Ireland suffers by not joining group with world’s biggest telescope

It is essential Irish scientists join European research, says observatory executive

Ireland's ongoing failure to join the research organisation that runs the biggest telescope in the world is a major missed opportunity, a meeting in Dublin has heard. Membership of the European Southern Observatory would help build Ireland's reputation for quality research but also open up immediate commercial opportunities, .

"Yes absolutely, Ireland is missing opportunities, " said Claus Madsen, the senior counsellor for international relations at the Observatory. "If Ireland wants to be part of the global research community it has to have access to some of these international facilities and take part in this international cooperative body."

Mr Madsen was in Dublin on Thursday to attend a meeting on how the country could benefit by joining the Observatory. The Astronomical Science Group of Ireland organised the event ahead of a decision on membership by a Government review group.

The review group is considering membership of other bodies including Cern, Europe's nuclear research facility.


Science is an “international enterprise”, he said. “In today’s global world it is absolutely essential that the scientists of Ireland are fully participating in these research initiatives.”

Countries were willing to join the observatory because it gives their astronomers full access to the telescopes, but there were also strong commercial reasons for joining, said Prof Paul Callanan, a physicist at University College Cork.

He co-organised the one-day meeting with Prof Brian Espey of Trinity College Dublin and Prof Tom Ray of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

There was “no doubt” that the observatory would remain the foremost facility in the world for ground-based astronomy, Prof Callanan said. It was currently building the European Extremely Large Telescope which would have a mirror measuring 40m across.

But the construction of the telescope meant “there is tremendous potential for industrial involvement”, he said. “It is a particularly good time for Ireland to join ESO because Irish companies can bid for contracts related to the telescope.”

Our membership in the European Space Agency costs us about €17 million a year but we get that back in full in commercial trade, he said.

A similar payback would arise with the observatory, he said with every €1 invested returning at least €6. Membership for Ireland required a once-off payment of €14.6 million and an annual subscription of €1.8 million, he said.

Companies who might be interested in bidding for observatory contracts also attended the meeting. "I think Ireland should be in ESO and I think there are two reasons why," said Joe Hogan, founder and chief technology officer of Openet, Ireland's largest indigenous software company employing about 1,000 people.

Companies would be exposed to severe challenges while working at the leading edge of this technology, he said. This helped build capability and reputation.

And the solution to a challenge could in turn become a product for the company to sell to its existing customers he added: “I can see the benefits for Ireland.”

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.