Radio astronomy takes the spotlight

Margaret Lim

Australia, long a leader in radio astronomy, is maintaining its premier position with the world’s largest and most innovative radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA, to be built in Western Australia, is a collection of telescopes or instruments—hence the name ‘array’—which will be spread out across the state’s vast outback, and will be used by scientists to investigate fundamental scientific questions about the universe.

The design, construction and operation of the SKA will be overseen by the international SKA Organisation, which has ten countries as full members, including Australia. Construction will start in 2018, with Australia and South Africa each host components. The first observations are expected in 2020.

Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken says the implications of the project for Australia and the state is huge—and he is calling it a ‘VIP’ project: ‘V’ for vision, ‘I’ for investment, and ‘P’ for planning.

His role as Chief Scientist is to provide advice on topics that are important to the future of science and economic prosperity in Western Australia. “Having the world’s largest and most advanced radio telescope also means that we will host one world’s largest supercomputers,” he said.

“It will grow from 1 petaflop to 100 petaflops in the next five years, as we need to be able to cope with the huge volume of data that will be generated by the SKA. It puts us in a unique position when it comes to big data and analytics.”

Radio astronomy is one of the five priorities identified for scientific research in a Science Statement for Western Australia that was released last year. These are based on areas where Western Australia has a comparative advantage and a strong base of research and industrial capability. The other four priorities are mining and energy, agriculture and food, medical and health, and biodiversity and marine science.

While the state has always been focused and reliant on the mining, oil and gas, and agricultural sectors—and is likely to continue to do so—Professor Klinken believes it is imperative that it explores other areas to supplement and diversify to be a more balanced economy.

He believes that Australia, as a whole, has the fundamentals to be an outstanding knowledge nation, as well as the capabilities to address challenges and translate new ideas into practical or commercial outcomes.

Citing the agricultural and food sector as an example, he says that a key challenge facing the industry has been climate change. Despite a 30 percent decrease in rainfall in the last several years, Western Australia has managed to ensure a thriving agricultural sector. Through better water management strategies, the state now gets just 5 percent of its drinking water from dams. Previously, that number was as high as 95 percent.

“As a state, we are constantly having to realign our thinking on how to address the challenges in each of these areas,” he said. “Australia produces 3 to 4 percent of the world’s new knowledge every year, with just 0.3 percent of the world’s population.”

“This means we are generating 10 to 15 times more new knowledge per person each year than the world as a whole. This is something we ought to be proud of, and it goes to show that we have the means to be a clever country, although we haven’t been making the transition from knowledge to outcomes very well.”

With the introduction of the National Innovation and Science Agenda last December, he is optimistic about closing the gap between ideation and commercial reality. At the state level, government agencies operating in each industry are working to bring academia and industry closer together.

“I see a 1 to 10 continuum between an invention and an industrial application. Universities and researchers occupy the first three positions, and startups, SMEs and large corporations in the 6 to 10 positions. In between, in positions 4 and 5, you have government agencies such as CSIRO and industry growth centres.”

“These are extremely crucial for translational research efforts and to encourage greater uptake of new ideas and innovation by industry. We have a complex network with overlapping sets of organisations who are all doing their bit. We need to make sure that all the efforts are linked so that we are effectively moving information along the pipeline in a coordinated fashion.”

When asked about other noteworthy scientific achievements that Western Australia has made in recent years, Professor Klinken praised Australian physician Barry Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren for their work in uncovering the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers, and winning the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

“I strongly believe Australia is on the cusp of something great,” he told “We have a great opportunity to transform Australian to move into the next wave of industry growth and job creation. The alternative is not to
be forward-thinking, to be risk-averse and take a safe and secure approach, which will not be to the benefit of the country in the long term.

“Australia has strong fundamentals in place making us more than equipped to grab the opportunities now. We need to get rid of the risk-averse nature we have developed and simply take on the Australian mantra: have a go mate, this is our time.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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