Medium Sized is Beautiful but Too Expensive

April 6, 2010

The election starting gun has been fired, and of course the most important issue is who will be least Nasty to Science, as Adam Rutherford explains in the Grauniad. I will listen carefully because Adam is nearly as good looking  as Brian Cox, and The Cell was possibly even better than the Wonders of the etc etc. Anyhoo. Perhaps more later.

The real news of the day of course was that Astronet has released its review of what Europe should do with its 2-4m telescopes in the 8m age. I have only skimmed this long report so far, but it seems well thought out and realistic.  Scientifically it goes for wide field spectroscopy, echelle spectroscopy, NIR imaging, and the time domain, but also emphasises the need for keeping flexible general purpose facilities – for innovation, for high risk proposals, and for training.

UK readers will nod despairingly, because we are in the process of trying to shut everything down except ESO and a dim vision of ELT and SKA. This feels inevitable  but somehow not quite right – many of the most impressive results of recent years have been made by small telescopes and MIDEX missions. But of course we can’t just stubbornly refuse to shut old things down. The Astronet panel realise this, and know well that countries across Europe are looking to reduce the money spent on smaller facilities, not re-invest in them.

So they do a careful cross match of current capabilities with their scientific goals, and the conclusion is pretty obvious. We need several facilities, but not all of them. Its crying out for a Europe-wide rationalisation. They also do a pretty hard nosed analysis of what saves money and what doesn’t. They conclude that you only save money if (a) you reduce the quality of service, and (b) put things under a single management. Other things – conversion to survey mode, time swapping – don’t save money. Some things – sharing base facilities, sharing support staff – can save money in principle, but if only if you establish a single management and get ruthless. Meanwhile they also recommend a single European Time Allocation Committee.

Sounds great but politically difficult. They do not suggest that ESO should just take it all over. They don’t have a political solution except to recommend that a small technical team is appointed to start an implementation study. I wonder what STFC will make of this.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. Is there a will ?