President’s report


By Chris Wilson, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Winter 2014)

Hi, everyone,

This has been a busy fall for CASCA, ACURA, and the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy, with major lobbying efforts on behalf of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The three Coalition co-chairs (Don Brooks representing ACURA, Guy Nelson representing industry, and myself representing CASCA) traveled to Ottawa on October 20 to meet with staff members in the offices of the Minister of Industry, the Minister of Finance, and the Privy Council Office. We will be going back to Ottawa for additional meetings reaching out to different branches of the government on December 16. In November, Guy Nelson joined a Canadian trade mission to China, which gave him additional opportunities to raise the need for TMT funding with politicians involved in that visit. The individual co-chairs have also been busy writing letters to provide updates on the TMT project to other high-level politicians and their staff. In parallel, individual astronomers have had considerable success meeting with their university presidents and raising the TMT issue with them. Several of the key university presidents are now engaged with the TMT issue and are working to make this project a reality. The rules and application deadlines for the first round of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) were published in early December, which has been very helpful in clarifying the structure of this new funding program. While it may be that some part of the TMT funding can ultimately flow from CFREF, it seems clear that CFREF funding is unlikely to be the sole or even a major source of funds for the TMT construction project.

You might be wondering whether, with all the work we have been doing, we have been given any hints as to the likely success of obtaining TMT construction funding. The reality is that we will only learn whether or not we have been successful on the day that the 2015 federal budget is announced. The secrecy surrounding the federal budget is not new; indeed, we were in a similar situation in 2003 when we needed additional funding for ALMA. I remain cautiously hopeful that we will be successful in obtaining funding for the TMT.

Another important focus of our community this year is the Mid-Term Review (MTR) of the 2010 Long Range Plan, which is now well under way. There have been a very good number of white papers submitted to the MTR panel, with just a few late ones expected as I write this. The white papers are available in the MTR area of the CASCA web site and I urge you to have a look at the ones the overlap with your particular interests.

The MTR panel will be holding three town hall meetings in late March: in Montreal on Tuesday, March 24; in Toronto on Wednesday, March 25; and in Victoria on Thursday, March 26. Please try to attend one of these town hall meetings if you can; they are an important opportunity for you to raise issues with the MTR panel and for the panel to hear about the concerns and priorities of our wider community.

The CASCA Board has been hard at work for you this fall. We sent out a call to Canadian astronomers who were not yet members of the International Astronomical Union inviting them to apply for membership in advance of the 2015 IAU General Assembly, and over 40 people responded positively. We committed some of the surplus that had built up in the Westar fund to supporting the “Discover the Universe” initiative for the next three years, providing some much needed continuity as they wait to hear the results of the next round of NSERC PromoScience grants. We are also working with the EPO committee to decide how to rejuvenate the Westar public lecture series. We are continuing to work on completing the translation of key pages for the French version of the website and trying to do a better job keeping the English and French websites synchronized, for example by posting English-language press releases and job advertisements on both websites. We have completed the renewal of the members of the various CASCA committees and are starting to explore possible areas for collaboration with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).

I also want to draw your attention to the 2015 CASCA annual meeting, which will be hosted by McMaster University. The dates of the meeting are May 24-27, with an MTR session held for part of the day on May 28. You can expect to hear more information about the meeting in February via the email exploder. The 2016 AGM will be hosted by the University of Manitoba and Brandon University in Winnipeg.

Finally, congratulations to Sara Ellison, who in October was awarded the Rutherford Medal in Physics from the Royal Society of Canada.

Message from the CASCA president

By Chris Wilson, CASCA president

Hi, everyone,

The start of term is upon us, with all the work that entails, and so this will be just a short report to update you on some of the things that have been going on over the last three months. More information on many of these topics is available elsewhere in this newletter or in the society web pages.

First, I would like to welcome Joanne Rosvick and Magdalen Normandeau as our new Cassiopeia editors! I am very grateful to them for taking this on and I look forward to working with them.

The Mid Term Review (MTR) is now underway with the solicitation of White Papers in preparation for the town hall meetings that will occur early in 2015. The panel has already requested a number of reports from CASCA committees and individuals involved in proposed or established facilities and missions. But any member of the community is welcome to submit a white paper. Length will be as in the LRP – 4 pages text maximum. Up to 5 additional figures allowed. Deadline for submissions is 28 November 2014. Please see the MTR part of the CASCA web site for more details.

