a mental illness. If he did, he says it should not have been used as an insult, or to discredit his opinions. He believes if he was less robust, Ensor’s email and the other allegations might have deeply distressed him. “I told my colleagues I was willing to step out in public. But I am truly shocked at just how much heat there has been,” says Easther.
It wasn't the only telescope stoush. AUT was also battling MBIE - while reassuring officials about a previous rift with an astronomer at Victoria University of Wellington that had started over the telescope.
Emails released under the Official Information Act reveal relations broke down badly between AUT and MBIE officials, whom Ensor warned of a “fight to the death” over any attempt to reduce the value of SKA contracts. AUT accused officials of "denying errors" in their briefings and being “personally caught up in irrelevant issues” and told them cabinet ministers were “very unimpressed” with them. VC Derek McCormack referred to a “regrettable breakdown” in the relationship with a Victoria University astronomer who'd been involved in the SKA, and told officials it wasn't AUT's fault.
Ten years ago, the SKA was a feel-good investment that virtually everyone supported. How did it come to this?
To understand how things turned so nasty, it helps to know that - 18 months before the “mental health” email - the telescope's supporters probably never doubted New Zealand would sign the SKA treaty. Nor did they likely suspect that the fate of the SKA’s funding would stand or fall on its usefulness to astronomers.
While scientists want to use the SKA to understand the cosmos, that wasn’t the primary motivation for New Zealand first exploring membership, under the fifth Labour government. A recent MBIE briefing to Woods reveals the former Ministry for Research Science and Technology (now part of MBIE) did not support participating. Backing came instead from the Ministry for Economic Development (also now part of MBIE). MED was thinking about jobs and infrastructure.
Back then, New Zealand dearly hoped to be chosen to host part of the telescope, a gift which MED said could create 500 high-tech jobs and add “$180 million” to the economy. National adopted the idea with gusto after it won the November 2008 election. "The scale is enormous," then-Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee said in 2009. "It is a truly mega science project which has a discovery potential 10,000 times greater than existing instruments."
"My own belief is that academics have an obligation to … speak out about matters of real public importance that touch our areas of expertise. My hope was that we could hammer out a plan that worked for everyone.”
- Astrophysicist Richard Easther
It wasn’t to be. New Zealand’s joint bid with Australia missed out and the prize was apportioned between South Africa and Australia. Yet the government decided to pursue joining anyway, seemingly to become even better friends with Australia. The University of Canterbury’s David Wiltshire, one of the astronomers who signed a letter asking the government to re-think SKA's funding, told Newsroom that after New Zealand missed out on hosting duties, “we essentially became off-shore contractors”. For Wiltshire, delays in constructing the telescope meant the part that he was personally interested in - probing the reality of dark energy - had been overtaken by another project, the Euclid satellite.
Portions of Woods’ briefings concerning Trans-Tasman relations arrived at Newsroom mostly redacted. But in a letter to MBIE last year, Wiltshire noted that ministers Steven Joyce and Brownlee originally agreed to join the SKA because of approaches from the Australian government. MBIE briefings support that theory - saying Woods would need to broach New Zealand’s possible exit carefully. “Australia places significant value on New Zealand’s participation,” they told Woods.
In 2012, MED started funding a group called the New Zealand SKA Alliance (the group that Ensor is head of) initially giving it $1.6m over three years for ICT design work. AUT and tech companies Catalyst, Open Parallel and others worked on the contracts, though Christie notes that Catalyst, for example, mostly paid its own way. Collectively the contractors have spent more than the Government.
These contractors say that the work was fruitful. Catalyst worked with Open Parallel on efforts to design back-end software for the telescope, and developed and prototyped cloud storage options, collaborating with a top British computing centre. Christie says his business built what it learned into its own cloud computing products, and the SKA work has helped build Catalyst’s ability to process huge datasets. He says Catalyst could do more research and development if it could bid for contracts under the SKA treaty. “The best really is yet to come.”
AUT, meanwhile, used its involvement as a selling point to attract new scientists and PhD students - people it says it may now lose unless New Zealand signs the treaty. Perhaps its biggest hire was a respected radio astronomer, Willem van Straten, who co-leads an international team designing pulsar timing for the telescope. Van Straten studies very low-frequency gravitational waves, such as those generated by supermassive black holes orbiting each other after galaxies merge. He told Newsroom that, thanks to his international collaborations, he will “very likely” still be able to use the SKA’s data, regardless of whether New Zealand joins. But other radio astronomers would likely miss out on access to the telescope if we didn't join, and it wasn’t clear New Zealand astronomers would be allowed to take part in the construction process. “To not be part of construction would be unfortunate, because helping build a facility provides a deeper understanding of its capabilities and limitations,” said van Straten.
