The SKA Propaganda Machine

I’m a big fan of the Square Kilometre Array, a proposed new radio telescope that will revolutionize our understanding of many aspects of astrophysics.

I’m somewhat less keen on the intense lobbying being carried out on behalf of Australian astronomers in advance of the decision whether to site it in Australia or South Africa. The campaign is being orchestrated by a PR organization called Ogilvy and Mather who are making full use of social media to promote the Australian case.

Last week I was invited by email to attend a “webinar” (whatever that is) about the SKA, an invitation that I quietly ignored. Today I got a follow-up email from a person described as a “Digital Analyst” offering me the chance to “interview Dr Brian Boyle or Dr Lisa Harvey Smith”. They also sent me the following “infographic” (i.e. a picture) showing the case for siting the SKA in Australia, which they thought would be of interest to “my blog readers”.

Well, you can call me old-fashioned but I think there’s something a bit distasteful about engaging a glorified ad agency to lobby on behalf of one party in a discussion that should be resolved on purely scientific grounds. I wonder how much it cost, for a start, but I’d also have hoped scientists would be above that sort of thing anyway. Sign of the times, I suppose.

Anyway, even if the digital analysts at Ogilvy will be happy that I’ve shown their infographic, perhaps they might now realize that spin can work in two different ways…

17 Responses to “The SKA Propaganda Machine”

  1. Impressive stuff… “The SKA will allow scientists to see 10 times further into space” “10,000 times the discovery potential than [sic] current-day telescopes” “an area larger than the Netherlands”.

  2. telescoper Says:

    It is indeed an impressive telescope, and it will be built….but where?
    We’ll find out soon!

  3. Indeed! At first I wasn’t quite sure how we would be able to see 10 times further (than the CMB?), or whether you can measure “discovery potential”. But I think it means it has an increase in sensitivity of around 50x (approx 10^2) and an increase in etendue of 10,000x. Maybe they should do a separate “infographic” for astronomers…

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I thought SKA was based in Jamaica?

  5. Brian Schmidt Says:

    The Australian approach which I get to see up close certainly lacks subtlety and I think is horribly mis-targeted on astronomers.

    But this is just the tip of the iceberg- there is far more effort – and not only by Australia! – being directed where you cannot see it. This is the big issue and ultimately will be the greatest danger to scientific merit not ruling the day. So while I agree with your sentiment above, I do believe it needs to be considered in the broader context.

    Here In lies the strength of inter governmental agencies like ESO where the banalities of intergovernmental politics can be kept at bay.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Intergovernmental agencies have their drawbacks too, if a large part of your national programme is mortgaged to an agency such as ESO, then decisions made within that agency can have a devastating effect on the rest of your programme, as the UK has found.

      • Brian Schmidt Says:

        Agreed in principal that you are buying into a collective portfolio of infrastructure.

        But I was unaware of any decisions made by ESO that have had a devastating effect on the UK program.

        Rather, I see that the UK has had to scale back its own program to afford to be part of ESO? Perhaps I am missing something.

  6. telescoper Says:

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this sort of thing was happening on the other side too. Nor am I casting judgement on the Australian case. I just don’t think any of this sort of thing is good for science.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    What actually is the point of it, given that the decision-makers will not be intereested in the sort of arguments that Ogilvy and Mather have been hired to pump?

    • telescoper Says:

      Good question! I’m not sure how this PR stuff is supposed to work at all, other than generally raising the temperature around the issue in the hope that it affects people actually involved in the decision process.

      On the bright side, at least the two camps haven’t started rubbishing each other’s bids. Not in public anyway, And not yet.

      • Unfortunately the potentially massive amount of money, coming into the country of choice, means that this sort of stuff is unavoidable I think.

        I’m obviously supporting the other side though 🙂

  8. […] recently invited to a “webinar” to help promote the Australian case. (See Peter’s post  on this). I can’t claim to be as principled as Peter – I failed to respond because I […]

  9. Graham Knopp Says:

    Siting a telescope based on, “purely scientific grounds” hopefully includes an assessment of impacts on, well, everything, human economic impacts among them. On this point the positive economic impacts would obviously be far greater in South Africa.

    • Brian Schmidt Says:

      I think I disagree with this statement in two places
      1). Clearly human economic impacts are not scientific impacts –

      they are different and need to be clearly separated.

      2). How sure are you that the positive economic impacts would obviously be far greater in South Africa…

      I think that statement is not as obvious as it seems – there are a whole range of factors that would need to be taken into account –

      How much money will ZA have to put in to make it happen. What restrictions will be placed on the considerable population co-located with the array. How effectively will ZA being able to transfer the benefits of the SKA to its society.

      I am not saying your statement is true or false – but it is not obvious.

  10. telescoper Says:

    It seems that a decision has been made … not to make a decision.

  11. Site selection is never done on “purely scientific” grounds – it’s a political and financial decision. For the SKA there’s the added dimension of development potential. Of course it’s important to weigh the impact of the site characteristics on the scientific performance of an observatory. For the E-ELT instrumentation studies we were asked specifically to do this, even though it was clear our scientific assessment would not in any way drive the decision. … that was a little tricky (but actually very interesting from a scientific point of view).

    I wasn’t particularly put off by the fact that a PR firm is involved – the scale of these scientific facilities demands that they’re handled just like any other mega-project and I think overall it’s good that this is happening. But I did object to the email being phrased as if the site selection was a foregone conclusion, which it clearly isn’t.

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