China Builds World’s Largest Radio Telescope But Can’t Find Anyone To Run It

The largest radio telescope in the world sits idle and empty in China with no one to run it.

[DIGEST: South China Morning Post, Ars Technica, Global Times, Science Magazine, The Guardian]

Last year China completed construction of the largest radio telescope in the world with the intention of studying the cosmos. Yet, nearly a year later, they have found no one to run it.

According to Hong Kong based news source South China Morning Post (SCMP), the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) has sat idle for months in the remote mountains of Guizhou province as China searches overseas for a foreign astronomer to run the facility. Despite a $1.2 million paycheck and other aggressive financial incentives, no one has yet to accept the position.

Wang Tinggui, professor of astrophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, says: “FAST is a portal to new discoveries. For an astronomer, running FAST could be the opportunity of a lifetime.” Unfortunately, eligible scientists do not appear to agree.

Great Expectations Limit Number of Qualifying Candidates

Perhaps the vacancy remains because the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who own the telescope, do not believe that any mainland Chinese astronomer has the required experience to manage the “scale and complexity” of such a large facility, according to a human resources official involved in the hiring process. “The post is currently open to scientists working outside China only. Candidates can be of any nationality, any race.”

A lack of faith in their own scientists aside, a look at some of the other job qualifications would suggest that the candidate pool is likely far more limited than the academy has anticipated.

  • 20 years of previous experience
  • Extensive management experience
  • A professor at a world-leading research institute or university
  • Previous leadership role of a large-scale radio telescope project

Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff says this restricts the list of qualifying scientists to around 40 in the whole world, but those few still might not want the job because of other drawbacks and inconveniences: “The money does not buy you telescope time, or access to supercomputers, or fun postdocs and graduate students.” Foreign astronomers could also struggle with language barriers and cultural differences, and experience discomfort living in the one of China’s least developed areas.

Chinese Owners of Telescope Deny Reports of Vacancy

On its social media blog, the CAS denied that China seeks to hire a foreign astronomer, discrediting the previous report from SCMP. To the contrary, the CAS claims that no such external recruitment exists and that the post of FAST chief scientist has been filled since the telescope’s launch back in July 2016. It did not identify the chief scientist in its blog post.

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