Shank’s Pony versus Decadal Supertanker

March 30, 2009

It looks like Tom Shanks is gearing up for the rumoured review of UK ground-based facilities. This is is what some of his cryptic allegories refer to. Meanwhile the US Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics in full swing. The community involvement is intense. Considerable numbers of people are involved in the various panels and sub-panels of course, but there are also multiple open submission requests – for white papers on science, on the state of the profession, on theory and computation, and for information on “activities” i.e. telescopes, missions, laboratories etc. As with the European Astronet Roadmap process, the idea was to debate the science first, and concrete facilities later.  The science white paper deadline already passed, and resulted in 334 submissions. These make fascinating reading, or at least the tiny fraction I have dipped into do so. The “State of the Profession” call was also intriguing, producing 69 submissions. Some of these are pleading for special areas of expenditure, like the ballooning program, or “Strategic Theory” but others cover a strange variety of topics, including the loss of physical contact with telescopes, open source software in astronomy (see Sarah’s post), and the energy consumption of astronomers. This last one, led by Brit ex-pat Phil Marshall, also has an associated wiki site, where you can sign up to be a supporter. The general conclusion is that we travel too much so we should have more virtual meetings. I am thinking of re-creating Aspen in Second Life and charging you all for coming to my Institute. What d’you think ? Bicycles free of course.

There are two calls open now – one for white papers on Technology Development, Computation, Theory, and Laboratory Astrophysics, and another for information on “activities”. The latter is a two stage process. At first anybody can submit anything; but then the panel will request more detail on some activities… This is where the blood will start to flow, as the tension rises on the big ticket items – TMT, SKA, LSST etc. So at the end of the day the process will be intensely political, but people have really tried to focus on the science questions first; and absolutely nobody has an excuse to say they weren’t asked, or its all a stitch up etc.

Its a very expensive process; directly in terms of panel members time and associated administration, and even more in terms of how many community brain-hours are used up, that could have been spent writing papers for the Astrophysical Journal.  Could the right answers be concluded much more efficiently with a few wise heads in a room ? This is the problem that STFC will face again….