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US SKA Consortium votes to dissolve itself in light of decadal survey and budget realities June 15, 2011

Posted by admin in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Cosmology, Gravitation, and Relativity (CGR), Earth and Planetary Systems Sciences (EPSS), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , trackback Bookmark and Share
At its meeting in Arlington, VA on June 7, the US Square Kilometer Array (SKA) Consortium voted to dissolve itself as of December 31, 2011.  The consortium consists of US universities and research institutes that are studying and prototyping technologies under development for the SKA

The decision follows from the 2010 astronomy decadal survey, which did not give the SKA a positive funding recommendation.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to follow that recommendation. As a result the United States will no longer be officially part of the international SKA project.

But this does not mean that the Americans are not participating in the overall project, in fact the US radioastronomers still remain supportive of it.  There are Americans on the engineering advisory committee.  Also the deputy director of the astronomy division at NSF, Vernon Pankonin, chairs a committee that will be making a site selection recommendation, though officials are quick to point out that his participation is not in his official capacity, and in no way implies the participation of the agency.  Pankonin's committee is set to recommend a site for the SKA, either Australia/New Zeland or Africa, in February 2012. 

The National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) has been supportive of the African bid, including participation in the recent workshop on the SKA and human capacity development. Later this year, NSBP plans to launch the US-Africa Astronomy and Space Sciences Institute.

NSBP member, Eric Wilcots, also a member of the US SKA Consortium, feels that the dissolution decision will have little immediate impact on the international project.  "The large part of the US financial involvement was only to materialize in the next decade.  India, China and Canada have joined the effort since the time of the original planning.  Whether or not these countries will participate financially in this decade to the extent that was envisioned for the US is unknown at this point."

Charles McGruder, also an NSBP and US SKA Consortium member, agrees.  "The SKA is conceived to come together in phases.  Phase 1 will likely proceed in this decade even if the US is not an official participant.  Phase 1 includes epoch of reionization and NANOGRAF (pulsar timing) experiments, which did get postive funding recommendations in the decadal survey."
 
"Individual American astronomers will undoubtedly stay involved with the SKA through these research projects," adds NRAO's Ken Kellermann, a past chair of the International SKA Science and Engineering Committee.

This bodes well for the South African effort, Wilcots points out.  The South Africa MeerKAT is much better suited for pulsar timing studies than the Australian ASKAP.   The PAPER experiment was recently deployed in South Africa eventhough it was originally planned to be located in Australia.  Also a US team intending to work with the Murchison Widefield Array, which is under construction in Australia, was recently informed by NSF of the agency's declination of their funding proposal.

There are efforts to find other sources of funding, public and private, to support the US involvement in the SKA project.  There are intersections between US policy towards the SKA, broader American foreign policy interests, and interest in the diversity of the global scientific workforce.  Some Members of Congress have become interested in the SKA as a mechanism for increased trade with Africa.  Whether or not this leads to an administrative policy directive or congressionally mandated spending remains to be seen.  
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