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SKA’s Covid-19 budget cut not a big blow, says director

Image: Mike Peel [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Money destined for delayed intergovernmental dues has been repurposed to fight pandemic

The R360 million (US$21m) hit that South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array project took in last week’s emergency budget will not threaten the project’s operations, its director has said. 

Rob Adam told Research Professional last week that money had been accumulated to pay membership dues for the SKA Observatory organisation, an intergovernmental organisation. 

The SKAO is being set up by a treaty signed by all founding members. But the treaty is yet to be ratified by enough members to come into force. As a result, Adam says, the SKA had money sitting around, which could be reallocated to the government’s coronavirus fight: “We offered this accumulated money which would have been spent on our annual membership dues. It was about two years’ worth.” 

Last week, finance minister Tito Mboweni outlined adjustments to the national 2020/21 budget in a move to finance South Africa’s response to the coronavirus. The Department of Science and Innovation took a R1.4 billion hit, 16 per cent of its total budget line.

South Africa has committed to paying around 14 per cent of the SKA’s building and operating costs. That will have to be paid, so the pressures put on the national budget by the coronavirus is not an immediate concern for the project, Adam says: “Treaties have been signed, and so our obligations follow.” 

For now, the project proceeds as planned, he adds, although construction on site in the Karoo has been delayed by South Africa’s lockdown. He points out that in this respect the SKA is fortunate compared to the rest of the South African science system, which he admits could have a “rocky road” over the next few years. “All of the public expenditure will have knock-ons,” he says.