Convention establishing SKA Observatory; Committee Report on South Korea/Japan Study Tour

Science and Technology

29 August 2018
Chairperson: Ms L Maseko (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The agenda of the meeting was a briefing by the Department of Science and Technology on the Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array Observatory and consideration of the Committee’s report on the 2018 International Study Visit to South Korea and Japan.

SKA South Africa briefed members on the purpose of the Convention and its two Protocols and also the process towards signature and ratification. In a nutshell the purpose of the Convention was to establish a new international law, an Inter-Governmental Organisation, to be called the SKA Observatory, which will govern the construction and operational phases of the global Square Kilometre Array project. The current pre-construction phase of the global project is governed through a United Kingdom company of which the National Research Foundation is the SA member, and the Director-General of the Department of Science and Technology. The construction and operational phases will be based on international law. This is in order to enable relevant diplomatic privileges and immunities to implement the project, provide flexibility of design policies and embed the highest political level inter-governmental commitment to the project. Governments will be members of the Inter-Governmental Organisation as opposed to other organisations. The SKA Observatory is in many instances modelled on the example of CERN a renowned European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The SKA Observatory will be unique in that it will be the first science-focused Inter-Governmental Organisation which will comprise membership from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia and Europe.

The negotiating process involved participation by countries such as Australia, China, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, SA, Sweden and the UK. Canada, Germany and Spain were also observers. A letter of intent signed by all negotiating governments formed the legal basis of negotiations. The SA negotiating delegation involved members from the Department of Science and Technology, Department of International Relations and Cooperation, and State Law Advisors. Different governments are now undertaking national legal and political approval processes. For SA, this means obtaining a Presidential Minute. The planned signature of the Convention is foreseen in December 2018. The Convention will only enter into force when a minimum of five countries have ratified it. And this includes the three host countries i.e. SA, Australia and the United Kingdom. If signatures are in December 2018, that means entry into force will be end of 2019 thus earliest likelihood of Council is beginning of 2020. Formal approval to construct SKA-1 including of funding schedule requires Council to meet thus strategic interest of SA for early signature of the Convention and its entry into force. The Committee will be entrusted with a crucial role during the ratification process. The launch of the MeerKAT will not only be viewed here in SA but globally. There is significant global interest and SA is playing a very crucial role.

A Member questioned why each country only had one vote whereas the schedule of funding required different countries to contribute different amounts. Further, seeing as the Convention is expected to be signed in December 2018 did that mean that it might not be heard by this current Parliament. Lastly, is the SKA Observatory Director General located in South Africa? Another Member asked how long it would take for SA to get the Presidential minute especially as there was a need to move very fast. The Member also asked a question on the beginning of the construction of SKAO1, and whether there will be the dilemma if the ratification is not completed as planned by 2019? What will SAs’ financial position be like? Another member expressed concern that this project might go to the next Parliament. If it goes to the next Parliament, does it mean that they will start all over again? What will be the Committees role to ensure the same is tabled and when is the expected earliest completion of this phase of the process. This is because after the next recess it will be campaigning. There is not much time to look at these issues. Another Member was concerned about some of the countries that he had not seen in the Convention. Major countries like France, USA, the rest of Africa, Japan, Russia, were all missing.

