SONG CHEN/CHINA DAILY
Spending on scientific leadership and building international research partnerships and collaborations do not mean pouring money into a figurative black hole. Instead, they mean oiling the engine room of scientific discovery. Such spending is the harbinger of productive joint endeavors for mutual advancement in understanding on multiple levels, not just science. It can and has produced spectacular results.
Indeed, the recent image of the black hole (or rather the material swirling just outside it) at the center of our galaxy comes from one such partnership. It has captured the imagination of millions across the world. It is a stunning scientific achievement from the “whole Earth” event horizon telescope (EHT).
The importance of global cooperation
By its very nature, the EHT is predicated on international cooperation across countries and continents to be able to create such a stunning image. It is unprecedented in human history, and has been years in the making. The EHT partnership began in 2015 by combining the distributed power and effective resolution made possible by the linking together of a global array of submillimeter-wavelength radio telescopes to form a powerful single observatory. It is this entity that can do new science with 300-plus scientists from all over the world working hard behind it.
Germany, France, the Netherlands, the United States, Japan and China’s Taiwan make up the EHT consortium and, via the inclusion of the East Asian Observatory (EAO), also the Chinese mainland, the Republic of Korea, Thailand and even the University of Hong Kong (which became an associate member of the EAO in November 2020). The University of Hong Kong, via the Laboratory for Space Research, became an associate member of the EAO on behalf of all universities of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and makes its share of time on the James-Clerk Maxwell millimeter-wave telescope (JCMT) available to all Hong Kong-based astronomers for no charge.
Indeed, the EAO plays a pivotal role, as it controls the JCMT, the largest-single dish radio telescope in the world at sub-mm wavelengths.
The EAO was established in 2014, one year before the EHT, and is the brainchild of Japanese astronomer Norio Kaifu. He had a vision to develop an Asia-focused international observatory to rival that of the great European Southern Observatory (ESO), which was established in 1954. The ESO is a stunning international success with a suite of some of the most powerful, productive and impactful optical telescopes in the world, producing more than 1,000 research papers in 2021 alone.
Need to further develop East Asian Observatory
The ESO, an international treaty organization, has a current annual budget of €135 million ($144.73 million) and has 16 member states. It is currently building the 30-meter extremely large telescope (ELT).The EAO, on the other hand, though established with a truly lofty ambition, has sadly not progressed beyond infancy. It has a modest budget, a single telescope and lately severely shrinking finances. Where did it all go wrong with Kaifu’s vision?
I believe the bold vision was just ahead of its time and that finally its time may be dawning. A re-imagined, re-invigorated EAO vision is possible if the opportunity is grasped across the current partnership and strong leadership is demonstrated thanks to the emergence of Beijing as a major science power over the last 10 years in particular with the capacity, financial clout and promise to deliver great things on the global stage as already encapsulated in its bold space program.
However, a true EAO needs top level national engagement and serious funding across the partnership but with perhaps just one bold mover to show the way. I believe China can play that role.
Some say it is too early－that China first needs to build up more capacity and expertise in astrophysics. I say capacity and expertise can develop more rapidly and securely as a result of linking up with international partners wherever possible. China can learn and excel from outside coupling not just from within, not standing alone when it can stand together with others on the scientific world stage. The Five-hundred-meter aperture spherical radio telescope (FAST) shows what China is capable of and what it can offer. There is talk of building several FASTs－I would suggest China build the EAO instead.
Others say the current geopolitics and tensions between China and certain Western countries, including those in the EHT and EAO partnerships－exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict－make reaching out and building links problematic and undesirable. But for me this makes such things even more important when understanding and trust building are essential to avoid a downward spiral that can have catastrophic consequences for us all.
For me it is about bringing three things together: funding, facilities and family.
Without funding, nothing is possible and even the grandest visions can crumble to dust. The funding must be shared but that does not need to be equal. It can depend on the capacity to pay, by population and GDP or other factors such as leadership where generosity of spirit is paying forward for future returns.
The current EAO budget is shrinking because partner countries are working in tight fiscal envelopes within broad internal astronomy budgets. Also, they prefer to protect their own facilities and budgets. They currently do not consider the EAO as offering such great value invested in a single high-quality, though aging, facility. To succeed, the EAO needs a ring-fenced independent and realistic budget in national accounts that does not impact national research institutes funding.
EAO needs to attract more organization
As for facilities, they matter a lot. The ESO runs seven major telescopes and many smaller ones for its user community while the EAO offers basically a single non-optical telescope in the JCMT. It is hard to attract interest and members with a one-trick pony. The EAO needs to build a stable of facilities to make it attractive and worthwhile as an organization that both developed and developing Asian countries would like to aspire to join.
At present, EAO members China and Japan have the strongest suite of facilities. They are the two most powerful EAO countries, and in the best position to make the biggest impact for a re-invigorated and freshly emerging EAO. Offering fractions of such national facilities to the EAO, offset by fresh compensating EAO funding, could be a suitable model to build up a valuable facility portfolio for EAO member states. Modest EAO access to FAST and the Chinese Space Station Telescope could show the way forward.
Finally, when it comes to family, I mean a family of member countries. Asia is a worthy construct around which to build an international observatory to eventually rival the ESO. China, India, Japan combined are the most powerful and rich nations in Asia and account for 37 of the world’s population. They are the engines for global development and growth. Getting India to join the EAO under an invigorated program, funding and vision would be a great first step, especially because it already has observer status in the EAO.
Astrophysics is seen as a benign endeavor whose research and discoveries enrich us all. So it makes an excellent and non-controversial focus for international cooperation and partnership around which trust, collaborations up to government level can develop and grow. Families are made up of young and old, rich and poor, small and large members with diverse skills and qualities but at the base level they are family. Constructing such a mindset among the Asian “family of nations” would, in my view, be a very good thing indeed.
The views don’t necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
The author is a professor at the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong and the director of its Laboratory for Space Research.