Last March he wrote to Woods on behalf of himself and seven other radio astronomers at various universities who’d benefit from using the telescope, unreservedly supporting full membership of the “largest science mega project of the next decade, and the first in which New Zealand has had substantial lead role”.
But non-radio astronomers tend to be considerably less keen. They say spending $25m is way out of whack with the shape of New Zealand’s astronomy field.
Astronomers are naturally keen to see amazing new instruments in their fields - just as governments are keen to host the pricey new instruments. Each project gives people a different, complementary, view of the universe.
If you go outside and look at the stars with your eyes, you’re doing optical astronomy - albeit a more limited version than an astronomer who is using a massive optical telescope. Astronomers used to think this visible light was all there was to see, but now they know there are gamma rays, x-rays, infrared, microwave, radio waves and more. The stars that people see at night look dim when viewed by a radio telescope (of which the SKA will be the biggest) because they’re not made for detecting visible light - rather, they’re picking up radio waves.
Astronomy today is all about “big science”, which means it’s always pushing the boundaries of the latest, massive infrastructure, says Cambridge University’s Gerry Gilmore. “We’re asking big questions, what is the nature of reality, where has the universe come from, was there a beginning, is there an end, why does time go in one direction? All those questions that people don’t get to spend enough time thinking about,” he says.
Gilmore is a Timaru-born astronomer who played a major role in designing and leading the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft mission, which is now recording the brightness and positions of millions of stars. He says that each big project (think LIGO, Gaia, Cassini or Antarctica’s ICECUBE) could teach people something wonderful, but the world can only afford to build about three at a time. The billions tend to go to whichever three are deemed to have the best chance of making major discoveries. “Every 10 years, the world kind of gets together and agrees its priorities,” he says. “And, of course, that process gets very political.”
Gilmore leads about 30 staff on the British arm of the Gaia project at Cambridge, but he also works on other projects - including the SKA’s scientific programme. A major science centre for the SKA is a few doors down the corridor. When the SKA was first proposed, he says, it was going to do “everything”. But its discovery space has been “nibbled” by other projects while it’s been waiting to be built, he says.
“The SKA was the darling from about a decade ago,” says Gilmore. But: “It turns out in hindsight it’s a mistake to try and do everything because people can focus on individual bits of what you’re trying to do and do it better.” To make the project affordable and manageable, the international SKA organisation has decided to build the first 10 percent first, known as SKA1. SKA2, the other 90 percent, is “way over budget” and has suffered from funding uncertainty, says Gilmore. Meanwhile “new ideas like neutrinos and cosmic rays and gravitational waves have become more exciting,” he says. “(The SKA) was going to tell us about black holes, but it’s had its thunder stolen there by gravitational wave astronomy.”
“If you want the government to make a significant investment of millions of dollars a year in this, you’ve got to be damn sure you’ve got significant community of people who are going to be able to use that facility and exploit it.”
- Astronomer Warrick Couch
Warrick Couch is a Lower Hutt-born astronomer who went on to direct Australia’s largest optical observatory, the Australian Astronomical Observatory. He says that while SKA1 won’t be “transformational” it will still do “amazing science”. For example, it will be a “quantum leap” in astronomers’ ability to look back in time and study the often-invisible hydrogen gas that makes up a large part of the universe. “If you mapped the neutral hydrogen throughout the universe right back to the origin of the universe, that can’t be done with any other telescope, so it has an important niche,” says Couch.
Yet Couch agrees with Gilmore that the SKA has “absolutely” had some of its territory poached. “The SKA has been talked about for 20 years, and we are still a long way from seeing it working,” he says. “There’s a lot of other facilities and experiments that have come and gone in that time and addressed a lot of these issues,” he says.
Both astronomers agreed SKA1 will be very interesting, even without the might of SKA2. But they also each told Newsroom it didn’t make sense for New Zealand to sign the treaty.
For Australia, which will pitch in hundreds of millions of dollars, signing the treaty made great sense, says Couch. That country invented radio astronomy. “But comparing Australia and New Zealand in terms of the number of top radio astronomers, I’d think Australia would be at least a factor of 10 larger, roughly speaking,” he says. “If you want the government to make a significant investment of millions of dollars a year in this, you’ve got to be damn sure you’ve got significant community of people who are going to be able to use that facility and exploit it.”
