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China science

China is offering over a million dollars for a foreigner to run the world’s largest telescope, so why is nobody applying?

Only a handful of astronomers might be qualified to run the Fast facility in Guizhou – and the challenges of the job could be putting them off

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 10:25am

China is offering more than US$1.2 million to hire a foreign astronomer to run the world’s largest radio telescope, but is struggling to find applicants.

Fast, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, is looking for a chief scientist from overseas to oversee the daily operation of the 1.2-billion yuan (US$178 million) facility. Over the last few months, it encountered unexpected difficulties in finding a qualified, willing candidate as the job faces many challenges, according to people involved in the hiring process.

Whoever becomes Fast’s director of scientific operation would receive a financial package consisting of eight million yuan research funding, a salary comparable with such a role in Western countries and numerous subsidies, such as free housing.

Such financial incentives have become common as many senior positions for scientists have opened up on the mainland and the nation steps up its efforts to attract high-quality candidates for its rapidly growing research sector.

Fast (the Five hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope) is a giant dish hidden in the remote mountains of Guizhou, a province in southwest China. Guizhou has some of the nation’s largest karst caves and limestone hills. These form depressions that naturally fit the shape of the dish – making it the ideal terrain for a giant telescope.

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Its dish can pick up previously undetectable signals from the universe and provide new clues to a wide range of questions, ranging from mysterious pulsar outbursts to the existence of intelligent alien life.

“Fast is a portal to new discoveries. For an astronomer, running Fast could be the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Wang Tinggui, professor of astrophysics at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province.

The Arelibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, with a dish less than half the size of Fast’s 500 metres, has made many milestone discoveries, including one that helped to win a Nobel Prize.

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The Chinese Academy of Sciences, which owns the telescope, looked overseas for an operator-in-chief because no astronomer at home had the experience of running a facility of a similar scale and complexity.

“The post is currently open to scientists working outside China only. Candidates can be of any nationality, any race,” said a human resources official at the academy’s bureau of personnel, who was involved in the hiring process.

A hiring notice was put up on the academy’s website in May. Advertisements were also placed on major international research job bulletins and senior scientists in research communities helped spread the message by word of mouth, according to the official.

“We cannot wait. We have also reached out to qualified scientists around the world through formal or private channels. These senior researchers do not browse job websites very often. We did everything possible to communicate to them our offer,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

“What can be said at this stage is that we have encountered many challenges, 安and we are continuing with the efforts,” the official added.

According to the job description, the scientific operations director would be responsible for setting up and organising various academic committees to decide the telescope’s long-term scientific goals and distribute its observation time slots to different research teams at home and abroad. He or she would also be responsible for reporting major discoveries made by the telescope to the government every year, communicating with the general public about its work and overseeing its spending and budget.

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The candidate must have at least 20 years’ previous experience. He or she must have taken a leading role in large-scale radio telescope project and have plenty of managerial experience as well as holding a professorship – or equally senior position – in a world-leading research institute or university.

“These requirements are very high. It puts most astronomers out of the race. I may be able to count those qualified with my fingers,” said Wang, who was director of the academy’s laboratory of galaxy cosmology but is not involved in Fast’s management.

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Foreign astronomers of non-Chinese origin may face additional difficulties, he added.

Some Western researchers have plenty of experience running giant telescopes, but their expertise might not work in China due to language barriers and cultural difference.

Guanxi, or interpersonal relationships, could affect decisions such as the scheduling of observation slots.

“The fight to decide who gets observation time and who doesn’t can turn the job into a walk on thin ice,” Wang said.

The operator would also face many technical uncertainties. Although the construction of Fast was completed last year, key components such as the signal receiver and thousands of movable reflection panels on the dish still require extensive testing and calibration.

The challenging nature of the work might require the chief operator to work long and irregular hours and give up his or her own research. The job will also involve living and working in one of China’s least developed areas, which might cause discomfort and inconvenience to their family.

“It is not a job for a scientist. It’s for a superhero,” Wang said.

Several scientists working at the Fast facility declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the issue. One of them said the decision to hire from overseas was made at the top and commenting on it could lead to political trouble.

A Beijing-based astronomer said if the headhunting process hit a wall overseas, the authorities should open the post to domestic competition.

“We built the telescope with people at home. Why can’t we trust them to run it?” added the researcher, who asked not to be named.