Big data analytics firm Catalyst and parts of New Zealand’s tiny astronomy community are mounting a last-ditch effort to keep New Zealand a full member of what’s being hailed as the largest science project ever – a massive international collaboration to build the world’s most powerful telescope.

Catalyst chief executive Don Christie sees government proposals for reduced involvement in the Square Kilometre Array telescope as wasting a (relatively) low-cost opportunity for New Zealand’s burgeoning IT sector, especially given the government’s policy aim of making IT the country’s second largest export earner by 2025.

Indications from the Beehive are that the door is being left ajar for a reversal of last April’s decision to seek a downgraded ‘associate membership’ of the SKA project. But its backers fear that exploring a reduced involvement will seal New Zealand’s exclusion from a project of a scale the country is rarely offered a chance to join.

Full membership of SKA would cost New Zealand $2.3 million a year in fees and more than $20 million a year in operating costs. On the other hand, the lion’s share of contracts will go to SKA member countries.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment continues to advise Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods that benefits from the SKA are too small to justify anything more than associate membership of the international organisation that will run the project.

Woods announced in July last year that full membership of the SKA was “off the table” and that only associate membership would be pursued. New Zealand had hoped remote rural locations would be chosen for some of the telescope’s ‘array’ of electronic sensors but sites in Australia and South Africa won out.

“The minister has made a decision and trying to get that rolled back is hard,” Christie told BusinessDesk. “But particularly because of the very strong alignment with the government’s digital policies around high-performance computing, big data and all that sort of thing, we are really looking for a rethink and to get them to realise there will be no better project to align with all those other strategies that they have.

“The players in New Zealand are not yet ready to give up because the governance structure is still under negotiation and the world treaty they’ll be moving to is still being negotiated,” said Christie.

However, answers supplied by Woods’s office from MBIE officials indicate the government is committed to “explore” associate membership between now and the formal establishment, in 2020, of the international organisation that will run the SKA.

“In April last year the minister decided that the case for full membership of the SKA was not sufficiently strong to justify the level of public investment required,” MBIE said.

The government is now in a “wait-and-see phase”. Negotiations on associate membership have yet to start and rules for how the SKA would operate were “critical to whether New Zealand firms will actually benefit from the project”.

Rules for building the telescope, tendering construction contracts and sharing intellectual property have yet to be determined. Even beyond those decisions, there is “still some time” since tenders would need to be issued and construction would not immediately commence.

“As the process develops we are continuing to invest in SKA design work. A number of New Zealand firms and institutions have benefitted from this work, and have co-invested alongside the government. That’s already provided benefits to those firms and institutions, and for the development of ICT capability in New Zealand more broadly.

If we took MBIE’s position, we wouldn’t get out of bed to play rugby because there are far more rugby players in the world than there are in New Zealand.

Catalyst CEO Don Christie

However, NZ SKA Alliance director Dr Andrew Ensor from Auckland University of Technology warned that timetable could well be too late.

“This is the first time New Zealand’s been part of a big international collaboration” of this kind, said Ensor. “My concern would be that if we’re in the project and eventually drift away, bigger countries will ask ‘why did we bother?’”

That could harm the country’s chances of being invited into similar projects, he said.

Christie said Catalyst is already gaining substantial spin-offs from its involvement in “the largest science project in the world”.

“We’re effectively designing the infrastructure for processing a ton of data and even right now we’re taking the software we’re developing and applying that to our own client infrastructure and that’s all open source. We’re also building private cloud infrastructure for New Zealand customers”, including Spark and Sky Television.

“If we took MBIE’s position, we wouldn’t get out of bed to play rugby because there are far more rugby players in the world than there are in New Zealand. If you want New Zealand to be a place where talent will move to and interest in the sciences, this is one of the projects.”

“This project is still very much in its early stages and the research and development will have to continue with plans to triple its size,” Christie said.

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