Belt-tightening hits SA’s SKA budget

South Africa’s radio astronomy ambitions are feeling the pinch of austerity as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s 2016 budget cuts its Square Kilometre Array (SKA) allocation by R250-million. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget. The budget decreased by R89-million.)

The SKA will be the largest radio telescope in the world, and will be co-hosted by South Africa and Australia. It will comprise thousands of antennae in Australia and on the African continent. South Africa’s own 64-dish MeerKAT telescope, which will form part of the SKA, is expected to be fully operational at the beginning of next year.

However, the budget overview includes a R250-million reduction over three years, with -R80-million in 2016-17, -R50-million in 2017-18, and -R120-million in 2018-19. (*The department later noted that this was an error in the budget.)

This is the first time since South Africa was chosen as a co-host of the giant telescope that the budget allocation has decreased. In last year’s estimates of national expenditure, the project, which is one of the department of science and technology’s flagship projects, was allocated R2.1-billion.

SKA South Africa director Rob Adam said that he was not able to comment as the project had not yet received its allocation.

Department of science and technology director-general Phil Mjwara told Wild on Science that the country was committed to finishing the MeerKAT and SKA telescopes. “Our understand is that … part of the reason is cash flow. Sometimes, because of delays infrastructure, you have a lot of cash.”

However, this forms part of a larger move towards austerity. The department of science and technology’s budget, which has been steadily increasing since its formation in 2002, is now stagnating. Compared to the 2015 national budget, both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 allocations have been decreased by about R100-million. In terms of the 2016 budget, the department has been allocated R7.43-billion for 2016-17, R7.56-billion for 2017-18 and R7.76-billion for 2018-19.

“The amounts are reasonable,” said Mjwara. “We’re happy that at least the budget is still around R7.5-billion. There are [departments] that have lost several billion in their budget. In the entire context [of South Africa’s economic situation], we’re also contributing to belt tightening.

“We hope that, as the economic situation becomes better, it will increase. That applies to the SKA too,” he said.


* Response to budget queries from the department’s head of SKA and AVN (African VLBI Network) Takalani Nemaungani: “The correct figure for the SKA budget cut is R89m over the current MTEF period – this was communicated officially by Treasury to our Director General earlier this year.  The R250m figure can be assumed to be an error and the DST Finance has been informed on this to see how they will handle this matter with Treasury.”

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