President’s Message

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Roberto Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Winter/hivers 2017)

Professional Climate Survey

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan gave a speech at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa on November 2 in which she touched on many topics of interest to CASCA, including some preliminary thoughts on The Fundamental Science review (a.k.a. the Naylor Report), the launch of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee and the recent appointment of Dr. Mona Nemer as the Government’s Chief Science Advisor. As will be described below, CASCA is communicating directly with the government on all these subjects. Another important topic highlighted in her speech was the need for greater representation in the sciences. In her speech, Minister Duncan noted the following:

This issue has a deep personal significance to me as someone who spent the bulk of her career as a woman in science.

During my science career, I was told the reason I was getting paid in the bottom 10th percentile was because I was a woman.

I was asked by a fellow faculty member during a staff meeting when I planned on getting pregnant.

I was asked to choose how I wanted to be treated: as a woman or as a scientist.

My travels across Canada have made it very clear to me that addressing the inequities in the research community must remain a top priority for all of us.

Minister Duncan concludes:

We must work together to right the gender, equity and diversity scales in the sciences. And when we do, science will be that much stronger for it.

I say ‘amen’ to that. In fact, I think we as a society do too. And when it comes to issues of greater inclusiveness and fairness in representation, CASCA as a professional society can have real agency in effecting changes in our own professional climate. We have taken some important steps already (e.g. by forming the Equity and Inclusivity Committee, led by Brenda Matthews), but it would be incredibly helpful to have a clearer understanding of the scope of the problem. For that reason the Equity & Inclusivity Committee put together a climate survey (available in both French and English. All CASCA members should already have received news about the survey via the society’s email exploder, but allow me to reiterate how hugely important this survey is to the health of our profession in Canada. If you don’t believe me, believe the Minister of Science. If you haven’t already completed the survey, please, please, find the time to do it.

Coalition Activities

Since the last time I wrote to you, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy has continued its dialogue with the federal government, focusing on the priorities set out in the Long Range Plan. On November 28, the co-chairs1 of the Coalition and two invited guests visited Ottawa with this purpose in mind. We had two specific goal for this trip. The first was to provide updates on some key priorities which we have been invited to comment further on during our last visit (progress on the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Square Kilometre Array). The second was to advocate for greater support of the Canadian Space Agency. We met with Dr. Nipun Vats (Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development) and Michael Rosenblatt (Director, Federal Science and Technology Policy, Science Policy Branch, Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development). We also met with Katharine Wright at the Office of the Chief Science Advisor, and with Kate Young (M.P., Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Science).

To help us articulate our goals more clearly, on this trip we were joined by Prof. Sarah Gallagher (Western University) and by Deborah Lokhorst (a PhD student at the University of Toronto). Sarah recently co-authored an important white paper on space astronomy funding (together with Jeremy Heyl and Ilaria Caiazzo, both at UBC), and she was able to place Canada’s investments in Space Astronomy into a broad international (and historical) context. Deborah was tasked with explaining why federal support is needed now for priority missions identified in the Long Range Plan (such as WFIRST), in order to secure a bright future for younger generations of Canadian astrophysicists, such as herself, that will be carrying the torch once people like me have ridden off into the sunset. While this visit to Ottawa focused largely on Space Astronomy and support for the Canadian Space Agency, we did not fail to communicate how the plan represents a coherent vision for Canadian astrophysics (agreed upon by the whole community), how astrophysics (the country’s premiere science, in terms of international impact) benefits all Canadians, and how the LRP aligns with the government’s priorities.

On behalf of the CASCA Board of Directors, allow me to conclude this message by wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season, and for a productive and prosperous 2018.

1 The coalition co-chairs are Prof. Don Brooks (UBC), representing ACURA (the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy), Guy Nelson (CEO of Empire Industries), and me (representing CASCA, i.e. you).

