President’s Message

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Roberto Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Summer/été 2017)


Many of us have just returned from a very successful CASCA Annual General Meeting in Edmonton. This was a terrific meeting and we owe our colleagues in Alberta our thanks for putting it together. This year’s CASCA AGM featured some wonderful talks (Dicke’s Superradiance, which I’d not even heard of before the meeting, turns out to be a really interesting thing) and interesting discussion sessions. Several of these sessions focused on topics of great significance for our community, such as the space astronomy funding situation and progress in the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. We all look forward to more interesting talks and more stimulating discussion at the 2018 CASCA AGM in Victoria.


As I described in my last President’s Message, a major focus of the CASCA Board’s recent activity has been to put into place a formal advisory structure for Canadian participation in the Thirty Meter Telescope project. I’m pleased to be able to report that the CASCA-ACURA TMT Advisory Committee (CATAC) was put into place at the start of this year, and many of you were able to witness it in action at the CASCA AGM. CATAC is being led by Prof. Michael Balogh (Waterloo), and in my opinion he has done an extraordinarily good job managing this new committee.

The specific terms of reference for CATAC are carefully spelled out in a formal document, but the gist is that CATAC has two major roles:

  1. This committee continuously assesses progress in the TMT project, making sure that TMT meets the scientific, technical and strategic goals set out in the Long-range Plan, and it feeds this information to the LRP Implementation Committee.
  2. It acts as a conduit for consulting with and informing the community about the state of the TMT project.

An initial very significant activity of CATAC has been to provide CASCA and ACURA with a detailed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of constructing TMT on La Palma, in the form of a detailed report. The report is, I think, a model for these kinds of things. It even got written up in Nature! The findings and the recommendations in this report make for important reading and I think you should take a look at it. The high-level summary is that building TMT on Mauna Kea is clearly the preferred option for our community, but building TMT on La Palma would still result in a very exciting telescope that would deliver transformational science for the Canadian astronomical community. Some of the disadvantages of La Palma cannot be overcome (e.g. its lower altitude limits performance at longer mid-infrared wavelengths), but others can be overcome by careful planning and an appropriate funding model. The various trade-offs, strengths and weaknesses in the project are described in detail in the report… please check it out.

By creating CATAC and populating it with astronomers with different areas of expertise, and trying to be inclusive with respect to institutional geography, gender and career stage, CASCA and ACURA have set in place a credible and representative structure for community-based feedback and advice. I think this committee is firing on all cylinders (thanks again, Michael Balogh and everybody serving on CATAC) and it’s really impressive to see it work. CATAC meets frequently (approximately weekly by telecon, though in between there is considerable discussion via email and via the Slack groupware system) and it has succeeded in spreading TMT expertise and engagement over many institutions. In my opinion this aspect of the committee’s activity will have an even more enduring impact than its first report, because the more Canadians get involved in the project, the more they feel a sense of ownership in it, at least if our community’s feelings about CFHT can be taken as a guide. For this reason, I was particularly pleased by CATAC’s decision to open four meetings to CASCA members, via Webex. These open meetings included presentations by key people in the TMT project. Armed with this information, members of the community provided thoughtful advice to CATAC, who discussed this at length and synthesized the community’s feedback into the final report. This activity has already had an impact, with more thinking at the project level now being focused on hardware (such as an adaptive secondary mirror) and operational models (such as an adaptive queue) that are of particular importance to the Canadian community.

Advancing the Long Range Plan

The long description above might give you the impression that the CASCA Board did nothing but focus on TMT this year. This is far from true! We were kept busy by many other things. For example, the federal government solicited feedback from us on a number of matters of relevance to the astronomical community, and CASCA, acting in partnership with ACURA and Industry as part of the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy, responded in the following ways:

  • The Coalition provided written input to Canada’s Innovation Agenda, and to the federal government’s Fundamental Science Review Panel. The Coalition also provided a pre-budget submission the federal government, noting the commitment needed to fulfil the aspirations in the Long Range Plan.
  • On behalf of the Coalition, I met with the Fundamental Science Review Panel in Calgary. Once again, the emphasis was on the items in the Long Range Plan.
  • Last Fall, the Coalition mailed out a summary of the conclusions of the CASCA Mid-Term Review to all MPs. This Spring we sent each MP a beautifully-printed copy of the full review.

In addition to providing feedback to specific requests from the government, we also acted in a pro-active manner in a number of ways. For example:

  • On behalf of the Coalition, I flew to Ottawa to meet with representatives from the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada to consider ways in which CASCA could partner with them on topics of mutual interest.
  • On May 9 the coalition co-chairs (Don Brooks, Guy Nelson and I) traveled to Ottawa and met with Genevieve Tanguay (VP, Emerging Technologies, NRC), John Burnett (Director of Policy, Office of the Minister of Science), and Marilyn Gladu (Conservative Party Science Critic).

These latter meetings were particularly useful, not only for informing government about our aspirations in the LRP, but also for hearing back from them about ways we could better align ourselves with top-level national goals (an important component in our success). For example, in our discussions with NRC we discussed challenges to do with Compute Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (which has not clearly understood the close linkage between University-based and NRC-based researchers), and we learned that NRC needs help with outreach and public communications. I think that CASCA members should try hard during our outreach activities to communicate how success in Canadian astronomy is at least partially a function of a close partnership between NRC, Universities, and Industry. I hope you can help by touching upon this theme when describing our activities to the general public.

In the coming months the CASCA Board and its various committees will continue to work hard on your behalf. There are a few big-ticket items coming up, and I expect we will be focusing considerable energy on advocacy for the space astronomy and radio astronomy portions of the Long Range Plan, and on a professional climate survey being prepared by the Equity and Inclusivity Committee.

Let me conclude by apologizing yet again for a somewhat overlong President’s Message, and on behalf of the CASCA Board, I extend to you our very best wishes for a healthy, happy, and productive summer.

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