Lobbying efforts for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) are well underway. A thoughtful article by Ivan Semeniuk on the TMT appeared in the Globe & Mail in late July and generated additional media coverage. A number of CASCA members wrote letters to their MPs and to Minister Ed Holder, under whose department the TMT falls, and many or all of us received replies from the Minister’s office in August. Individual CASCA members have also been busy meeting with their university Presidents and/or Vice-Presidents research to update them on the TMT issue and I can report that the TMT was discussed at the U15 meeting of university presidents in August. Also in August, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy made a Pre-Budget Submission on the TMT to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. I think it is safe to say that TMT as a project and an issue is now quite well-known both within the government and in the universities. We are continuing to raise the issue of TMT with the government this fall. Ultimately, though, we will only know whether or not we are successful in getting funding for TMT when the 2015 federal budget is announced. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the TMT Ground-Breaking ceremony which will happen on October 7 and is supposed to have a live-stream which we hope to link to the CASCA web site.

The Long Range Plan Implementation Committee is continuing its monitoring of the broad suite of activities underway in our community. The Canadian CCAT construction proposal will meet with an expert CFI panel on September 29. A complication to the Canadian effort was the failure of NSF to provide partial funding for CCAT through its recent MSIP program. However, the CCAT team continues to be hopeful that new partners will join the telescope to allow its construction in a timely manner. There is an update on progress with the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer elsewhere in this issue and so I will not say anything more about that here. The ACURA Advisory Committee on the SKA has a new chair (Bryan Gaensler) and is being expanded to nine members in anticipation of accelerated developments with that project over the next couple of years.

In the wider world, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has started on an ambitious program to reform its Commission structure with a deadline of October 15, 2014. Also, the deadline for proposing for an IAU Symposium for 2016 is now October 31, 2014.

And last but not least, two of our society’s members have been honoured this past month. Harvey Richer from UBC has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Christian Marois from NRC Herzberg has been elected to the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada. Congratulations to both Harvey and Christian on a well-deserved award.

President’s Report (June 18, 2014)

This is my first report as your newly elected President. I’m very honoured to be asked to take on this role, but I admit to feeling a little overwhelmed at all the things that need attention.

I would like to start by thanking our outgoing President, Laura Ferrarese, for the outstanding job she has done over the past two years. She has played a major role in our efforts so far to find funding for the TMT and most recently she has coordinated the start of the very important Mid Term Review (MTR) of our 2010 Long Range Plan. She oversaw a complete revamping of our society’s web site and has done a fantastic job of communicating with the members of our society through a variety of channels, including taking charge of the CASCA twitter account during the Quebec City AGM. I look forward to the benefit of her experience as she continues on the CASCA Board as Past President.

I would also like to welcome the new members to the CASCA Board. Bob Abraham is our new Vice-President, and Sarah Gallagher and Stephane Courteau are our new directors. I look forward to working with you all over the next two years.

We have just finished a wonderful CASCA annual general meeting in Quebec City. The science was exciting, the food was excellent, and the setting (including the weather) was beautiful! I want to thank again the LOC chaired by Laurent Drissen for all their hard work and dedication that paid off in a very successful meeting.

Immediately after CASCA we had a kick-off meeting for the Mid Term Review process. Further information about this meeting is given in the article in this issue by committee chair Rob Thacker. The individual presentations will be posted to the MTR area of the CASCA web site.

The most urgent task currently facing our community is to secure funding to enable our participation in TMT, our highest priority for a new ground-based facility. As you may recall, funding for TMT was not included in the February 2014 federal budget. As a result, Canada is currently an associate member of the TMT International Observatory (TIO), which voted to begin construction at their May 22, 2014 meeting. The members of the TIO are currently the University of California, Caltech, Japan, and China, with India and AURA as additional associate members. The coming year will be a ramp-up year for construction spending and so the window is still open for Canada to join the TIO if we can secure construction funding in the coming year.

Many of you may not be aware of the schedule and process that is followed in developing the federal budget; the following is my personal (probably incomplete) understanding gleaned from recent discussions and past experience. For a federal budget, which is typically released in February, most of the work is done in the preceding summer and early fall. Summer is the time when MPs are typically in their home ridings, and so this is the time when individual visits by voters (us!) are easiest to make. August 6, 2014 is the deadline this year for any “pre-budget submissions”; the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy will prepare a pre-budget submission on TMT.