Cambridge’s Gilmore was consulted many years ago, when the then-National government asked him what he thought about being a part of the SKA. He told them to go for it – but not to see it as a science investment. “I said, scientifically this is not an intelligent thing for New Zealand to do because New Zealand’s strength is in optical astronomy, not in radio astronomy,” Gilmore says. “You would do it if you wanted an excuse to invest in high bandwidth fibre or infrastructure, but you certainly wouldn’t do it for astronomy.”
He has since changed his mind about the wisdom of New Zealand joining. Gilmore says the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, “completely changed the context of the SKA proposal. It was no longer a luxury coming on the back of doing something that was doing fine, suddenly it was unbalancing a structure that was in danger of falling apart.”
Gilmore lists the things he thinks have changed in New Zealand astronomy since he spoke to National about it: earthquakes, retirements, departures of talented young people, new people returning and/or rising to prominence. Easther returned to New Zealand in 2011, leaving a professor’s job at Yale to be head of The University of Auckland’s physics department. Victoria University lost its top radio astronomer to Perth. (On the other hand, AUT has hired van Straten and others, as the university points out). Gilmore names Easther and a Canterbury neutrino researcher, Jenni Adams (another signatory of the critical SKA letter) among the bright astronomers whose work he’s noticed. “There are superb astronomers at lots of the universities across the whole country, but if you put all your eggs in one basket, particularly if you are a tiny little basket right next to the ginormous Australia basket, you have to be careful,” says Gilmore. “The SKA is left as something that will be fantastic in 15 years but New Zealand science is so small you can’t afford to invest on a 15-year timescale, you need to invest on a timescale that corresponds to someone’s career.”
As for the tech-boosting argument, he adds: “If it were true that New Zealand government policy had ring-fenced a bunch of money it wished to spend subsiding New Zealand’s software industry and it had no implications for anything else I’d be 100 percent happy with that,” says Gilmore. “That’s a tension the government has to resolve. But it shouldn’t be resolved by default, and it shouldn’t be made by people insulting each other, and it shouldn’t be a decision made by PR people.”
“(The SKA) was going to tell us about black holes, but it’s had its thunder stolen there by gravitational wave astronomy.”
- Gerry Gilmore, Cambridge University
Newsroom asked: Gilmore has probably seen his share of brutal funding battles during his time supporting Gaia and other telescopes he’s worked on. He mentioned he’d seen a couple of emails that were sent about Easther. Is that kind of thing normal? No, he says. “Those kind of, ad hominem, outrageous comments, if someone did things like that here in the UK they would lose their jobs. It’s unpleasant and unnecessary and not normal.”
Couch is with him on that point. “No, I think that is unusual in a scientific technology context, and it’s very unfortunate,” he says. “We can have robust arguments, certainly, in Australia astronomy [but] you’ve got to come to government with a united plan. I have to say, if it was Australia, and particularly if it becomes personal, that would just send the government running and confirm even more its decision not to fund a project.”
The changes in New Zealand astronomy mightn’t have mattered so much to the SKA's funding prospects had MBIE not decided the telescope was a science investment, after all.
Back in 2015, National remained supportive of the SKA and topped up its original budget of $1.6m, when it turned out construction was still three years away from starting. At that point, the first observations were due in 2020. AUT’s then-commercial engagement manager, John Bancroft, told Radio NZ the SKA would be “winning Nobel prizes, and probably in its first year or two of operation”.
Today, SKA1 is in the final design stage and is due to be fully operational by 2027.
In April 2016, Cabinet agreed to pursue full treaty membership, citing spillover benefits from being part of the computing design process.
But in late 2017, the government changed. By now, the telescope’s funding was considered to fall under the ‘science and innovation’ category at MBIE rather than economic spending, or infrastructure. Former Plant and Food Research business manager Megan Woods became the new Minister for Research, Science and Innovation in November, and officials soon briefed her on the SKA.
MBIE staff warned Woods the costs were going to exceed the cap of 650 million Euros, which the international SKA organisation had set for itself in 2012. The most recent estimate was $798m, while countries’ commitments to pay were still short of $650m.
MBIE told Woods the government’s rationale for being involved had “evolved over time” from wanting to secure a share of hosting, to wanting to be a part of developing the data processing software. There’d been positive spin-offs already, they acknowledged: AUT had developed its signal-processing capabilities and Catalyst had boosted its big data processing capacity. The most lucrative success story was a data processing company called Nyriad, which had used its involvement to make a business that now employed 100 people in the Waikato, probably justifying on its own the money MBIE had invested so far.
