United Kingdom signs treaty-level agreement to host SKAO

by Cassandra Cavallaro on 10 February 2021
The UK government has signed an agreement to host the SKA Observatory (SKAO) and its global headquarters in the United Kingdom.
Signing of Hosting Agreements
Jo Shanmugalingam (left), Director General for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and Dr Catherine Cesarsky (right), Chair of the SKAO Council, signing the Hosting Agreement.

This announcement comes shortly after the first Council meeting of SKAO which marked the launch of the Observatory as an intergovernmental organisation, and follows the UK ratification of the SKA Observatory treaty (officially called SKAO Convention) in December 2020.

The Headquarters Agreement between the United Kingdom and SKAO translates the UK’s commitment to hosting SKAO into law and, once ratified, enables the Observatory to establish and operate its premises as well as efficiently function in the country, including the ability to recruit the international experts it needs as well as import and export assets and equipment as needed for the delivery of the SKA project.

The UK’s involvement in the SKA is managed through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

“The UK commitment to the SKA Observatory reflects the importance of this major global project”, says STFC Executive Chair Professor Mark Thomson. “Agreeing to host the headquarters here is testament to the UK’s standing as one of the major partners in the SKA project, which will become one of the most important scientific facilities in the world. Support from the UK government has allowed us to take this leading role in SKA, both in terms of having the SKA Observatory HQ at Jodrell Bank and the UK financial contributions to the design and build of the telescope arrays. Hosting the HQ not only reflects the UK’s reputation in the global astronomy community, but it will bring long-term benefits to the local region in the North West through the creation of jobs and wider economic benefits.”

The hosting agreement was signed on behalf of the UK government by Jo Shanmugalingam, Director General for Industrial Strategy, Science & Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Dr Catherine Cesarsky, newly appointed Chairperson of the SKAO Council, signed on behalf of SKAO. “The United Kingdom is a major partner in the SKA project, both by virtue of their scientific and engineering contribution but also by offering to host SKAO. The generous provision of the Observatory’s state-of-the-art Global Headquarters and today’s signature of this agreement are a symbol of the importance the UK places in this international partnership, and we are extremely grateful for their enduring commitment.”

The signature of the agreement complements the inauguration of SKAO’s Global Headquarters at the Jodrell Bank UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019, a project that was funded thanks to a £16.5 million worth of grants from the UK Government’s BEIS via STFC, The University of Manchester and Cheshire East Council.

SKAO is the only intergovernmental organisation hosted in the North West of England. It is expected to have a significant impact for the area by hosting thousands of researchers and experts for meetings and conferences, as well as international media and foreign dignitaries. SKAO’s expected 150+ staff from more than 20 countries are expected to contribute more than £6 million per year to the local economy, on top of visitors and the Observatory’s own expenditure supporting local businesses.

The STFC’s 2017 Impact Report noted that “Hosting of the Global HQ of the project will bring the UK many benefits including international influence, impact to the local area through creation of infrastructure, jobs and expertise and opportunities to inspire interest in STEM subjects,” and that the impact of the headquarters’ operations over the period 2012-18 alone was estimated at £27 million.

Separate hosting agreements are being negotiated with Australia and South Africa to host SKAO’s facilities and telescopes.

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