To fund TMT as a line item in the Federal Budget requires a “Memo to Cabinet”; this Memo would be prepared by the National Research Council under direction by Industry Canada and submitted to Cabinet by the Minister. My understanding is that Industry Canada has to ask NRC to prepare this Memo to Cabinet, i.e. that NRC cannot submit a memo without a request from above. We are not allowed to know anything about the existence or progress of a Memo to Cabinet; this was rather frustrating during our wait for the 2014 budget but is a long-standing policy (I remember similar rules during the work to obtain funding for ALMA over 10 years ago).

A potential new player in the funding arena is the Canada Research First Excellence Fund, which was announced in the February 2014 budget. No details are available yet as to how this fund will be distributed. However, under advice from the office of the Minister of State for Science and Technology, ACURA is exploring whether it may be a possible route for some of the funding needed for TMT. It seems likely at this time that individual universities may have substantial say over how these new funds are allocated, which means that interactions with university Presidents and university priorities may be important.

So at this point you may be thinking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” I would say the answer to that is “Yes”. The Coalition is pursuing what I would call a “tiered” strategy and the overall strategy is still being developed. One approach is to reach out to the Presidents of our universities for support; this will almost certainly be required for the new Excellence Fund and may be important as well for nudging a memo to cabinet forward. The second approach is to write to and meet with individual MPs. In early June, Laura Ferrarese wrote to a subset of about 40 astronomers with strong connections to CASCA and/or the LRP process to ask them to contact their MPs and university Presidents. Once we have a more complete strategy in place, I anticipate sending out a more general call to CASCA members via the email exploder. So stay tuned!

Chris Wilson

(Past) President’s Report (June 18, 2014)

Hello everyone,

I have just came back to Victoria after a week in beautiful Quebec, where this year’s CASCA AGM has taken place. Several factors contributed to make this a memorable meeting. First of all, the many exciting talks, including those of this year’s CASCA awards recipients: Harvey Richer (Beals), Peter Martin (Executive), Matt Dobbs (Dunlap), Andy Pon (Plaskett) and last but most certainly not least, Howard Trottier (Qilak), whose energy and enthusiasm left us all wanted to do more and better in engaging children of all ages in what is arguably the most fascinating of all sciences. Then, on Tuesday morning, the announcement that Sidney van den Bergh, a true giant and pivotal figure in Canadian astronomy, has been co-awarded the 2014 Gruber Cosmology Prize for his contributions to the field of near field cosmology: congratulations, Sidney, you have our deepest thanks and appreciation. Finally, the special TMT reception, organized by the Pasadena TMT Project Office, that took place on Monday evening.

The CASCA attendees surrounding the TMT mirror assembly on June 11, 2014 in Quebec.

The CASCA attendees surrounding the TMT mirror assembly on June 11, 2014 in Quebec.

During the reception, Greg Falhman, Ernie Seaquist and Laurent Drissen unveiled a polished mirror assembly, one of the 492 segments that will ultimately comprise TMT’s 30-meter primary mirror. When the curtain lifted and the translucent golden hexagonal mirror was revealed, there was a collective gasp from the audience. But after the initial excitement, I am sure the question on everybody’s mind was: after all this years, and all these efforts, how can we possibly not have yet secured a place in what will surely be one of the most groundbreaking and revolutionary projects ever undertaken?

TMT represents far more than just a telescope. It is a project that we co-founded, almost 15 years ago, partnering with our colleagues in the United States. It is a project we built from the ground up, working with Canadian engineers and industry to tackle a disarming array of seemingly insurmountable technical obstacles. Through hard work and ingenuity, we have transformed TMT from an exciting concept to a marvel of precision engineering. It is a project Canadian scientists and engineers (in academia, industry and government) have brought to such a high level of maturity that major international communities — China, India and Japan — have been enticed to join forces with us in what will undoubtedly be a remarkable journey of discovery and exploration.

And yet, today, Canada is at risk of being reduced to a spectator role as a new generation of scientific discoveries unfolds. In May 2014 TMT transitioned from the design/preconstruction to the construction phase and a new partnership, the TMT International Observatory (TIO), was formed by Caltech, UC, China and Japan, all of whom have committed funds towards construction. India is expected to commit by fall. A ground-breaking ceremony will take place on Maunakea on October 7, 2014. To join the TIO as a full member, Canada must secure construction funds — $300M distributed over nine years — in the coming year. Of those $300 million, about half are needed to construct the unique calotte enclosure designed by Dynamic Structures Ltd. The other half includes ~$75M for the construction of NFIRAOS, TMT’s AO system, mostly done at NRC, and an equal amount as a cash contribution to the TIO. Those $300M will buy us close to 19% of the observing time at the telescope.

