Young astronomer’s plea for Ireland to join ESO a stark warning for Irish research

8 Sep 2017

ESO’s Wendelstein laser guide star unit at the Allgäu Public Observatory in Ottobeuren, Germany. Image: ESO/T Kasper (AVSO)

Irish astronomers and tech CEOs alike are calling on the Government to join the ESO, but it seems an uphill challenge.

Not for the first time, the Irish Government has been pressured into joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – an astronomical research organisation – for the purpose of giving Irish astronomers access currently unable to them.

The last time the issue was raised in September 2016, ESO’s own director general came here to convince the Government of the benefit of gaining access to a body of interconnected observatories stretching from Europe to South America.

Using its telescopes, a team of researchers was able to find one of the biggest scientific discoveries of recent years, an Earth-like planet in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri.

So, once again, the call is being made to the Government – at the same time as it heralds the launch of four new science research centres – to put pen to paper in becoming the last western European nation to join ESO.

One person advocating for Irish membership is one of Ireland’s brightest young astronomers, Cormac Larkin.

The Cork teenager made headlines over the summer for coming second in the Physics and Astrophysics category of the international Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) as well as receiving the Priscilla and Bart Bok first award for his project on data mining in observational astronomy.

Oh, and he also has an asteroid named after him.

Cormac Larkin

Cork native and award-winning astronomer Cormac Larkin during his stint at ESO. Image: Cormac Larkin

As he begins the next step in his life’s journey, having now accepted a studentship from Trinity College Dublin, Larkin described Ireland’s omission from ESO as “quite disheartening”, and it will likely see him leave due to a lack of opportunity in the country.

“There’s a phrase that says, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, and we’re the only one in western Europe with a large astronomical community that isn’t a member of ESO,” he said in conversation with

“I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to spend two years training with researchers in Armagh, so I’ve had access to telescopes there and I’ve used them but without that, my research that I won all those awards for would be unproven and theoretical. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

‘You can’t work in Ireland, it’s not like it’s a choice’

Larkin is set to be at the heart of the action later today (8 September) at the latest Irish National Astronomy meeting, where he will be speaking about the six weeks he spent working with ESO on everything from science communications to science policy.

One of Larkin’s biggest reasons for advocating for Irish ESO membership, he said, was that it comes with potential funding for PhD studentships, fellowships and researcher roles, the latter of which keep their research going for as long as five years.

“[Irish astronomers] can’t do that, so whenever we’re going for jobs, if someone else has that ESO experience, they’re going to get the job,” he said. “There’s a systematic limitation for Irish scientists because you don’t get these opportunities.

“If the infrastructure and facilities aren’t there, you can’t work in Ireland, it’s not like it’s a choice.”

Researchers chomping at the bit

It isn’t just the up-and-coming astronomers who feel ESO membership shouldn’t be delayed any longer, but also the Institute of Physics (IOP), which recently said the membership fee would be quickly paid back in economic investment.

It claims that every euro invested in space technology within ESO tends to bring between €6 and €7 in overall economic return.

Also, for every €1 increase in physics-based output, the economy-wide increase in output is €2.28.

“Ireland has already invested significantly in its astrophysics base in Ireland,” the IOP said. “There is now a large pre-existing cohort of senior staff well placed to take immediate advantage of ESO membership.”

Government’s to-do list

The tech world has also chipped in with the Time to Join ESO campaign, which features support from Irish tech leadership, including Technology Ireland director Paul Sweetman and IBM Ireland’s vice-president, Bill Kearney.

Sweetman echoed Larkin’s plea that ESO membership could bring greater benefits to the promotion of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

“Allowing students, researchers and professionals [to] interact and work on cutting-edge scientific, technical and communications projects [with ESO] … can only bode well for meeting the skills demands of our ever-growing technology sector.”

So far, the Government remains noncommittal on membership, but it is becoming clear that due to the lack of an Irish national space agency, and membership of either ESO or nuclear research centre CERN, young astronomers such as Larkin are already starting to look to the exit door.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic