Word from the president / Mot du président

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Bob Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2016)

Dear CASCA Members,

The last six months have been eventful ones for our association. The federal government has solicited feedback from Canadians on a number of matters of relevance to our community, and CASCA and its Coalition for Canadian Astronomy partners have responded by providing written input to Canada’s Innovation Agenda, and to the federal government’s Fundamental Science Review Panel (whom I also met with in Calgary). We also provided input to the government via the pre-budget submission process, mailed out a summary of the conclusions of the CASCA Mid-Term Review to all MPs, and are about to send each MP a beautifully printed copy of the full review (the production of which has been overseen by Rob Thacker, who has an eye for these things). We have made it a priority to learn more about the aspirations of our industry partners, particularly in the Space Astronomy sector, and reached out to the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada to consider ways in which CASCA could partner with them on topics of mutual interest. Many of you also participated in the Canadian Space Agency’s Space Exploration Workshop, in which CASCA members played a prominent role, and which ended on an optimistic note regarding the future of Canada’s aspirations in space astronomy.

In spite of this good progress, the elephant in the room remains the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which is facing some real challenges in Hawaii. As most of you know, the crux of the matter is the decision made almost exactly one year ago by the State Supreme Court of Hawaii to invalidate the TMT’s building permit (because due process was not followed in approving the initial permit). A contested case hearing is currently underway to determine if a new permit will be issued. The project must await the outcome from this (and the inevitable appeals, should the decision be positive), so I think it will be about six months before we know whether construction can continue at the Maunakea site.

The uncertainty over the future of astronomy on Maunakea has forced the TMT project to look seriously into alternative sites (more on this below). At a more personal level, it has also spurred many of us to reflect more on issues regarding Native Hawaiian culture and sovereignty. I personally think this is bit of a silver lining, as many astronomers now have a deeper respect for, and understanding of, the issues in Hawaii. Within CASCA, this has also led to some soul-searching about what we might be able to do to connect more closely with our own aboriginal community. This culminated recently in the CASCA Board’s Decision to reinvigorate the Westar Lectureship series, and to operate the Westar lectures in tandem with teacher training seminars offered by the CASCA-sponsored Discover The Universe Program.

The overarching goal of the revitalized Westar Lectureship program is to connect the exciting developments in astronomy more closely with the general public in under-served areas of the country, with a special eye toward engaging Aboriginal Canadians whenever we can. We hope to delight people with the spectacular progress being made in our subject, fill them with pride in the fact that so much of this progress is driven by Canadians, and ignite an interest in STEM-related subjects. The first Westar Lectureship in the new series occurred last month in Ayamdigut (Whitehorse). By all accounts it was a tremendous success, and CASCA offers its congratulations to Westar Lecturer Dr. Christa Van Laerhoven, University of Toronto graduate students Jielai Zhang and Heidi White (who organized the teacher training seminar), and Julie Boldoc-Duval, who coordinated much of the activity as part of the Dunlap/CASCA Discover the Universe program. The Westar Lectureship has had a great start, and we very much hope that many CASCA members will step-up and volunteer to be Westar Lecturers in the future.

Returning now to TMT, it’s clear that the situation is serious, though how serious will only be known once the legal situation in Hawaii becomes clearer. In the meantime, the project is focusing on learning more about the properties of an alternative site on La Palma in the Canary Islands (see Anecdote 1 below). CASCA organized a ‘tiger team’ committee to look at the qualities of several alternative sites. This committee did a great job, looking carefully at a lot of data in a short time, and we owe them our thanks. The conclusions have been summarized in a mailing sent to the CASCA exploder, and it’s fair to say that the lower altitude of La Palma is a source of concern to those astronomers who see their ground-based future as heavily weighted toward activity in the mid-infrared. On the other hand, it looks like building on La Palma may result in significant cost savings, which may make the project much more affordable (an important factor, as the delay in construction is costing money, leaving the project short of funds).

If you’ve read this far and have concluded that a lot is going on while we wait for the legal situation in Hawaii to untangle itself: you’re right. Don’t even get me started on things like the fallout from the shuffling of Canadian members on the TMT board of directors. I think a lot of this gets down to the understandable fact that impassioned and smart people who have given years of their lives to the TMT project find it incredibly frustrating to be stuck playing the waiting game. I’ve spoken to most of the principals in the international partnership, consulted with all the relevant CASCA committees, and spoken to many of you personally about TMT, and it’s clear that there is a huge range of views on how best to handle the uncertainty while we await the convergence of the legal process in Hawaii. However, one thing that everybody in Canada that I’ve spoken to agrees on is the importance of operating within the framework of the Long Range Plan (LRP). The LRP gives us a degree of coherence that other disciplines envy, and this coherence has led to much of our success (which is bibliometrically analyzed in excruciating detail in… the Long Range Plan).

Nobody who helped put the LRP together figured we live in a Universe where large technical projects come together with anything like perfect smoothness. Essentially all big science projects face technical and/or financial challenges. A perfect example that is close to home is the James Webb Space Telescope. I returned from the Advisory Committee meeting for this a few weeks ago and can assure you the project looks to be in great shape. But talk to me sometime about its near-death experience five years ago, which was far more serious than what TMT is facing now. More often than not, these big projects face multiple crises. Seeing them through to successful conclusions takes planning, flexibility and grit. Scientists who have been through this before ‘get’ this, and fortunately our government sponsors get it too. Challenges are to be expected, but keeping our heads in the sand helps nobody, so we need to have a system in place for both keeping an eye on things and devising ways to navigate the way forward when things get tricky. In our community, this is handled by the Long-Range Plan Implementation Committee (LRPIC). The LRPIC is an important part of our system, and of course the LRPIC is keeping a close eye on TMT right now.

Monitoring progress (and being prepared to undertake course corrections) will be important to the ultimate success of TMT, but it’s also crucially important for the community to have a clear sense for what is going on. Up until recently, informing the community about what has been going on with the TMT project has been handled informally (via various private mailing lists) but that’s just not the right way to communicate progress on such an important project with so many stakeholders (academic, industrial, and government). So I’m pleased to be able to report that CASCA and ACURA are working together to form a Canadian TMT Advisory Committee which will have two big roles: (1) It will continuously assess progress, making sure TMT meets the scientific, technical and strategic goals set out in the Long-range Plan, and it will feed this information to the LRPIC; (2) It will act as a conduit for consulting with and informing the community about the state of the TMT project, via regular updates and Webex ‘town hall’ style meetings. The composition of the Canadian TMT Advisory Committee is coming together as I write this and I think it’s going to be an important committee. If you’re asked to serve on it, please say yes. In any case, I think we all share the hope that this committee will keep the CASCA membership so well informed that I won’t find it necessary to write such a long-winded President’s Message in the future!

With best wishes for the holidays and for a wonderful 2017,

Roberto Abraham

Anecdote 1: I confess that I love La Palma. I obtained the data for my PhD from the (newly-commissioned) William Herschel Telescope there back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This first-year grad student came back from his first observing run with a tape full of 0.7 arcsec FWHM images of BL Lac host galaxies, several bottles of duty-free Rioja, a tan, a huge head start on a thesis, and a big smile.

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