ESO's Very Large Telescope at Paranal

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent

Over the last couple of days on RTÉ News platforms, we’ve been exploring the structure, facilities, work and discoveries of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – Europe’s foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation.

We’ve also been teasing out the costs and benefits of joining ESO, which is what many astronomers who are part of the small but active and growing community here want.

Having travelled to Chile to see first-hand what ESO’s observatories are like, I can say that on the surface at least, it appears to be an extraordinarily well run, ambitious, ground-breaking and fascinating body.

Seeing the instrumentation of the Very Large Telescope at Paranal up close, witnessing the astronomers doing their incredibly complicated research, climbing to the high altitude sites of the soon to be built European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), and the ALMA radio telescope observatory, it is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that membership would be scientifically beneficial for Ireland.

The ESO supported ALMA radio telescope observatory (Pic: ESO)

The ESO supported ALMA radio telescope observatory (Pic: ESO)

Being in the club doesn’t guarantee time on ESO telescopes – researchers must submit proposals which are independently assessed, which is the way it should be.

But without doubt, astronomers from ESO member countries do better in those open calls, because they have access to a network of colleagues from whom they can learn and bounce ideas off.

The opportunities that membership would bring to young researchers, through ESO’s fellowship and other programmes, would also be invaluable.

And with a very active and successful outreach department, there would be many opportunities to use membership of ESO to sell the wonders of science to the wider public, particularly children.

Scientifically then, it’s a no-brainer.

So that just leaves the question of the financial cost.

€14m comprised of an entrance payment in lieu of infrastructure that existing members have already invested in, and a contribution towards the ELT would get us into the club.

And after that membership would require an annual fee of around €2 million.

Yes, that sounds like quite a bit in upfront and ongoing payments.

But ESO makes an effort to ensure that companies in member states get as much of their country’s contribution back as possible through infrastructure design and construction contracts.

Artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b recently discovered using ESO facilities (Pic: ESO)

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b recently discovered using ESO facilities (Pic: ESO)

It’s not a “juste retour” system like the European Space Agency (ESA) operates.

However, ESO says it believes that because Ireland has a quickly maturing space industry sector arising from its involvement with ESA, those firms should have no problem competing successfully.

Then there is the almost incalculable trickle down benefit that industry derives from having access to new ideas, knowledge and technology.

Campaigners in favour of joining say the six-fold economic multiplier effect that comes from ESA contracts, would equally apply to ESO.

Plus, it is likely that a deal could be hammered out, which would enable Ireland to spread payments for its entrance fee out over a period of up to a decade.

The government does seem to be positively disposed towards membership.

Discussions have begun about options for joining, and it is a stated ambition of the Innovation 2020 science strategy.

The big question then is can officials make a sufficiently robust argument to those with their hands on the purse strings that it should happen.

Science Foundation Ireland boss and Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, Prof Mark Ferguson, has already stated that if we are to reach our stated aim of doubling research spending, then it has to start now, with the upcoming budget.

There will, however, be many competing interests – scientific and otherwise – vying for a slice of any extra pie that will be handed out on budget day.

And with a fragile government in place, where political interests may well trump national interests, it is not clear whether that extra desperately needed investment in science will be forthcoming.

If it is, however, a contribution towards Irish membership of ESO would seem to be a worthwhile and productive candidate to receive some of it.

Comments welcome via Twitter to @willgoodbody