It’s official: Government confirms NZ pulling out of Square Kilometre Array

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has confirmed that New Zealand will not participate in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project.

The announcement, posted on the MBIE website on 2 July, comes six months after Computerworld reported New Zealand's astronomy community making a last ditch effort to keep New Zealand involved.

In that report we described MBIE’s lack of clarity on the project as ‘Orwellian’. The MBIE had issued no statement on New Zealand’s role, but the web page created to detail New Zealand's involvement, www.ska.govt.nz, had been redirected to the Australian Government's page detailing that country's role.

And a web page on the MBIE site dated May 19 2018, headed "MBIE is leading New Zealand's involvement with the international effort to build the world's largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array," had been taken down.

In the announcement of New Zealand’s departure from the SKA MBIE said the decision to pull out “reflects official advice from MBIE that the benefits of associate membership in the next ‘construction’ phase of the project are not sufficient to account for its cost.”

It added: “The benefits of New Zealand’s involvement in the first ‘design’ phase of the SKA project have been significant and are expected to be enduring. They include economic development opportunities created within the ICT sector and the strengthening of international relationships as a result of New Zealand’s membership in the SKA organisation.”

It said MBIE’s function as an investor in the New Zealand science system was to maximise the benefits of funding decisions across the entire science system, taking into account its many competing priorities.

New Zealand was a founding member of the SKA Organisation announced $294 million for the Square Kilometre Array, as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) in December 2015.

Cost blowouts

According to Physicsworld the SKA is facing serious cost overruns, and is not clear when the complete observatory – with a likely price tag of several billion Euros will see the light of day.

It said the decision to pull out followed numerous delays and rising costs, as well as heated discussions within New Zealand about the wisdom of spending billions on a project that, the Government feared, would benefit few astronomers.

“Scientists are for now concentrating on building a much smaller preliminary facility known as SKA1. But even that is proving troublesome,” Physicsworld said.

“The project’s organisers are struggling to contain SKA1’s costs below a ceiling imposed by member countries – currently €691m ($1.2 billion)– while the start of scientific observations has been pushed back repeatedly – from an initial date of 2017 to now around 2027.”

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