President’s Report

By Bob Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2018)

Budget 2018: Mostly good news

The Federal Budget came out on February 27, and it appears to be favourable to Canadian researchers working in basic science. Funding for academic institutions for research-related activities is set to rise by $340-million in fiscal year 2018-19. By 2023, scientists can count on about $446-million more annually from the funding councils, including direct money for grants, research chairs and a new program to support interdisciplinary science and international collaboration.

The increased support for science was precipitated by last year’s Fundamental Science Review, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor. While the increase in the budget falls well short of the $1.3-billion a year increase that the report called for, a 25-per-cent increase in funding basic research is hugely welcome. Over the past year, individual scientists and organizations such as CASCA have voiced support for the Naylor report, and support for the report has been a theme of the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy’s periodic visits to Ottawa. On the whole, I think that all this advocacy appears to have paid off.

Another notable aspect of the Federal Budget is the way it calls for a return to a basic research role for the National Research Council. This comes after years of re-purposing NRC to focus strongly on industrial applications. Details remain sketchy at the time of this writing, but as far as I can tell, these changes at NRC are likely to be good news for both CASCA members affiliated with NRC and for Canadian astrophysics as a whole. In particular, I can see many ways that NRC being directed to place greater emphasis on basic research (and on research excellence) would benefit our community. I’d like to understand the plan in detail before commenting on specifics, but perhaps it is worth emphasizing a basic point made in our Long-Range Plans: the success of astrophysics in Canada relies heavily on the partnership between Universities and the NRC. For that reason, all astronomers in Canada should keep a close eye on developments at NRC.

Budget 2018: Some bad news

While the Federal Budget appears to provide mostly good news for astrophysics, many of us were disappointed to see an absence of a strong commitment to the Canadian Space Agency in the document. The implications of a dwindling commitment to Space by Canada were the focus of a recent newspaper article by Ivan Semeniuk. I think this article makes for some interesting reading:

Lost in space: Why Canada’s diminishing role in the heavens is a problem – The Globe and Mail.

There are several reasonable interpretations of the lack of a specific call-out to the Canadian Space Agency in the Federal Budget. My personal interpretation is that the government is simply not ready to commit to a rejuvenation of the CSA because it is still formulating its space policy. The situation is laid out in the following article:

New space policy not ready.

I was particularly struck by one portion of this article, which makes the following points:

  • There is at least one external factor that appears to have contributed to a delay: the ongoing uncertainty in the U.S. space program. Like it or not, right or wrong, the government is taking a wait-and-see approach to what happens in the U.S.
  • NASA has been rudderless, without an approved Administrator since the election of the Trump government in November 2016. And now, Acting Administrator Lightfoot is retiring at the end of the month. Yes, there is a new Space Council in place led by Vice-President Pence, but the dynamics between the White House, the Council and Congress are mired in backroom politicking with no cohesive strategy forthcoming.
  • Does Canada need to wait for the U.S. picture to clear up before making any plans? Are we that dependent on their strategy?
  • I wonder the same thing. Canadian astronomy has benefited hugely from our participation in multi-billion dollar flagship missions, in which we can play a relatively small but highly significant role. I personally believe that we need to contribute significantly to international flagship missions in the future. (Our participation in the James Webb Space Telescope is a great example of Canadian academia operating synergistically with Industry in this capacity, as is our small but important contributions to the success of the Herschel and Planck missions). But, in my opinion, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by international flagship missions should only be a component of a broader Canadian space astronomy ecosystem. We can (and should) aspire to a greater degree of independence and leadership in smaller impactful missions (the proposed CASTOR mission being one good example).

    Gearing up for the next LRP

    These are my opinions, but what are yours? The Coalition’s trips to Ottawa are input-output exercises. In terms of output, we describe what our community does, provide status reports, and explain our need for additional resources. But in terms of input, we take the opportunity to really listen to what the ministry and our elected representatives are saying. One of the most clear messages conveyed to us is that a major strength of our community is its cohesion. This cohesion is manifested by our Long Range Plan, which provides a strong central focus for our community’s activity. In less than a year we will kick off the planning for LRP2020, and the topics above will no doubt be the subject of considerable discussion. Your opinions matter. When the time arrives, please take the opportunity to fully engage in the LRP process, by talking with your colleagues, contributing to a white paper, and participating in the Town Hall meetings, both locally and at the CASCA AGM.

    JWST

    While our community has significant concerns about the long term future of Canadian Space Astronomy, this should not blind us to the fact that the very near-term future is looking pretty damn good. The James Webb Space Telescope Cycle 1 proposal deadline is April 6! After being involved in this project for well over a decade, I can hardly believe that the day we can apply to use this spectacular facility is almost here. The Canadian Space Agency, working in partnership with astronomers led by René Doyon at the University of Montréal, have really delivered the goods for the present generation of astronomers, and they deserve our thanks. I can’t wait to see what gets discovered. If, like me, you find yourself a little overwhelmed by the proposal process, I recommend you make yourself a cup of tea and sit down in front of YouTube and watch the video recordings of the U de M JWST community preparation webinars.

    TMT

    Michael Balogh (chair of CATAC, the Canadian TMT Advisory Committee) has prepared an excellent summary of the progress being made with the TMT project in this issue of Cassiopeia. You should definitely take a look at it, because a key instrument, the Wide Field Optical Spectrometer (WFOS), is being redesigned and this is an excellent opportunity for you to provide the instrument team with feedback on the specifications of the instrument that would best enable your science.

    Diversity and Inclusivity

    The Diversity and Inclusivity Committee (chaired by Brenda Matthews) is preparing a summary of the results from the recent Professional Climate Survey, and the committee has also been given a draft of a proposed CASCA Values Statement to mull over. I expect we will see discussion of both items at the upcoming CASCA Annual General Meeting in Victoria.

    CASCA 2018 and 2019

    As I’m sure you are aware, the 49th annual general meeting of CASCA is being held at the Victoria Conference Centre in Victoria, BC from 22 May to 26 May 2018. The meeting is co-hosted by the University of Victoria, NRC-Herzberg, and the Astronomy Research Centre. It promises to be a spectacular CASCA AGM! You can check out the program on the CASCA 2018 website here.

    CASCA 2019 will be hosted by McGill University in Montréal, which is exciting news, as Montréal is such an amazingly fun city (my favourite, by miles).

    Signing Off

    The CASCA Presidency is a two-year term, and my time as your President is now winding to a close. The next President’s Message will appear in the Summer Cassiopeia and will be written by my successor (Rob Thacker from St. Mary’s University). It has been a privilege to serve you for the last couple of years, and I thank you for putting up with me (not to mention with putting up with these overly-long President’s messages – if you think it’s bad for you, think of poor Joanne Rosvick and Magdalene Normandeau, who had to edit them in spite of them always being late). Leading CASCA for a while has provided me with many opportunities to talk to you all and to share in your adventures, which in turn has shown me how great it is to be an astronomer in Canada. We are part of a community dedicated to excellence in science, and to making our profession better. We are joined together by many things, not least of which is our shared passion to learn more about the Universe and to share its wonders.

    Roberto Abraham
    University of Toronto
    #CASCA

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