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Transcript of doorstop interview: Sydney Observatory: 30 March 2012: Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt; Square Kilometre Array

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SENATOR THE HON CHRIS EVANS Leader of the Government in the Senate Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research


Date: 30 March 2012 Doorstop at Sydney Observatory

Subjects: Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt, Square Kilometre Array

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: I’m here with Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt today to announce the extension of the Australian Laureate Fellowship to 2015 and make available $1 million extra to support his research and his mapping project.

The reason the Government is doing this is in part because of the value of the research Brian’s been doing and recognition of the value of that research and the value of the role he’s playing in putting science on the map in Australia, but also it is recognition of the tremendous work he is doing as an ambassador for science.

I’ve been acutely aware in the last two months as I’ve moved around Australia that I bump into Brian selling science to the Australian public - selling it to young people, to industry, to a whole range of people - promoting the benefits of science, promoting greater attention to science, promoting more students to study science and to progress to university and take up science subjects, and therefore obviously encourage science teaching.

The Government has been acutely aware of how important his role has become as a Nobel Laureate and as a great ambassador for science so we want to support his ongoing research because it’s proved to be world-class, but we also want to support his role in promoting science.

Everyone understands that we’ve had a drop off in interest in science. It’s been true of most western democracies and advanced industrial societies and what we’ve got to do is try and arrest that decline in the learning of science, in the promotion of science, in the engagement with the community. And one of the greatest vehicles we’ve got for that is using Brian’s abilities to communicate and his standing in science. As I say, I’ve been acutely aware in recent times how much he is putting into that effort, how much volunteer work, how much of his time he is contributing to that—and the Australian

Government wants to support that and facilitate that occurring because I think his examples are great for stimulating interest.

I’m pleased to announce the extra funding for his research but also to focus on his capacity to boost interest in science and the great work he is doing. The Government has made this decision to extend the funding and we’re hopeful that that will allow Brian to continue the work he’s been doing voluntarily anyway all of his life. I’m sure he would have continued to do it anyway, but it’s important to support his effort and support the impact we think it’s having on the interest in science in Australia.

I’ll hand over to Brian to say a few words.

NOBEL LAUREATE BRIAN SCHMIDT: Thank you very much Minister. Well this is a great honour and I have to admit being maybe a little reluctant initially to taking something extra but it has become very clear to me that if I’m going to go out and try and do these two jobs—which is be a scientist and try and be an ambassador—I just can’t do both of them with my current set of resources. It’s been overwhelming, the opportunity I have to go out and do good things, and so I really appreciate the support. I really think it will make a huge difference to really free my hand to go through to make sure that the scientific program at Mount Stromlo continues on.

That program really is to support all of Australian astronomy. It’s a telescope that is going to provide data that all astronomists across Australia can use and it really needs some extra help right now since I’ve been taken a little bit out of the equation in terms of being able to do things. But it also gives me, I think, the free hand to make sure that I go around and keep telling people why science is important for Australia and try to get across that people who are thinking about what to do, that science is a great career and I think we undersell it. There’s this misbelief that by being a scientist we are somehow making a sacrifice but we are very well supported in this country right now. We have great careers that pay well, have great opportunities, and I think it really shouldn’t be anything other than the first choice for our best young men and women across the country. That’s the message I’m trying to get across.

REPORTER: What do you think the best selling point of science for future scientists of Australia?

PROFESSOR SCHMIDT: Well I think science offers first of all a great career path. You don’t just do what you’re trained - you’re trained to do almost anything. If you look at where scientists end up in this country, it can be almost any field of science but also policy, government, working in industry, there’s a huge range because you’re trained to think and to do.

The other thing is as a career, if you do stay in academia for example, it is quite flexible. You work hard, but you work on something you’re passionate about and in doing that you do an extraordinarily interesting set of things. You get to teach a young person which is, I find, very satisfying as well. So it is a satisfying job, pays pretty well and it

gives you incredible opportunities to do a range of things. What other field gives you that?

REPORTER: What specifically do you want to use this money for?

PROFESSOR SCHMIDT: This money is going to be largely used to ensure that the SkyMapper telescope—which is the program that my Laureate Fellowship is supporting—is able to continue to move on, knowing that I’m not doing it 100 per cent of my time. We need to have some additional people there to help make sure the telescope does what it is intended to do—which is to map the sky—while I’m travelling around so this money is specifically to do that.

REPORTER: Will you be hiring new people?

PROFESSOR SCHMIDT: Yes, we’ll be hiring some new people and I’ll probably put the advert in as soon as I can get it in the paper next week. We need the people.

REPORTER: Can you give us some more detail about what the SkyMapper project is doing?