SKA SA replied that Cabinet was continuously informed of all progress being made, including the preparation of the SKA Observatory. The Department is very confident that it will get a Presidential Minute within the time required. As for the time other countries will need to get their own domestic approvals is outside SA’s exclusive control. This is also the same concern with our counterparts in the UK because of the amount of legislative work the UK has to make, especially with the issue around Brexit. SA is not alone in facing elections next year as also Australia is facing election. If any initiative is taken by the end of the year the Department will be able to give conclusive observations. We can only work within a process as fast as possible.
On the question that was asked in terms of the financial risk, MeerKAT is constructed and budgeted for by Parliament so MeerKAT will continue to do just fine. The only thing is global momentum going forward because the MeerKAT is the pre-cursor of the SKA. The current global setting has been quite reluctant in reflecting on this. At this stage what can be done is that we ensure we continue to involve the political class. And this was discussed when our president met the UK Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May.
On the issue of the funding schedule, yes, it is true that one country will have one vote. But in the Council, there will be weighted voting to determine issues like funding. For the funding schedule, there are indicator documents which indicate what each country ought to contribute as per the outcome of the negotiations. So, there is no specific formula for the final contributions. In this case, host countries will pay what some people refer to as a host premium. This is because the host will benefit most from the project. That is an accepted principle. The rest of the countries will negotiate and then it will have to be agreed by everyone what they contribute. In terms of return on investments, the project will only be limited to the scientific community of the governments that pay and other countries will have to pay to access these facilities. As for the Director General, he will be located in Manchester where the headquarters are. But there will be presence in SA and Australia. But this does not affect SA participation in the project.

As there were few Members present the Committee Report on the 2018 international study visit to South Korea and Japan was postponed to the next meeting.

Meeting report

The Chairperson thanked Members and guests present. The agenda for the meeting was a briefing by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on the Convention establishing the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Observatory and consideration of the Committee’s report on the 2018 International Study Visit to South Korea and Japan.

Presentation

Dr Adrian Tiplady, Head of Strategy and Business Systems, SKA South Africa, briefed Members on the Convention. SKA had thought they would take this opportunity and also present on the progress of international partnerships cooperation which underpins the SKA project. SKA expects SA to put its signature on the Convention in the next coming few months and it is important that the Committee be fully informed. He would brief Members on the purpose of the Convention and present a brief overview of the Convention and the two Protocols and also the process towards signature and ratification.

In a nutshell the purpose of the convention is to establish a new international law, an inter-governmental organisation (IGO), to be called the SKA Observatory (SKAO), which will govern the construction and operational phases of the global SKA project. The current pre-construction phase of the global project is governed through a United Kingdom (UK) company of which the National Research Foundation (NRF) is the SA member and the Director-General (DG) of the DST. The DG has a vote though this governance model is not deemed suitable for the next phases of the project.

The construction and operational phases will be based on international law. This is in order to enable relevant diplomatic privileges and immunities to implement the project, provide flexibility of design policies and embed the highest political level inter-governmental commitment to the project. Governments will be members of the IGO as opposed to organisations. The SKA Observatory is in many instances modelled on the example of CERN, a renowned European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The SKAO will be unique in that it will be the first science-focused IGO which will comprise membership from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australasia and Europe. The Convention comprises of two protocols. The first is the Protocol on Privileges and Immunities of the SKAO and the other is the Financial Protocol of the SKAO. The Convention does not deal with the details of any policies e.g. Intellectual Property (IP), Procurement, or financial and human resource rules of the IGO. These will be approved by the Council of the SKAO once the IGO is established.

The Convention itself does not deal with any financial commitments from the signatories. Funding decisions with regard to the construction of the SKA will be taken by the future SKA Observatory Council. Details of SA and Australia and UK hosting of the telescopes and the headquarters will be governed by separate bilateral agreements to be concluded in future between the hosting countries and the IGO. The main provisions of the Convention set out the purpose of the SKAO, defines membership and other forms of cooperation. It also defines the roles of the organs for example the Council which is the decision-making body and also the DG and Staff. It also sets out high level principles with regard to finance, IP, procurement and access. It also has standard Convention provisions with regard to dispute settlement, withdrawal, amendment, entry into force and termination. The Privileges and Immunities Protocol has the necessary provisions to enable diplomatic immunity which includes such as exemption from direct taxation and inviolability of premises among others. The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) played a crucial role in the protocols development and it is fully compliant with SA regulations. The Finance Protocol sets out financial management principles and the principles for funding schedules and approval of budget amongst others. It also provides for special provisions for telescope host countries with regard to credit for precursor investments e.g. MeerKAT. It also sets out principles under which IGO can take loans and incur liabilities.