But officials were no longer persuaded there’d be ongoing benefits big enough to justify the costs of joining. Boosting the tech industry wasn’t enough, they said, unless there were also serious astronomy benefits. Since New Zealand had, in MBIE’s eyes, only a “handful of radio astronomers and few of any standing internationally…investment in SKA would be hugely disproportionate to our low investment in optical and other fields of astronomy.”
Officials told SKA’s supporters in December 2017 that MBIE no longer thought their project had a strong case.
Intemperate words began flying.
Later, when people complained about Easther, they would say he’d rarked up other astronomers by over-stating the SKA’s costs. Most seriously, AUT would say he knowingly repeated wrong figures.
The spark for what became a bonfire was an email sent to a group of astronomers by New Zealand’s then-science director on the international SKA committee, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt.
Johnston-Hollitt asked the astronomers what access they wanted to Australian astronomy infrastructure. She didn’t mean the SKA, but conversation quickly turned to that and to worries about astronomy funding generally. Several astronomers decided to write to MBIE and tell officials they wanted a proper astronomy spending plan, with better balance and scrutiny. Ensor jumped in and urged them not to bother officials with their concerns. “The probable outcome from your intended letter would be to annoy MBIE officials with an attempt to re-litigate a process that commenced a decade ago and to perpetuate the perception ... that the astronomy community is divided and ungrateful of funding,” he told them.
Meanwhile, on the emails, Easther raised concerns about the cost of SKA membership, saying astronomers risked being stuck with too-big a stake in the radio telescope for decades. He’d calculated that if taxpayers paid 2 percent of the costs - as SKA’s supporters were urging MBIE to do - it would cost $6m a year. Ensor told Easther he was wrong: “At 2 percent membership ... costs equate to $3m or $2.65m a year,” he said.
Ensor turned out to be right about the total cost but not, seemingly, about the percentage. MBIE later clarified that there was “no way” New Zealand would be paying 2 percent of the cost. “The figure is 0.8 percent,” MBIE’s Simon Rae told Easther a few days later. AUT told Newsroom the apparent difference between Ensor's percentage and MBIE's arose because Ensor was talking only about 2 percent of construction costs, not total costs, including operating expenses.
Before MBIE could clarify the figures to Easther, Johnston-Hollitt replied to all that Easther's sum was correct for a 2 percent telescope contribution. She said Ensor’s lower figure was “not consistent” with what was being presented at SKA meetings.
“The science case for full SKA membership is not compelling ... The path to construction is unlikely to be smooth.”
- Officials warn Minister Megan Woods
When the 12 concerned astronomers - Easther, Wiltshire, Adams, Ian Bond from Massey, Jorg Frauendiener from Otago and seven others - wrote their letter to MBIE, they included Easther’s $6m. However, they also considered the lower, 0.8 percent stake. Even at the lower price, they said, access to the telescope would be overpriced by “at least a factor of 10”. “Over the last five years, Canterbury and Victoria universities have lost potential SKA users,” and Waikato, Otago, Massey and Auckland “have not hired in this area,” they said. “The overall university sector apparently does not see a compelling case for SKA science.”
On December 15, Ensor asked MBIE to correct Easther: “You can expect people like Richard to try all sorts of calculations with whatever is provided,” he wrote, adding that at a cost of $6m, there was “a risk of scientists rioting in the streets, crucifixion of radio astronomers and demands being made to ministers that New Zealand resist the project.”
MBIE’s Simon Rae replied: “Actually, Richard’s sums are correct if you assume a 2 percent contribution ... However I am happy to suggest to Richard that 2 percent is misleading.”
Newsroom asked AUT if there was any basis for saying Easther knowingly used inflated figures.
AUT said Ensor had inside knowledge of the real amounts because of his work for the SKA international. “The concern is that despite having specific information from the NZ SKA Alliance clarifying the costs, Professor Easther sent inflated figures around the NZ astronomy community and to MBIE - this formed the basis of their argument not to continue SKA membership,” the university said.
AUT seems to be saying that - at least until MBIE piped up - Easther should have trusted Ensor’s numbers, rather than Johnston-Hollitt's reassurance. Even today, Easther does not find that argument convincing.