For the past many months, ACURA and the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy have been carrying out an extensive campaign in support of TMT. Activities include regular written updates and in-person meetings with the Minister of Industry, James Moore, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder, as well as other Government officials. A nation wide campaign aimed at securing the support of University presidents is well under way. ACURA holds regular meeting with NRC officials. These activities are aimed to support the submission of a Memorandum to Cabinet (MC) requesting construction funds. A pre-budget submission is being prepared by the Coalition, with the help of our Temple Scott consultant, with a deadline of August 6. The final MC is due in the fall — this is a confidential document prepared by NRC on request by Industry Canada. An alternative (or perhaps complementary) avenue of funding that has recently emerged as a viable possibility is Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) — a $1.5B program (over 10 years) announced in the 2014 Federal Budget “to help Canadian post-secondary institutions excel globally in research areas”. A CFREF request will of course need to be agreed upon by Universities Presidents.

In all this, there is an important role for CASCA to play. Now more than ever, it is imperative for the community to speak with a single voice and express unequivocal and unwavering support for the project: in the words of a man who knew how to get stuff done, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. This is a call to action: write to Minister Holder, visit your MP office, schedule a meeting with your University VPR and/or President. Do it now. Take a copy of the TMT Brochure and Digest with you, and tell them that TMT is an investment in the future not just for the Canadian astronomical community, but also for Canada’s international scientific reputation: a hard-won reputation of which Canadians are justly proud.

I could not conclude this message without mentioning some other news. After five years of feasibility studies, a project office has now officially been established for ngCFHT, now renamed Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer (MSE). The goal is to generate a Construction Proposal over the next three years. Things are moving forward on the space astronomy front as well: a Request for Information (RFI) has been issued by the CSA to industry and academia to explore possible contributions to NASA’s WFIRST mission. And of course, as we work towards securing new projects, we must say goodby to old ones. After more than 10 years in what was originally planned as a 1-year mission, the CSA will withdraw support to MOST on September 9, 2014. At the end of September, NRC will withdraw funding from the venerable James Clark Maxwell Telescope. Plans to keep Canadian involvement in JCMT for at least two additional years — through a combination on in-kind contributions and University funds, are under way and the outlook is promising.

Anyway, speaking of things that must come to an end, this will be my last report as President. So allow me to take this opportunity to thank the CASCA Board for their dedication and commitment, welcome our new Board members, Bob Abraham and Sarah Gallagher, and wish all the best to our new president, Chris Wilson. And finally, a huge THANK YOU to you all, for your support and your confidence in me during the past two years. I feel truly fortunate and proud to be part of this community.


President’s Report (March 15, 2014)

Hello everyone,

this is a short report to keep you apprised of activities related to the Mid Term Review (MTR) of the 2010 Long Range Plan.

It has been almost five years since the LRP was published, and some notable steps towards realizing the LRP goals have been taken. For instance, new instrumentation for CFHT is in the works: after a slight delay, Spirou has been given the go ahead and provided ~$2M in financial support, while new filters (including an improved u-band and narrow-band CaH&K, [OIII] and Halpha filters) are being procured for MegaCam. Work towards ngCFHT continues. JWST is moving ahead as planned, and all Canadian hardware has been delivered to NASA. Since 2010, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has been a formal partner is Astro-H, for which Canada is building the metrology system. On the SKA side, Canada is participating, through NRC, in several pre-construction activities that are intended to be part of the capital construction phase, including signal processing, dishes, and receiver systems. CHIME has been fully funded and is already under construction.

On other fronts, things are not moving quite as fast, or not at all. Funding for CCAT is not yet secured. On the HPC side, ComputeCanada has undergone a significant reorganization. A new President and CEO was appointed on March 10, and last November, ComputeCanada announced the creation of the Advisory Council on Research, which includes two astronomers (Rob Thacker and James Wadsley), and through which we hope the voice of our community will be heard. This leads us to the two elephants in the room: TMT and participation in a dark energy mission, the top two ranked ground- and space-based initiatives in the LRP. As we all know, there was no mention of TMT in the 2014 Federal budget. What nobody knows yet is how this will affect our continuing partnership in the project; the hope is that some of the dust will settle after the TMT Board meeting to be held next month. As for a dark energy mission, efforts are being diverted from Euclid to WFIRST and we now have a Canadian representative on the WFIRST-AFTA Science Definition Team (Mike Hudson). In addition, CSA has awarded a significant technology contract in support of the proposed CASTOR mission, which aims to carry out short-wavelength imaging to complement the IR imaging of Euclid and WFIRST.

