Work in the stars: feds fund pure research

The government announces $387m to build and operate Australia’s share of the Square Kilometre Array – it’s all about jobs

Sites in South Africa and thousands of dishes over remote WA combine to create a radio telescope 50 times more sensitive than any other, to pick up radio signals from space.

It’s pure research but this did not deflect Prime Minister Scott Morrison from his jobs message. SKA “will put the country at the cutting edge of science and technology research while creating hundreds of new jobs during the construction phase,” the PM said.

And did he mention it was about jobs? Yes, he did, “SKA means more jobs for Australia and it puts us in the driver’s seat for scientific discoveries.”

What was that about jobs? “As well as creating hundreds of local jobs, our economic modelling indicates the project will attract an estimated $1.8 billion in foreign income,” Industry, Science and Technology Minister Christian Porter added.

No faulting them for enthusiasm, unless of course the government is making the best of a deal it could not get out of – international agreements being what they are. But then again New Zealand exited SKA in 2019. And the government is not averse to other investments in blue sky, well dark matter, research – it’s funding a lab to research black holes and such, in an old goldmine beneath the Victorian town of Stawell.

If this is the strategy it takes to sell science good-o, but, immediately applied research SKA ain’t. Keith Bannister (CSIRO), with Adam Deller and Ryan Shannon (Swinburne U) used the SKA Pathfinder telescope to identify a single fast radio burst from 4bn light years away (CMM June 28 2019). Their discovery is honoured by the American Association for the Advancement of Science which thinks it, “could improve our understanding of the structure of the universe, as well as galaxy formation and evolution,” (CMM February 12 2021).

Of course, no one knows what caused the radio burst, but CMM bets if you asked the PM he would say it was jobs.