PROFESSOR SCHMIDT: With the advent of digital cameras that are very, very large, we have built a 268 mega pixel camera at Mount Stromlo—one of the largest in the world—with each pixel about 100 times more sensitive than someone’s digital camera. And with that, we are taking an image of every part of the southern sky. That essentially allows to do a census of every star, every galaxy, and learn about the fundamental qualities of each of these objects. And that in turn enables us to use our big telescopes, the Anglo-Australian telescope up in Siding Spring, the Gemini telescopes in Chile and Hawaii and eventually the giant Magellan telescope—which will be the world’s largest telescope—to answer the interesting questions that are being posed by astronomy. These give us the objects to essentially answer those questions.

REPORTER: Give us an idea of those questions.

PROFESSOR SHCMIDT: So the questions will be—how did stars and galaxies emerge out of the sea of hydrogen and helium that was created in the big bang? So we are here, how did we get here? We know about 13 billion years ago stuff started but we don’t really know how it happened. So the SkyMapper telescope will find the oldest stars in the milky way, it will find the most distant black holes in the universe. So, we can go into the nearby universe by looking at fossils to see how things got going, and we can actually see the most distant objects of the universe directly, and see what is going back in time. That’s for example what I’m looking at.

REPORTER: Minister, I just wanted to ask you about the Square Kilometre Array project. What can you tell me about where it’s at?

SENATOR EVANS: Well, the member countries of the organising board of the SKA project are considering the decision on the site. As you know it’s a contest between South Africa, or an African bid, and the Australia-New-Zealand bid. That decision will happen, I suspect, in the next month or two. It’s highly contested; Australia is very confident that we have a very strong bid. We think we’ve got the best site and a very strong scientific case but the South Africans also have a very strong case and we know that this is going to be a really hotly contested decision.

The SKA project is an important one for the world. This is an international collaborative effort and the contest is about where we site it. Now that would obviously be great for Australia and Australian astronomy, but we think it’s a worthwhile project for the world and will give us great, new scientific information.

We’re very supportive of the project, we’d like to win the bid and we’re very committed to that and we’re leaving no stone unturned in trying to win the site selection process, but as I say, it’s a tough contest and I think it’s going down to the wire.

REPORTER: How disappointing was it that the recommendation was for South Africa to (inaudible)?

SENATOR EVANS: Well, we can’t comment on the internal processes. I think the reality is people consider both the bids to be suitable and of high quality, but there are a range of issues that are at stake, that are being contested and that there are diverse views about. I’ve commented before that there was strong support inside Europe for the South African bid in the sense of aiding development of science in Africa. And there was a resolution passed in the European Parliament a week or so ago supporting the South African bid, so that gives you a sense of some of the factors at play here. We recognise that South Africa has a strong bid as well but we think we’ve got a superior case and we’re going to keep arguing and pushing it until the decision is made and we’re hopeful that we can still win the site selection.

REPORTER: Does that mean more travel for you?

SENATOR CHRIS EVANS: Well, we’ll make a decision about that. There’s another board meeting in the next couple of days. I’ve spoken either in person or on the phone to each of the Ministers of the countries involved in the project—the decision-makers if you like—and we have had a good hearing about Australia’s claims for the site. And, if following the board meeting in a week or so, I think it is necessary we will obviously do whatever we think is a sensible thing to do and that might involve again seeking to meet with those Ministers.

REPORTER :Will you be attending the meeting in Amsterdam?

No, that a meeting of the board representatives who are senior scientific people, representing each of the countries. But following that process, if there is a reason for us to continue to push at a Government-to-Government level, then I will make a decision

then about whether getting face-to-face with some of these people is a worthwhile thing. And if it is then I will go.

REPORTER: For people who do not know, what is the project and why it should come to Australia?

EVANS: The Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project. We have a bid in to have that situated in the Murchison area of Western Australia, east of Geraldton.

Part of the requirement of the project is radio quietness. I think we have about 150 people living in this massive region so we have a very strong case in that regard. And we have already installed the NBN as one of the first projects to connect that site up with Perth and our astronomers in Perth and data collection.

So, we have made an investment already there, and in the SKA Pathway Finder project which will serve us well for the next 15-20 years. But this overall project is a massive scientific project. It will be bigger than anything we have been involved with before, it would require arrays across Australia and a site in New Zealand, the majority of them will be in the Murchison, Western Australia.

It is predicted to take our knowledge to astronomy to a whole new level. Brian Shcmidt will be better placed to comment on the science than me. But it is a very exciting project and a very large project it and would bring enormous benefits to Australia in terms to development of science and development of astronomy in Australia, as well as quite serious economic benefits because this is a huge 50 year development.