More details can be found in the reports of the CASCA committees, on CASCA’s “Projects and Initiatives” pages, as well as on Cassiopeia.

Four years into the process, it is time for a comprehensive review of the progress towards achieving the LRP goals, so we can identify any areas of deficiencies or where progress has been slow and advise on a course of action to ensure, as much as possible, that the LPR plan is brought to completion. The scope of the Mid Term Review is therefore to identify strategic changes in funding models, governance, or operational schemes that would increase the effectiveness in implementing the LRP plan and/or maximize the return on the investments already made; to evaluate the loss of scientific and/or technical knowledge, and recommend ways of mitigating the impact if any LRP goals are no longer considered viable; and to identify and evaluate — in the context of the original LRP plan — new projects that have emerged since the LRP was published.

This task will be carried out by a MTR panel, in consultation with the community. The MTR panel is chaired by Dr. Rob Thacker, of Saint Mary’s University. The panel members were chosen by the CASCA Board, in consultation with Rob, to ensure expertise in all areas — technical and scientific — covered by the LRP:

  • Michael Balogh (University of Waterloo)
  • David Crampton (NRC-Herzberg)
  • Matt Dobbs (McGill University)
  • Kristine Spekkens (Royal Military College)
  • Michael Strauss (Princeton University)
  • Marten van Kerkwijk (University of Toronto)
  • Rob Thacker (Saint Mary’s University, Chair)
  • Kim Venn (University of Victoria)
  • Christine Wilson (McMaster University)

I will share a small but significant detail with you all. When I sent the invitation to join the panel to Michael, David, Matt, Kristine, Michael, Marten, Rob, Kim and Chris, I was fully prepared to have to engage in some arm twisting. There was no need: without exception, they all were eager to serve, in spite of the fact that the task at hand is not trivial, that the stakes are particularly high, and the time commitment is significant (I made no secret of any of this!). Their willingness to be part of the process is a strong testament to their dedication and commitment to the community, and I feel very fortunate and privileged to be able to count on such an outstanding team for such an important task.

As for a timeline, the MTR activities will start at the CASCA AGM in June 2014, and culminate with the release of the MTR report in the fall of 2015. Here are the main milestones:

  1. On June 12, immediately following the AGM, the MTR panel will hold a full day meeting, to which the entire membership is invited. A preliminary schedule for the session can be found on the CASCA webpages. During the meeting, the panel and the community will hear presentations from the chairs of the LRPIC, JCSA, GAC and CDC as well as from the leads of all projects prioritized in the LRP. There will also be a call for contributed talks on projects that might have emerged since the LRP or that should be discussed by the panel. Ample blocks of time will be dedicated to all-hands discussion. If you wish to submit an abstract for a contributed talk, please fill in the form: the panel will get back to you after all abstracts have been received.
  2. In July-August 2014, white papers will be solicited from all leads of the projects prioritized in the LRP and a few selected new initiatives (if any), with a deadline of December 2014. The list of white papers being solicited will be posted, and the papers themselves will of course also be posted once received by the panel. Note that even if there will be no open call for white papers, if you feel that one should be submitted on an issue not already covered, please contact the MTR panel chair and state your case.
  3. In January/February 2015, three townhall meetings will be held in the Toronto/Vancouver/Montreal areas, following the same format as the townhall meetings held during the 2010 LRP. All townhall meetings will be webcasted.
  4. Preliminary conclusions of the MTR panel will be discussed at the 2015 CASCA meeting in Hamilton, Ontario. A final report will be issued in late fall of 2015. The report will not be as extensive as the original LRP, and will not include unwarranted revisions or expansions that are inconsistent with the original plan. It might, however, recommend revised strategies aimed at ensuring that the plan is completed, and include new initiatives when these are aligned with and enhance the original plan.

Throughout the entire process, community consultations will take place through a dedicated website. I strongly urge you to participate in the process — the LRP and MTR are perhaps the two single most important initiatives for the health of the Canadian Astronomical community, and your opinions must be heard.

I will send more news as they become available and I hope to see many of you at CASCA 2014!