The negotiating process involved participation by countries such as Australia, China, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, SA, Sweden and the UK. Canada, Germany and Spain were also observers. A letter of intent signed by all negotiating governments formed the legal basis of negotiations. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the president of the negotiations. The SA negotiating delegation involved members from the DST, DIRCO, and State Law Advisors. There were four formal negotiation rounds and significant work between sessions by a Task force chaired by SA. As for the status of negotiations, there have been some conclusions at the technical level by senior officials. A consensus was reached by heads of delegations where legally non-binding acts in the form of texts were initialled. Different governments are now undertaking national legal and political approval processes. For SA, this means obtaining a Presidential Minute. The planned signature of Convention is foreseen in December 2018. The Convention will only enter into force when a minimum of 5 countries have ratified it. And this includes the three host countries i.e. SA, Australia and UK.

If signatures are in December 2018, that means entry into force will be end of 2019, thus earliest likelihood of Council is beginning of 2020. Formal approval to construct SKA-1 including of funding schedule requires Council to meet thus strategic interest of SA for early signature of Convention and its entry into force. Upon signature of the Convention, signatory governments will establish a Council Preparatory Task Force (CPTF) to undertake preparatory actions to facilitate crucial decision making by Council. This will include negotiation of first funding schedules, preparation for new regulations, engagements with potential new members and overseeing transition from UK Company to IGO. CPTF cannot make any binding decision thereby all decisions have to be ratified by the Council. The Committee will be entrusted with a crucial role during ratification process. The launch of the MeerKAT will not only be viewed here in SA only but globally. There is significant global interest and SA is playing a very crucial role.

Dr Tiplady thanked members for their attentive listening and welcomed comments.

The Chairperson thanked Dr Tiplady for the presentation and welcomed comments from Members.

Discussion

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) stated that in the Council each country had only one vote. Further, there was a funding schedule which is different for each country. Why was a country like SA which was funding 30% of the SKAO as per the schedule has only one vote? (Members nodded in agreement) Voting is unanimous and one cannot simply take the vote of a simple majority. Then secondly as you say the Convention is expected to be signed in December 2018, that means there is a possibility it might not be heard by this current Parliament. Also, where will the DG be located? Is it here in South Africa?

Ms C King (DA) thanked the delegation for the presentation; concern was how long did DST think it would take to get the Presidential minute? Has any information been given to you regarding this since especially there is a need to move very fast? Also, on the beginning of the construction of SKAO1, what will be the dilemma if the ratification is not completed as planned by 2019? What will be our financial position? And to follow up on the funding schedule, funding will be on a pro-rata basis, which means the use of the SKAO will be based on a pro-rata basis. Where does that leave SA with regard to our funding abilities on the schedule?

The Chairperson said there was a concern that this project might go to the next Parliament. If it goes to the next Parliament, does it mean that they will start all over again? What will be the Committee’s role to ensure the same is tabled and when is the expected earliest completion of this phase of the process, because after the next recess it will be campaigning. There is not much time to look at these issues.

Dr Tiplady thanked Members for the comments and stated that they were keeping Cabinet continuously informed of all progress being made, including the preparation of the SKAO. So, the Department is very confident it will get a Presidential Minute within the time required. The earliest time the Convention will be signed is in December 2018 and that will be enough time for us to get the Presidential Minute within the Cabinet schedule. As for the time other countries will need to get their own domestic approvals is outside SA’s exclusive control. This is also the same concern with our counterparts in the UK because of the amount of legislative work the UK has to make especially with the issue around Brexit. SA is not alone in facing elections next year as Australia is also facing elections. If any initiative is taken by the end of the year the Department will be able to give conclusive observations. We can only work within a process as fast as possible.

