On Germany’s decision to leave the SKA Organisation

Last week, while getting ready to fly to the big SKA science conference in Sicily, I had the rather unexpected and disappointing surprise to hear that Germany had decided to leave the SKA Organisation. This came as a shock. The project has been moving forward steadily for the past two years and I think none of us were expecting a country to withdraw at this point.

There must obviously be reasons behind Germany’s decision and the main one of them is probably the financial pressure to fund a number of international research projects – two of them being built in Germany and where they have a leading role, namely FAIR and XFEL.

It is understandable that a country has to make choices in what projects it decides to support – there is a lot of science being done out there – but it is of course unfortunate that it should be at the expense of radio-astronomy.

Germany has had a long tradition of radio-astronomy, and they after all still have the world second largest fully steerable radio dish, the Effelsberg Telescope, so this is a surprise.

I should point out it is the German government that has decided to pull out. The other German partner in the project, the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, is still very much in the project. They contribute heavily to a number of science working groups working to define the science the SKA will tackle, and have invested in design work for the telescope. In fact, as was pointed out this morning at the conference, German authors are the third biggest contributors to SKA science.

The government, on the other hand, had not yet provided any funding to the industry. It is therefore hoped the impact will be minimal in the short-term, and should Germany stand by its decision to leave, SKAO will have one year to adjust (the legally binding document Germany signed to join SKAO requires one year advance-notice to leave the Organisation).

So bad news, but not so bad. In fact, it’s probably more bad news for Germany. By leaving the project, Germany loses the ability to bid for major engineering contracts that will be awarded when construction starts. These are the kind of multi-million dollar contracts you definitely don’t want to lose, and I would bet the German industry would have been in a good position to win a few of them…but if they leave, the SKA will simply go elsewhere for its engineering.

The other loser will be the German scientific community. By pulling out, the country also loses its share of telescope time (member countries get a share of telescope time for having funded the project). It will therefore be much harder for the community to make use of this revolutionary telescope – while other international teams move forward and reap the benefits of using a much more powerful telescope, making groundbreaking discoveries and possibly winning Nobel Prizes for example.

It would be a huge loss for Germany, and we all hope the German scientific community will join forces with the German industry to lobby hard to overturn this decision and get Germany back in its rightful place in the project.

Come to think of it, this might actually be an opportunity to raise awareness of the SKA in Germany, and for people there to realise its true potential, not only in terms of research, but also in terms of investment, innovation, spinoffs, and ultimately, jobs and the economy.

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