President’s Message

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

By/par Roberto Abraham, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/l’automne 2017)

Dear CASCA Members,

It’s been a busy summer! Here are some activities that have been going on over the past few months:

CHIME First Light

About two weeks ago, Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, installed the final piece of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), triggering the official First Light for this exciting new radio telescope. Congratulations to the many people involved in CHIME at UBC, McGill, Toronto, and NRC.

CHIME is incredibly innovative and its science is hugely exciting, so it is no surprise to see that its First Light generated a lot of buzz in both the astronomical community and in the media. I can’t wait to see the exciting science it will produce. The process by which CHIME came into existence is also interesting because it is another success story for the CASCA Long-Range Plan process. I was on the LRP2010 committee (chaired by Chris Pritchet at the University of Victoria) and well remember the extensive discussions about CHIME that led to it being declared the top mid-scale priority in the plan. This prioritization evidently played an important role in securing its funding. I’m not a radio astronomer (yet), and I’m no lover of committees (in general), but I must say it is incredibly satisfying watching the CHIME team deliver the goods and knowing that the work the community put into LRP2010 helped make CHIME happen. By being organized, disciplined, and working together, harnessing the many strengths of both Canadian Universities and the NRC, we can build the groundwork for more Canadian success stories in astrophysics. And if you are getting the impression from this buildup that the Canadian community is starting to gear up for LRP2020, well, of course you’re right. Witness (for example) the very successful recent workshop held in Montreal last week on “Canadian Radio Astronomy – Surveying the Present and Shaping the Future”. So, please start thinking about what you want the future to look like, because the planning for LRP2020 will be starting quite soon.

TMT Progress

After nearly five months of hearing evidence, the contested case hearing for the Thirty Meter Telescope Project has concluded and State Hearings Officer and former Judge Riki May Amano has recommended that a permit be issued to the University of Hawaii to allow construction of the TMT. In parallel with this progress in the legal domain, support for the TMT has been growing in Hawaii. Oahu public support for TMT construction is now almost 80 percent, and the most recent polling indicates that Hawaii Island residents support the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. This is great news! Very serious consideration of the backup site (La Palma) continues but we now have many reasons to be optimistic about the prospect of TMT construction at our first-choice site in Hawaii. Challenges remain but this should not come as as a surprise to anybody. (Beyond a certain scale, essentially all ambitious scientific infrastructure projects have to deal with some combination of logistical, financial, and scheduling hurdles. The trick is to have a robust plan in place to manage the challenges.) CASCA members interested in learning how the TMT project is progressing, and on the plans for future instruments, should participate in the community Webcast with senior TMT management being organized by CATAC (see Michael Balogh’s CATAC report in this issue for details). Future webcasts will organized to help keep the community up to date on the considerable progress being made on the TMT.

Perhaps it is not out of place to remind ourselves that the privilege of observing on Mauna Kea has been a huge benefit to many of us. Let’s be grateful for, and respectful of, this privilege. Over the summer, I sat down with a couple of books and did some reading about the fascinating history of the people of Hawaii. Since I’ve been a regular visitor to the islands for 25 years, I’m truly ashamed that it took me this long to read a book on this subject. As the legal process winds down, I hope more astronomers take some time to learn more about the history of the islands. (Though it’s somewhat dated, I can recommend “Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands” by Gavan Daws. If you have other suggestions, please do email me with them.)

Space Science and the Canadian Space Agency

After years of talking about it on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) advisory committee, the JWST Early Release Science proposal deadline has come and gone. The selection committee is meeting in a few weeks and will divide about 500 hours worth of observing time between about 15 proposals, chosen from the 106 submitted. The JWST General Observer call for proposals will come out in two months with a proposal deadline of next March. The lesson you should draw from all this is that THE JWST ERA IS ALMOST HERE!

The Canadian Space Agency has played an important role in the development of the JWST mission and, when the spacecraft launches in 2018, I think that all Canadians will be justifiably proud to learn that a team of Canadian academic, governmental, and industrial scientists, engineers and technicians built one of JWST’s key instruments (the NIRISS spectrometer, whose Principal Investigator is René Doyon at the Université de Montréal), not to mention the critical Fine Guidance Sensor that points and guides the telescope.

Unfortunately, JWST will have a very limited lifetime. It is designed to have at least a five-year lifetime after launch, and carries only enough fuel to maintain orbital positioning for a little over ten years. Of course, most space-based endeavours have long lead times, and investments in space missions frequently begin to pay off many years into the future (and, when it comes to flagship missions, sometimes decades into the future). The spectacular near-term future we are anticipating with JWST is thus the product of investments begun many years ago. But what about the decades after JWST? We need to ensure that post-JWST Canada continues to innovate, lead, and inspire.

Operating in synergy with the CASCA Long Range Plan, and with a particular eye toward LRP2020, a number of Canadians have begun thinking about ways to lay out a roadmap to such an exciting post-JWST future. Professors Sarah Gallagher (Western) and Jeremy Heyl (UBC), working with graduate student Ilaria Caiazzo (UBC), have put together a very thoughtful white paper which I think everybody should read. This White Paper, together with the various Topical Team reports now being prepared by the CSA, show how space-based astrophysical research should operate in the country at a variety of levels, from low-cost, agile balloon-based missions that perform end-to-end experiments on a timescale relevant for the training of graduate students, to focused mid-scale missions that target high-risk/high-return subjects such as primordial gravitational waves from the first few moments after the Big Bang, all the way up to proposed participation in (and potentially leadership in) much more infrequent but highly ambitious facilities that will keep our astronomical research and space industrial communities vibrant long after JWST. The key to to this future is increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency, and the immediate audience for our recommendations is the government’s newly-formed Space Advisory Board. The Space Advisory Board’s first report, titled “Consultations on Canada’s Future in Space: What We Heard”, is now available here.

This report summarizes the feedback Space Advisory Board members received from stakeholders during the public consultations on Canada’s future in space. There are exciting plans, but how do we turn these plans into reality? By now you should not be surprised to learn that LRP2020 will be an important component in this. In the meantime, we need to keep delivering the message to the government. And this inevitably brings me to the my final topic: activities by the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy.

Coalition Activities

In late August, the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy prepared a pre-budget submission and submitted this to the government. There are two main recommendations in the submission:

Firstly, we offer a recommendation for increased funding for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) that is very much in-line with the White Paper noted above. The Coalition believes Canada has the resources to achieve international leadership in space-based astronomy, matching its existing success in ground-based astronomy, and that such a future includes leadership in a future space mission.

Secondly, as noted by the report on the Fundamental Science Review (the Naylor Report), Canada needs a mechanism for funding “big science” projects, which tend to involve multiple international partners, have price tags in the billions, take years to conceive and build, and have lifespans measured in decades. The lack of such a funding mechanism could mean lost opportunities for Canadian astronomy in the future, including those priority projects identified in our pre-budget submission. Therefore, getting a nimble mechanism in place remains a top priority for the Coalition. You will be hearing more about formal CASCA Board support for the Naylor Report soon, along with some suggestions for things you can personally do to help draw attention to this important report.

In addition to providing the government with a formal document as part of the pre-budget submission process, we also wrote to Ministers Bains and Duncan on August 30 to reinforce the priorities noted above. The co-chairs of the coalition (myself, on behalf of CASCA, Don Brooks, on behalf of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, and our industry co-chair Guy Nelson, CEO of Empire Industries) plan to visit Ottawa in October/November to follow-up on the priorities identified in this letter. As with our last visit to Ottawa, we will make an effort to meet with politicians on both sides of the bench.

Let me conclude this message by thanking you, on behalf of the CASCA Board, for your support of our society. We promise to work hard on your behalf. If you have any suggestions for things we could be doing better, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Roberto Abraham

President’s Message

2014-06-27-Prof. Roberto Abraham

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

CASCA AGM

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.

CATAC

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.