Over R1bn committed to SKA project

The SKA, which will be co-hosted by SA and Australia, will be the largest radio telescope in the world.

An artists impression of SKA dishes, close up. Picture: ska.ac.za

CAPE TOWN - More than R1 billion would be invested in South Africa's MeerKAT telescope and its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project obligations, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor told Parliament during her department's budget vote on Tuesday.

The SKA, which will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia, will be the largest radio telescope in the world. It will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and on the African continent, and will seek to answer some of humanity's most enduring questions: Is there life on other planets? How galaxies form? What is dark matter?

The core will be located in the Northern Cape, near the town of Carnarvon. South Africa's 64-dish MeerKAT will form part of phase one of the SKA.

The first 21 dishes of MeerKAT would be science-ready by the end of June, Pandor said.

The telescope is scheduled for completion next year.

Because of its clear skies and geographic advantage, South Africa has identified astronomy as a scientific area in which it has a strategic advantage, and a high-technology niche in which it can grow much needed skills.

The SKA South Africa human capital development programme "has gone from strength to strength", Pandor said.

Since its inception in 2005, the programme has supported more than 730 students and researchers from undergraduate to postdoctoral level.

Her department, which was allocated R7.4-billion for the 2016/17 financial year, "is the largest funder of postgraduate students in the country", Pandor said.

This year, it would invest R741-million in supporting 14,500 postgraduate students, 67% of whom were black and 57% of whom were female, she said.

However, Pandor warned that her department, whose budget remained stagnant, needed more funding. Despite ambitions to grow to 1.5% the percentage of South Africa's gross domestic product spend on research and development, this percentage is 0.73%.

"South Africa is not investing enough in science, technology and innovation…. Our failure to address the funding of this sector is causing us to neglect several sectors that could offer South Africa talent, new products and real contributions to growth," the minister said.