Soon Johnston-Hollitt (an Australian) would announce she was leaving New Zealand to lead a large telescope in Perth, an event MBIE would later describe as the departure of our “leading radio astronomer.”
The next February, Easther spoke up at a conference and the tūtae really started to hit the telescope.
Killing the SKA
The conference became the basis for various allegations by AUT, which remain vague despite Newsroom's attempts to find out more detail.
Newsroom asked AUT last month whether was there any factual basis to Ensor’s mental health claim, and, if not, whether it had taken any action against its lecturer. AUT continues to back Ensor.
AUT’s spokeswoman replied it would not be taking action, and relayed another complaint about Easther, which Newsroom has decided not to publish, since AUT couldn’t say who’d made the claim or put Newsroom in touch with the source. Newsroom also asked AUT who’d made the “multiple complaints” that Ensor referred to in his email to Griffin, and what they involved. The university said it couldn’t say without seeking permission, which wasn’t forthcoming. “Disagreements between scientists are not unheard of - especially where competitive research funding is at stake. The real issue is the SKA and whether New Zealand can stay in it,” began AUT’s reply.
“You’ll have a fight to the death if MBIE try to remove overheads or reduce funding, especially at such short notice."
- Andrew Ensor to MBIE
When Easther’s boss at Auckland University, Dean of Science John Hosking, complained to AUT about Ensor’s email, AUT responded with more allegations, this time from the top of the institution - Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack. McCormack replied that Ensor now accepted he should not have made the mental health comments to a journalist, but that Ensor had been prompted by “genuine concern”.
McCormack went on to accuse Easther of making factual errors knowingly and of “emotional outbursts”, “colourful rhetoric”, “wild assertions”, “inappropriate” behaviour and “attacking the SKA” at two telescope-related conferences.
"In his ongoing crusade against the SKA it is contingent upon him [Easther] as an academic to hold to scientific and professional standards. Instead, I am informed he has repeated factually incorrect statements even after the errors have been clearly pointed out to him, making wild assertions in the past about SKAs costs, timeframes and progress, accompanied by colourful rhetoric and emotional outbursts... it would be helpful if you could speak to him about it."
McCormack said Ensor's mental health email was quoted "out of context" by the University of Auckland when it complained to AUT.
He also referred to an “alarming outburst” when Easther had said he’d “kill the SKA”. (In McCormack’s letter, the words Kill--The--SKA are spaced out using individual double hyphens).
Easther did say that. However, he recalls the rest of the argument quite differently.
There were two conferences hosted by AUT to talk about the SKA - one in February 2018 and one in February 2019. Easther was invited to speak at each of them. He says his hosts knew he’d be critical of the project: he’d been arguing with them for months already. Ensor sent him an email before the 2018 conference saying he was looking forward to a “robust” discussion.
It must have been more robust than anticipated. Easther challenged a visiting scientist, the SKA's science director Robert Braun, on the value of the telescope to New Zealand during Braun’s presentation. Later, he asked for a few minutes to address the whole conference and told the assembled researchers why he didn’t think the government should take full membership. He says he finished provocatively, asking the assembled researchers whether they’d back themselves to secure taxpayer’s money if the government held a contestable process.
The hosts and some of the others present felt Easther had been rude and disruptive. Others thought the level of arguing was fine, or at least unremarkable for a physics conference. Some found it helpful. Despite being a strong telescope supporter himself, AUT lecturer Jordan Alexander told Newsroom he’d welcomed Easther’s interjections. Alexander said Easther had bred a vigorous debate, and that it was “healthy” to argue the telescope’s benefits to foster consensus.
AUT astronomy professor Sergei Gulyaev was not pleased. Easther says Gulyaev approached him angrily afterwards and asked him what he was trying to do. That’s when Easther says he told Gulyaev he was trying to “kill” the telescope - saying he felt the project’s supporters weren’t willing to compromise by submitting to a proper review or considering partial funding. Faced with a choice of supporting full funding or no funding, he’d try to kill it, Easther says he told Gulyaev. (He’d said a similar thing, less bluntly, to government officials in emails, which Newsroom obtained under the Official Information Act. Easther told MBIE he’d “rather see no investment than bad investment”.) As Easther recalls the conference, there were raised voices but he felt he received more loudness than he gave.
Newsroom asked AUT if Gulyaev recalled the rest of the conversation, about the lack of compromise, the same way Easther did. “There was a discussion along the lines you described, but the tone in which the views were expressed was highly inappropriate -contributing to the concerns raised in the letter (to Easther’s boss),” AUT replied.
