By Ernie Seaquist, ACURA Executive Director
(Cassiopeia – Spring 2015)
This is the seventh issue of the semi-annual newsletter for E-Cass readers. The intention is to keep the community up to date on the activity of ACURA. ACURA is the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, with a membership of 20 universities. ACURA exists to promote the interests of Canadian university astronomers, including the highest priority LRP projects requiring funding by the Federal Government. The current projects of interest to ACURA are the TMT and the SKA. ACURA also maintains an active role in advancing the interests of its member institutions in the governance of federally supported astronomy, currently undertaken by NRC.
ACURA is primarily concerned with the promotion of its two highest priorities – the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) following the ground based priorities for world observatories in the LRP. More on these topics below.
Activity on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)
Most of the activity during the last six months has been related to the promotion of the TMT by ACURA together with its Coalition partners – CASCA and Industry. There is urgency for a government decision on TMT now because of the date adopted by the TMT International Observatory (TIO) Board for a final decision by the partners to proceed with TMT construction. The TIO Board is awaiting a report by the Canadian government on its funding before taking this decision, currently scheduled for the TIO Board meeting on April 29/30, 2015. ACURA is currently an Associate Member (non-voting) of the TIO, and reports regularly to the Board, mainly on our activity to promote TMT with the government and the status of the decision. There is much pressure on ACURA from the TIO Board now that Canada is the only partner not to sign the participation agreements with funding in place, and that on-site construction is beginning this month.
TMT lobbying activity during the past several months has been extensive and strategic, focusing on the offices of the PMO, the PCO, Department of Finance and Industry Canada. Independent contacts by the Coalition Industry Co-chair have also been very extensive. All of these meetings and contacts have been successful in bringing awareness of TMT to the highest levels of government, and an acknowledgement at these levels of the importance of the project scientifically, economically, and internationally. The main issue is money, given the large “ask” of $300M over 10 years. Much discussion has focused on the suggestion by Industry Canada that the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) could be used to support the TMT. However, as is now well known, this fund presents a problem at least for funding the majority of the cost, especially the enclosure (half the cost) which is infrastructure, not research. In addition, from a practical standpoint, the fund offers neither sufficient financial support overall nor an appropriate timeframe for immediate support of TMT. Minister of State for S&T Ed Holder was formally consulted by letter of this problem by the Coalition on December 8, shortly after the detailed terms and procedures for CFREF were announced.
In addition, ACURA has engaged its member university presidents (through ACURA Council members) in supporting the TMT. The project has been discussed at the U15, and among individual presidents. The result is that presidents of the key universities which initiated the original design study have expressed their support on behalf of ACURA institutions to government for Canadian participation in the TMT, and are engaged in discussing with senior levels of government scenarios for such participation.
Additional efforts have been made to contact senior levels of the Canadian government through channels in the partner countries with some indication of success through contacts initiated in the U.S.
A late positive development was the completion of a new report commissioned by NRC on the economic benefits of astronomy instrumentation development at NRC, focusing on the TMT and SKA work. The report entitled Astronomy Technologies Study by the Ottawa firm of DoyleTech Corporation gives a particularly good account of the benefits of the TMT. The report demonstrates the large potential economic benefit of the adaptive optics (AO) work stemming from the emerging new applications to fields such as medicine, the defence industry, communications, and the consumer optical market. Industry Canada has an in-depth awareness of this report, and through NRC, has approved its release to ACURA, though not to the general public. However, we have permission to send the Executive Summary to key individuals with interest in advancing the TMT in Canada.
The bottom line on TMT is that there is an awareness of this project at all relevant levels of government, and that this has stimulated action at the highest levels. One of the challenges of course is the current economic climate in Canada, which suffers from the depressed price of oil, though the resulting delay in the Federal Budget can be seen as giving some breathing space for the decision on TMT.
Activity related to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)
On SKA matters, there has been a pause in ACURA engagement over the last several months, but this is about to change as the new chair of the new ACURA Advisory Council on SKA (AACS), Bryan Gaensler, has arrived in Toronto to take up his new position as Dunlap Institute Director. Bryan is firmly taking the reins of AACS. The ACURA Board has allocated a financial contribution for the support of AACS activity, appropriate since ACURA has taken the SKA university activity under its wing following the departure of Russ Taylor to South Africa. Future and ongoing ACURA support for SKA activity in the universities is anticipated.
Based on a recommendation from the AACS, the ACURA Board also nominated Bryan as the NRC appointed Scientific Director from Canada to the international SKA Organization Board of Directors, and I’m pleased to report that NRC has approved this appointment. The Scientific Director is one of two appointees to the Board, the other being Greg Fahlman as the NRC (voting) member.