Funding boost for international science, including SKA

The British government has announced a massive GBP300 million (US$499 million) investment in cutting-edge science projects.

The massive funding injection described by Science Minister David Willetts last Monday goes beyond the country's borders and will see British scientists and businesses working on some of the world's biggest collaborative science projects of the future.

Subject to the completion of international negotiations, the UK will invest about GBP100 million in the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, and around 10% of the construction costs of the European Spallation Source - about GBP165 million up to 2020-21.

A further GBP25 million will be spent on participation in the M3 Space Mission, PLATO, with the UK playing a leading role in the giant telescope comprising 34 telescopes, according to the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Square Kilometre Array

The Square Kilometre Array, which will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world, will produce 10 times the current global traffic of the internet.

British scientists are already helping to develop the central computer, which will read the huge volume of new data. The government believes the project could lead to faster smartphones and increased internet speeds across the UK.

As the construction cost of phase one of SKA has been capped at EUR650 million (US$906 million), the grant amounts to almost 18.5% of the total required. Full funding for phase one is scheduled to be confirmed by 2016, with construction starting in 2018.

The SKA will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia, and the head office of the SKA Organisation is at the Jodrell Bank Observatory near Manchester in the UK.

By far the biggest ever radio telescope, it will be able to tackle fundamental questions concerning such phenomena as black holes, cosmic magnetism, dark energy, gravity and life elsewhere in the universe. It is expected to transform scientific knowledge.

"It's fantastic news for the SKA," said SKA board chair and UK Science and Technology Facilities Council - STFC - CEO Professor John Womersley. "This represents a significant investment on behalf of the UK and, along with our other contributions, aims to confirm the UK's leading role in key aspects of the project."

In addition, the STFC said in a press release that it was contributing GBP19 million to the SKA over the next four years, broken down into GBP11 million for big data research and development and GBP2 million a year on the continuing core programme.

The funds from the STFC will go to the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton and University College London. Thus, total UK funding for the SKA is GBP119 million.

Willetts said: "After the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider, the world's next great science project is the Square Kilometre Array.

"Investment in science is a crucial part of this government's long-term economic plan. It's about investing in our future, helping to grow new industries and create more jobs - and that will mean more financial security for people across the country."

South African story

South Africa's Minister of Science and Technoloy Derek Hanekom said that the UK funding announcement would provide impetus to phase one of the SKA. "This is a most welcome commitment and reaffirms the global partnership of the SKA countries in this mega project."

Willetts visited the South African SKA site in the Northern Cape last September, with Dr Bernie Fanaroff, head of SKA in South Africa.

South Africa and the UK are already collaborating extensively in the field of radio astronomy, with 25 research organisations and more than 80 scientists from the UK directly involved in the large survey teams that will use the MeerKAT telescope - the precursor to SKA being developed in South Africa - for research during its first five years of operation.

There is also extensive SKA-related cooperation on big data and high-performance computing with Cambridge University, which Hanekom visited in January this year.

The South African government has made a contribution of close to R4 billion (US$371 million) for MeerKAT and associated human capital development programmes, and is currently building the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope.

MeerKAT, with a further 190 antennas to be built on the same site, will make up the first phase of the mid-frequency component of the SKA. The second phase will see more mid-frequency antennas constructed across South Africa and in eight African SKA partner countries. Complementary components of the SKA will be in Australia.

South Africa will launch the first MeerKAT antenna on 27 March, and envisages completing the 64-dish array by 2016-17.

The other initiatives

Willetts said GBP165 million had also been earmarked for the European Spallation Source, one of the largest science and technology infrastructure projects of our time. The giant neutron microscope will be able to better observe the world and the universe. It is 30 times more powerful than microscopes used today and the size of 140 football pitches.

A further GBP25 million will go towards UK participation in the M3 Space Mission, PLATO. The UK, Willetts said, was a world leader in satellite technology and the space sector supported 95,000 full-time jobs, generating GBP9.1 billion for the economy each year.

Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, said: "International collaboration is central to scientific progress and is essential if we are to deliver projects on the scale of the Square Kilometre Array, the European Spallation Source and the M3 Space Mission.

"Many scientific projects can only be pursued through such large scale collaboration and it is great that the government has decided the UK will play its full part."