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It was a bit much to expect the preliminary decision on who will host the next global “big science” project would remain under wraps.

And so the papers in Australia yesterday carried the news that the South African bid for the Square Kilometre Array, a $2.7 billion radio telescope project, is favoured over the Australia-New Zealand bid by the four-country SKA site advisory committee.

Confirmation of the news comes from Nature’s breaking news blog. South Africa’s favoured status doesn’t suggest the race is over for the Australians and New Zealanders, but the Sydney Morning Herald is probably correct in describing this news as a “crippling blow”. A final decision on who will host the SKA is expected by early April.

Cost has reportedly been raised as an issue that gave the Africans an edge:

The option to spread the array across eight nations in southern Africa was judged the better bid in part due to lower costs to power the telescope and transfer the massive amounts of data.

I’m no radio astronomy expert, but after sitting through several briefings from the CSIRO’s Dr Brian Boyle and others the SKA bid, I came to be convinced that the Aussies, with our enthusiastic support, had a pretty good technical proposal.

Then I randomly happened to bump into a delegation from the South African SKA bid at a science journalism conference in Doha, Qatar. They were in lobbying mode, dispensing compelling promotional material to journalists from a booth on the fringes of the conference and dominating a lavish banquet for conference delegates with an emotional and inspiring presentation on what winning the SKA would mean for the African continent.

They talked up the social development angle, the engineering, technical and scientific jobs that would be created giving opportunities to young Africans that would otherwise likely remain elusive to them. It was Africa’s chance to finally be a major player in international science efforts. They also suggested the technical bid was more innovative and cost effective as it would incorporate decommissioned telecoms satellite stations around the continent.

It was an impressive performance and i came away thinking that as good as the technical bid mounted by the antipodeans may be, this sort of lobbying would go a long way for the Africans. As the Sydney morning Herald notes:

Australia had been concerned European nations saw the project, likened in ambition to the moon landings or the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, as a type of development aid to boost poorer African nations.

But Australia sought to emphasise the scientific advantages of locating the array here due to the clear atmospheric conditions, with the former science minister Kim Carr arguing in 2010: ”There are better ways to sustain development, if that’s what your primary purpose is.”

I feel for scientists like Dr Sergei Gulyaev, a radio astronomer at AUT University who was integral to the New Zealand component of the joint bid. And I’m disappointed that the opportunities for research and developing the IT infrastructure required to collect and process the immense amount of data produced by the SKA may not be realised.

If we have lost it, it is likely not through lack of effort or technical expertise, but through outmaneuvering on some compelling political and social issues. With the project likely to cost tens of billions over the life of the array, this was never going to be a decision made on a scientific basis alone.

Still, it ain’t over yet – much more negotiating is expected before the final decision is made and even then there’s a suggestion that the SKA could still be shared. At the very least, New Zealand and Australia will be among the 20 countries undertaking research using the array once it is constructed.

Unfortunately, they may be required to take a longhaul flight to South Africa to do so…

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