On the question asked in terms of the financial risk, MeerKAT is constructed and budgeted for by Parliament so MeerKAT will continue to do just fine. The only thing is global momentum going forward because the MeerKAT is the pre-cursor of the SKA. The current global setting has been quite reluctant in reflecting on this. At this stage what can be done is that we ensure we continue to involve the political class. And this was discussed when our President met the UK Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May.

On the issue of the funding schedule, yes, it is true that one country will have one vote. But in the Council, there will be weighted voting to determine issues like funding. For the funding schedule, there are indicator documents which indicate what each country ought to contribute as per the outcome of the negotiations. There is no specific formula for the final contributions. In this case, host countries will pay what some people refer to as a host premium. This is because the host will benefit most from the project. That is an accepted principle. The rest of the countries will negotiate and then it will have to be agreed by everyone what they contribute. In terms of return on investments, the project will only be limited to the scientific community of the governments that pay and other countries will have to pay to access these facilities. As for the DG, he will be located in Manchester where the headquarters are. But there will be presence in SA and Australia. But this does not affect SA’s participation in the project.

The Chairperson asked whether there was any idea of how far the other countries like the UK were with the process.

Dr Tiplady replied that, as he had mentioned, there was the issue of SA and Australia having elections. As for the UK, they consider this as part of their industrial revolution process therefore they are committed to its success. There is also tremendous support from countries such as China, Italy and Portugal but all have their own legal systems that they need to follow. However, there is much optimism that the signing will actually occur in December 2018.

Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director SKA, added that there was a lot of support coming from countries like Germany even if they were just observers. In Australia both the government and the scientific communities are in partnership in these discussions and both acknowledge the need to move this according to the scheduled plan. On our side as SA we will do the best we can because ultimately it is us as South Africans who will benefit. This is because formal approval to construct SKA-1 including funding schedule requires Council to meet thus, it is of strategic interest of SA for early signature of Convention and entry into force.

Mr Koornhof was concerned about some of the countries that he had not seen in the Convention. Major countries like France, USA, the rest of Africa, Japan, Russia they were all missing.

Dr Tiplady replied that as stated earlier, there were engagements and negotiations with potential new members. There is hope that one day this will also be signed by the US. The scientific community there is in support of this project and so is the private sector but this is still in its early stages for the legislature and political class who have not yet prioritised this. In the long run, full participation of the US is expected. However, the Convention has provisions for agreements to be concluded at a bilateral level and this could be used to involve participation by the US. Also, as Members are aware, SA has not had a US ambassador for two years. As for France, the French government has included SKA as its roadmap for the next years so there is a lot of anticipation that France will join. Once the Convention is signed there are provisions for new members joining. There is a lot of focus on creating political awareness so as to boost signatories. Japan was an observer at the launch of the MeerKAT and their participation is anticipated. On African countries, as stated this is a global partnership and all are welcome. It is expected in the latter stages of the SKA countries such as Botswana, Namibia will participate through SA. SA coordinates the Africa SKA Partnership and there will be a ministerial meeting of the African SKA Partnership countries in October here in SA.

The Chairperson commented that Kenya was very keen on partnering with SA on the SKA project.

Dr Tiplady engaged the Chairperson and stated that there has been a lot of support from Kenya and there has been a very productive meeting with the Minster for Science and Technology Ambassador Amina Mohamed, who has expressed a lot of interest. The Kenya High Commission in Pretoria actually has someone located there specifically to look at the SKA technology.

The Chairperson thanked the delegation for their wonderful presentation, Members would engage with them again soon.


Committee Report on 2018 international study visit to South Korea and Japan
There was one more item in the agenda and this was consideration of report on Committees’ 2018 international study visit to South Korea and Japan. There was concern as most Members were not present, she asked Members on what was the best way to proceed.

Ms King argued that as most Members were absent, the Members present should read through the report but it should still be put on the next meeting’s agenda. (Members nodded in agreement).

The Chairperson noted that as members had agreed, the meetings had then come to its end. She thanked members and guests present for coming for the meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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