Big science, new collaborations and engagement with society: SKA as a 21st Century exemplar

July 26, 2016 8:30 - 9:45 am


21st century cutting edge science requires countries to pool resources together to build ever bigger, more complex facilities (LHC, SKA, ELTs, IceCube, ITER, etc.) to crack the mysteries of Physics. ‘Traditional’ collaborations among developed economies in the western world are now insufficient; today science collaboration is truly a global enterprise, bridging the North/South and East/West gaps and involving emerging economies. Countries like Brazil, India, China, South Africa are all developing capacity to become key players in tomorrow’s big science (SKA, FAST, ITER, etc.).

This new form of science collaboration opens up a new kind of diplomacy facilitated by common science goals. Big research infrastructures are a means for countries to discuss investment, human capacity development, sharing of knowledge, expertise and innovation, training funds, etc. (Newton Fund, AERAP, BRICS research agreements, or GCRF to name just a few examples)

Furthermore, big research infrastructures also attract cutting-edge industry. Science drives innovation and technological development and provides a test-bed for new technologies. There are many examples, such as WWW, Wi-Fi, the CCD, or the many spinoffs derived from the space industry in medical imaging for instance, all are direct applications of such technological developments which profoundly transformed and improved our everyday life. Today, big science is embedded in big data and high-performance computing, creating opportunities for large industry players and SMEs alike in a variety of research sectors to benefit from it in the pharmaceutical, weather forecasting, banking sectors, etc.

This new form of science needs to be done in close collaboration with society. In periods of economic uncertainty, recessions and other difficulties, science needs to be transparent and is increasingly subject to public scrutiny. There is both a rejection of science – which needs to prove its worth to society – and an appetite for it, as demonstrated in the recent past by the huge popular interest and enthusiasm –triggered by strong PR machines- for space missions like Curiosity, Rosetta or New Horizons. Society wants to play an increasingly active part in science, as exemplified through the yet emerging development of citizen science and the use of social media as an open channel between scientists, facilities and the wider society. In turn, science can play a positive role in society by promoting education, development, training, and the success around the world of programmes/initiatives such as Universe Awareness (UNAWE), the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) or the Galileo Teacher Training Program (GTTP) are extremely rewarding in this respect.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) endeavour is a great example of this new form of science.


Introduced by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, UK

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