“Disagreements between scientists are not unheard of - especially where competitive research funding is at stake. The real issue is the SKA and whether New Zealand can stay in it."
When this year’s conference rolled around, AUT invited Easther back. He’d just been on TV critiquing the SKA’s funding, and he says he pointed this out when AUT gave him another speaking slot. (Most of the astronomers in this story remain on cordial terms, including ones at AUT and The University of Auckland).
But when Easther’s boss challenged AUT about Ensor’s “mental health” email, AUT said they regretted the second invitation. “Despite this (outburst),” said McCormack, “the organisers of this year’s SKA conference gave him a speaking slot ... after simply showing a few very basic slides, he departed from the topic he had submitted and proceeded to attack the SKA.”
Newsroom has seen Easther’s slides from the conference. There are 31 of them, mostly on the state of cosmology. Easther says he used several of them for a plenary address at a much bigger conference, the Asia-Pacific Physics Conference. The final four slides cover the SKA and the future of astronomy funding. They say there’s “lots of exciting science to be done with the SKA” and “clearly excitement from within the IT community” but also that “there’s a gap between what IT people say and what astronomers think” about it and that “continuing to push for full membership ... risks making it an all-or-nothing decision”.
Asked if McCormack had mischaracterised the presentation, AUT said that “regardless of the slide stack, the majority of his presentation had nothing to do with the topic or the purpose of the conference”.
On March 29, officials warned Woods against signing the treaty. “The science case for full SKA membership is not compelling,” they told her. Nyriad, the big success story, had moved on to other clients and the telescope itself came with “risks of unplanned cost increases or even that the telescope would not be built because of lack of funds”, they said. “The path to construction is unlikely to be smooth.”
They added: “There are innovation gains ... but not at a level to justify full membership … A dedicated ICT investment would have some advantage (over SKA)."
The officials advised Woods to look at becoming an associate member.
In the meantime, they suggested MBIE should keep funding the pre-construction design work by AUT and others, while the government finalised its position.
But finalising those funding contracts turned prickly. “You’ll have a fight to the death if MBIE try to remove overheads or reduce funding, especially at such short notice,” Ensor told MBIE, while pushing for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than MBIE said it had in its budget. SKA’s supporters thought MBIE had read an economic report wrongly, discounting the telescope project’s benefits and over-inflating the costs. They accused officials of errors and shoddy analysis. “By the way … some others in Cabinet … were very unimpressed by your SKA briefing,” Ensor added in his email, while seeking greater funding from MBIE.
Easther has had more than a year to think about whether he should have approached the cost question differently, or been less feisty at the conference. The conference, he says, was his chance to talk to SKA’s supporters directly rather than battling in the media, as has happened regularly since. “I … repeatedly said we need an honest discussion about the benefits and risks of the SKA … and would have vastly preferred that to a more openly adversarial process,” he said. “I also believe that I had an obligation to step up.”
He says he wouldn’t really change much if he could re-wind time. “At the micro-level I can see a few sentences I would have shaded differently, if only to make it harder to take them out of context,” he says. “The big picture answer is no. My own belief is that academics have an obligation to … speak out about matters of real public importance that touch our areas of expertise. My hope was that we could hammer out a plan that worked for everyone.”
As Easther sees it, the SKA in New Zealand was “an accident waiting to happen”, because it was never rigorously reviewed despite changes in both astronomy and the telescope.
Newsroom also asked Christie about the saga. His PR campaign has had some success at getting opinion pieces and stories in the media. But what about the personal stuff about Easther? Christie didn’t want to comment on individuals. He said the issue was “academic snobbery” by an old university, University of Auckland, towards an “upstart”, AUT. He said Auckland had allowed the SKA and AUT to be attacked, implying Easther’s university should have reined him in. “University of Auckland needs to answer why … they have chosen to undermine a 10-year international research programme led by a fellow Kiwi university,” said Christie.
AUT and Christie believe MBIE handled the project badly, under-valuing their contributions and not consulting them. “We think Minister Woods has decided to downgrade New Zealand’s membership of one of the biggest science and ICT projects in the world based on poor advice and, as a consequence, this country stands to lose out,” AUT said in email. “It is a relatively small investment but the potential returns are huge.”
