While winning the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array project, along with Australia, has been a major scientific coup, SA faces a tougher challenge than its Antipodean partner in selling the concept to communities. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
While winning the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array project, along with Australia, has been a major scientific coup, SA faces a tougher challenge than its Antipodean partner in selling the concept to communities. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

IT IS a difficult sales pitch: a multibillion-dollar giant telescope used to investigate phenomena so esoteric years of study are required to understand them.

Countries planning to build large scientific infrastructure have to sell the project and its objectives to their citizens.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a good example of this. The telescope will comprise thousands of antennas that will collect relatively weak radio signals from space and use them to map and image the universe. The computing power required to process this quantity of data does not yet exist, and industry wants in. So selling the relevance of the SKA to industry is not that difficult.

The bidding to host the radio telescope came down to two contenders: Australia and SA. In 2012, it was announced that both countries had been selected.

After the excitement had died down, they needed to continue selling the project to their politicians and citizens.

In Australia, the pitch focuses on human exploration and investigating the universe. Peter Klinken, the chief scientist of Western Australia, where a portion of the SKA is being built, calls the project "exciting, visionary".

"As humans, we have the explorer gene, the desire to go out there and discover things…. The SKA will hugely increase our capacity to understand the universe and our origins: why are we here, where do we come from, and, for an old guy like me, where do we go to?" he says.

In SA, curiosity will not be enough to justify the expenditure. The pitch is two-fold: SA has excellent science and engineering capacity; and big science offers development opportunities.

In Northern Cape community workshops in May, the SKA SA project office and the Department of Science and Technology travelled to towns surrounding the site — Brandvlei, Vanwyksvlei, Carnarvon, and Williston.

The words used at each meeting were the same: opportunity, economic development, and jobs. The response, whether from poorer or comparatively wealthier members of the communities, was also the same: "What’s in it for us?"

Australia’s SKA site is on land traditionally owned by the indigenous Wajarri people, now owned by the government. According to the 2009 Indigenous Land Use Agreement, the tribe received monetary and non-monetary benefits of about A$18.1m. Only about 8% of the traditional landowners live near the astronomy reserve.

Ahead of the inauguration of the first 16 MeerKAT antennas this month, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said the first of SA’s 64 dishes were "proof the SKA team and our partners are capable of executing excellent engineering and scientific projects".

This echoed statements she made at the meeting of African SKA partner countries earlier this year: "The SKA remains an important African endeavour, with huge potential to raise the profile of science, technology, and innovation development on the continent."

There are two differences between the South African and Australian situations: population and money.

Australia’s Shire of Murchison has a population of fewer than 200. The Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation is the major beneficiary of the land-use deal.

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In SA, there are several communities living near the site. Carnarvon, which is about 80km from the astronomy reserve, is home to about 7,000, although the astronomy developments are drawing people to the town.

Social grants and seasonal agriculture prop up these small towns, which are underdeveloped and impoverished.

Communities in the Northern Cape are aware of the money flowing into the SKA project, and are frustrated their situation is not significantly changing.

"You must understand: we are not the government, the education department and the police all rolled into one," SKA SA director Dr Rob Adam told a packed school hall in Brandvlei in May.

"We want to develop the area, but we are also doing it for ourselves. We want to have locals involved in the project because then it makes it sustainable," he told the meeting.

Klinken estimates that Western Australia and the commonwealth government have invested about A$850m in radio astronomy in that country, which is "not that stunning" when compared to Australia’s science and research budget. In 2013-14, Australia spent about A$33.5bn on research and development.

SA’s budget for the same period was R25.7bn.

It is difficult to quantify the total amount SA has invested in radio astronomy, with its student bursaries, research chairs, astronomy initiatives, and more.

But while the R2bn spent on designing and building MeerKAT is not that much in the grand scheme of global science, it is a lot for SA to spend on science.

This means SA can never rely on human curiosity to sell science — not when unemployment and poverty are high, budgets are tight, and the government is looking for areas to trim the fat.

• Wild was a guest of SKA SA in Northern Cape and of the Australian government in Australia