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Publisher's Letter

Australia has missed out on the Square Kilometre Array

Some weeks ago when the announcement about the Square Kilometre Array was reported in the media, touting it as a win-win for all concerned, I thought, “Nah, that can’t be true; we must have lost”. And so it has turned out to be. In fact, when the announcement was delayed from the original date in February, I then had serious doubts about whether it would come to anything, as far as Australia was concerned.

Most of these doubts had to do with the fact that we were competing against Africa and that the project was funded by a group of nations who might be more likely to favour Africa out of political considerations. And while we may never know the details of the discussions in the meeting, those doubts have turned out to be well-founded.  So as soon as the announcement was made, I asked Geoff Graham, who wrote the original story on the SKA in our December 2011 issue, to find out the details. You can see more in the story starting on page 16 of this issue.

My initial reaction to the announcement was to be a little bitter but after a moment’s consideration, I had to conclude that it was probably naïve to expect otherwise. So what are the good aspects of the story? By far the best aspect is the fact that Australia has already built a major radio astronomy observatory (ASKAP) and that work has started on the supercomputer installation. Moreover, because ASKAP is Australian, it should not be subject to all the drawbacks of a multi-national project, so we can forge ahead and build on our already considerable expertise.

Apparently the SKA committee proposes that the ASKAP be somehow incorporated into the SKA. My reaction is “Why would we want to?”. There has to be considerable doubt whether the SKA will ever be built in Africa, given that most of the funding countries are presently in all sorts of economic and political difficulties and Africa is a politically unstable continent at the best of times. There are 20 countries in the SKA project (seven in the core group) and the total cost of the SKA is projected to be $2.5B or about $100M to $200M for each country. Australia has already spent $220 million on the ASKAP so it seems that Australia has already paid its share and we have something to show for it!

What Australia really should do is to build its own SKA, including the dishes that were planned for New Zealand. Maybe we could prune the overall cost to a more manageable billion or thereabouts. That would be small change to our current Federal government, given its appalling waste of money on so many half-baked projects.

Flashing lights at school zones

Unfortunately, wasting money is not the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government; state governments do it too, as evidenced by our story on this topic beginning on page 12. It simply beggars the imagination as to how the NSW Roads & Traffic Authority could make such a meal of a simple concept like flashing lights to warn drivers about the 40km/h speed limit in school zones. As Peter Olsen has shown, it ain’t that hard.

Sure, the RTA’s version has a few more bells and whistles but even allowing for that, you cannot justify the huge difference in cost or the long delays in installing the lights at all schools. On the other hand, only this morning, as I was collecting the mail and wending my way through all the barriers of a council paving project, I could see why. There was the typical situation whereby one person in a fluorescent jacket was actually doing work while three others looked on and a fourth stood next to the road holding a sign telling the traffic to slow down. How quickly would the job be done if all five people in the fluoro jackets were actually doing physical work? Will this endemic culture of abysmally low productivity in government activities ever be fixed?

Leo Simpson


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