One potential lesson, mentioned by virtually every astronomer from every university Newsroom spoke to, was that New Zealand should make a decadal plan. Other countries have 10-year strategies for astronomy funding, which are hashed out behind closed doors, allowing a united front to be presented afterwards. “We’ve certainly learned in Australia that that’s paid rich dividends in terms of convincing government to fund things,” said Couch. “I think to bring it all together in a united voice it would have helped a lot.”
There’s one more thing - kindness. A global movement for kindness in science has been trying to make conferences, meetings and other competitive environments more diverse, inclusive and supportive. Easther says he is enthusiastic about the movement - though he says there is a place for robust exchanges and expecting answers. The SKA, he says, was one such topic, involving millions of public dollars and a major international treaty.
Perhaps it wasn't about Easther anyway. MBIE would later advise Woods to remind people Easther didn’t clinch the decision against them - the telescope’s supporters got considerably more air-time, and other factors were decisive, they said.
Whatever made the difference, the telescope’s supporters didn’t see it coming. They sank time and several millions into a project they thought had locked-in government backing, then it turned out it didn't. The prospects of lesser government funding are currently status-unknown. That’s unfortunate for them, Easther acknowledges, though he says he would have supported partial funding at the outset.
Perhaps he would feel more sympathy if he hadn’t read the emails. When his opponents realised they’d taken a risk, instead of trying to salvage what was valuable, “they turned vicious”, he says. “I became the subject of baseless accusations of deliberate dishonesty and was badmouthed to local and international colleagues, senior government officials, and to journalists,” he says. “The SKA’s backers ... topped it all off with claims that I am mentally ill. There is no kindness in that.”
A year of fighting - the highlights and the lowlights
As the deadline loomed for New Zealand to decide whether to sign the SKA treaty, letters flowed thick and fast to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Meanwhile, those for and against the funding were fighting it out in the media. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from more than a year of telescope arguments.
The first inkling the SKA’s supporters may have had that the road to signing the treaty (or not) would be bumpy was when non-radio astronomers started questioning the costs and benefits in an email chain in December 2017.
As the email chain grew and widened, 12 astronomers decided to write to MBIE calling for a fresh look at the government’s astronomy spending. “I honestly did not expect this,” New Zealand’s then-science director on the international SKA committee, Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, told officials.
In February 2018, the argument spilled into the public’s view for the first time when Richard Easther and three other astronomers spoke to the Herald.
Easther then told Radio New Zealand the project was “not bringing people to New Zealand”. AUT’s Willem van Straten took issue, telling MBIE and the RNZ journalist the SKA was his main professional reason for being here and that astronomers would get more excited to use it when it was actually up and running. The stories quoted AUT lecturer Andrew Ensor supporting the telescope.
Behind the scenes, everyone was emailing MBIE. Easther told officials the pro-SKA people were “breathing their own PR fumes” and engaged in “magical thinking”.
But the greatest volume of emails was coming from the SKA’s supporters. On February 14, Ensor told MBIE that Easther was “not listening to facts”, that the “scientific community doesn’t support him” but “let’s hope things gradually sink in”.
Then, on February 21, AUT Pro Vice Chancellor John Raine forwarded MBIE an email Ensor had sent to Easther earlier, disputing various factual statements. “I see no need to detail all the ways in which your behaviour was quite inappropriate through the (2018 SKA conference) ... you were being extremely disruptive and irrelevant to the programme far beyond what would typically be tolerated in a professional context…Many of us belong to professional bodies. I myself belong to three and as such there is an expectation on me to maintain high standards of integrity and behaviour, and ensure the accuracy of any statements I make,” said the email. What the “inappropriate” conduct was wasn’t specified. Ensor referred to the London Code of Conduct, which, as well as banning sexual and racist language, requires attendees at academic conferences to “be kind” and not insult or put down others.
When Raine forwarded officials the email, MBIE was organising meeting of astronomers and Raine told them: “We would need to manage a tendency from some persons to seek to sway the discussion.”
On March 29, MBIE officials advised Woods against signing the treaty. “The science case for full SKA membership is not compelling,” they told her. They noted the spending might “exacerbate divisions” in the astronomy community. “Were the government to commit to spending $2-3m per annum on astronomy it is unlikely the greatest benefit would come from putting all of it into SKA membership”.
They concluded it would only be worth doing if the government also spent $2m a year building up the field of radio astronomy to the point where it could take full advantage of access to the telescope – taking the annual cost to $4-5m a year. While astronomers in SKA member countries can apply for time on the telescope, success is not guaranteed and applications will be decided on merit. Officials advised Woods to look at becoming an associate member, a cheaper - but, so far, still vague - option.
