health & science

NZ bows out of all big telescope involvement

Despite an energetic PR campaign, the government will not be pursuing any form of SKA telescope involvement, says MBIE, which announced the decision quietly on its website

After over a year of intense lobbying, culminating in a highly unusual mental health smear against a physicist, the New Zealand Government has decided it will not be joining the Square Kilometre Array telescope project in any form.

Science Minister Megan Woods had previously said she was considering a cheaper option of taking associate membership of the group of nations who’ll band together to pay to build and run the telescope. Woods had already ruled that there were insufficient business and astronomy benefits to justify full membership at a cost of roughly $2-3 million a year, following advice from her officials.

But today the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment put a statement on its website saying the Government had decided against pursuing even the lesser option of associate membership, leaving New Zealand with no future financial commitment or official involvement in the project.

MBIE told Newsroom that Cabinet approved the decision on June 25 and that “the decision was not related to the conflict between stakeholders in the project".

“MBIE’s function is to maximise the benefits from the science system as a whole ... We advised the Minister than an investment in the SKA’s construction phase did not compare favourably against other priorities ... Joining this phase would only make sense if New Zealand could sufficiently utilise a share in the completed radio telescope,” it said.

New Zealand was a founding member of the non-profit organisation that was set up to design the telescope, and the former Labour, then National, governments originally hoped the country would get to host some of the infrastructure, a privilege that was hotly contested between countries. New Zealand missed out to Australia and South Africa, but continued contributing to the cost of ICT design via a joint project with AUT, Catalyst IT, Open Parallel and other companies, on the basis that there were spillover benefits to the ICT sector from being involved in cutting-edge computing.

An impression of the SKA telescope. Image/skatelescope.org

The Government stuck with its support during project delays, and entities who’d been working on government contracts during the design phase believed that taxpayer commitment was locked in for the decade-long construction and operations phase to come. Supporters were aghast when MBIE reconsidered and decided the future economic benefits weren’t enough to sign up for the construction and operating period. As a sweetener for countries that commit to funding the telescope, only companies and organisations from member countries will be able to bid for construction contracts.

A lobbying and media campaign was started to try to reignite support after local SKA supporters learned that government support was in jeopardy. On the other side, many non-radio astronomers (working in optical astronomy, neutrinos and other fields) argued the cost was much too high relative to New Zealand's radio astronomy expertise and would tip the field out of whack for coming decades. 

Amid the arguing, the director of the New Zealand SKA alliance sent several emails to MBIE about an outspoken opponent of taxpayer funding, the University of Auckland’s head of physics Richard Easther, disputing factual points but also accusing Easther of unprofessionalism and a misinformation campaign. Superiors at AUT also made allegations about Easther. The local SKA consortium's director – AUT’s Andrew Ensor – then emailed a journalist saying Easther should seek medical help.

Ensor later told Easther he regretted the email, after Newsroom wrote about the episode. AUT has backed Ensor against complaints about his emails, while saying the “medical help” email itself was a mistake and that AUT didn't support it. 

In its announcement yesterday, MBIE cited “enduring” benefits from New Zealand’s spending on the project so far but said New Zealand wouldn’t be involved after the design phase finished in 2020, at which point a new international organisation will be created to build and operate the radio telescope.

The international SKA organisation said several weeks ago it was looking into the information in Newsroom’s earlier story, after some overseas astronomers – including supporters and architects of the SKA – reacted with horror on social media to news of the attacks on Easther, calling the episode a “disgrace”, “appalling” and “unprofessional”. 

But after speaking to two MBIE officials in charge of New Zealand’s involvement, the SKA organisation’s director-general Phil Diamond decided it was a local matter for “New Zealand members to manage”.  

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