The unwelcome news reached SKA’s backers in April, when Woods met the SKA’s international chair and director in New Zealand. Supporters felt blindsided. They said they were not consulted by MBIE. Catalyst’s Christie was hosting SKA director general Phil Diamond when Woods broke the news. Christie told Woods: “The lack of consultation and transparency from MBIE over the last six years on how they are “leading” New Zealand’s involvement … have been concerning and insulting to the people who are actually delivering outcomes on the project.”
By this point, the government had spent about $2 million on pre-construction design work. MBIE was working out how much more it could afford to spend, while the government finalised its official position on the telescope. AUT embarked on an interesting strategy of persuasion.
On May 9, Ensor emailed MBIE’s Simon Rae about Easther: “I’m still quite concerned about a certain SKA critical voice.” He referred to two previous complaints about Easther’s “divisive approach” which Ensor said had been made to MBIE’s Peter Crabtree. “This is not a healthy environment and you must appreciate such harassment makes it impossible to undertake an accurate evaluation.”
Ensor emailed Rae again on June 11: “You’ll have a fight to the death if MBIE try to remove overheads or reduce funding, especially at such short notice,” he told MBIE. “I suggest you extend for say six months at the current level and then we help argue with the Minister about the SKA funding beyond that…” Ensor added: “By the way, by Minister I mean Megan Woods as there are some others in Cabinet that were very unimpressed by your SKA briefing and want us to push for full membership.”
The next day came another email from Ensor. Rae had just told him Ensor it was time to “tidy up” the SKA contracts and that there were “a number of areas where we are not entirely satisfied with the transparency”. AUT and others working on the telescope-related contracts wanted $1.3 million in total but Rae had told them $800,000 maximum was available.
“It is pleasing to see you have moved a bit in the right direction on funding ... that only leaves you another $534,000 to find to maintain funding at current levels,” Ensor wrote to Rae. “If you’d like a little more time to try to close the funding gap please let me know by 6pm today. Otherwise I will call a discussion between NZ (SKA Alliance) members to discuss their preferred next steps. I do not imagine they will take kindly to a 40 percent funding cut.” For good measure Ensor included a request under the Official Information Act seeking MBIE’s justification for requiring several years of co-funding by AUT and others.
While officials dealt with funding issues, Woods was having meetings. Officials suggested she might want to tell Christie and others that Easther hadn’t clinched the decision against them. “While the views of professor Richard Easther and other opponents have been registered, they were not central ... others advocating full membership have been more vocal in their arguments and their engagement with government has been significantly more extensive,” reads their briefing for a meeting with Christie.
On July 13, AUT’s John Raine wrote to MBIE trying to “clear the air” “following a difficult meeting”. He said tensions had been running high, and again mentioned Easther, whom the pro-SKA group felt “rightly or wrongly” had affected the government’s decision and created “noise”.
In August, MBIE warned Woods that SKA’s supporters were trying to work around her by going to other Cabinet Ministers.
Ensor emailed Rae: “We need to finally confront the dysfunctional relationship that has developed between some of the NZA organization and your role in the SKA,” he said. “Some key stakeholders … feel they cannot have a constructive dialogue with you, particularly following your denial of errors in the ministerial briefings.”
In September, AUT Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack personally wrote to MBIE about its “wrong” advice, again mentioning Easther: “There is one very vocal opponent on a personal crusade, but that is his issue,” he said. He told officials the SKA was the “biggest ICT opportunity New Zealand had ever had” and they were wrong to think associate membership could be a good solution. McCormack also referred to a different stoush about the SKA: the “regrettable breakdown of the relationship between the New Zealand (SKA) Alliance and Melanie Johnston-Hollitt”. “Alliance Members are tired of the continued insinuation that they somehow were the ones playing “dirty pool.” It is slanderous nonsense,” he told MBIE.
On October 16, MBIE’s Peter Crabtree wrote back: “We recognise that AUT and other SKA stakeholders continue to disagree with the advice we provided Minister Woods. However we remain of the view ... full membership cannot be justified.”
The next January, Ensor told Stuff.co.nz his criticisms of MBIE - saying their briefings to Woods were "very poorly done" and "full of errors".
Then came Griffin’s column, and Ensor’s “mental health” email.
Recently, Woods has told journalists the Government is still considering the lesser “associate membership” option. Columns from the SKA's supporters, including McCormack, continue to appear in the media, arguing the government got the call wrong, the latest being this one on Monday.
Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.