A Final Dispatch from the JCMT

By Gary Davis, Director JCMT
(Cassiopeia – Winter 2014)

Momentous changes are upon us: before the next Cassiopeia is issued, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope will change hands. The good news is that the JCMT will continue to operate under new East Asian management, potentially for many years, and will continue to deliver the innovative and high-impact science that has been its hallmark to date. Given the decision of the historical UK-Canada-Netherlands partnership to withdraw its support for the observatory, this is the best outcome that could possibly have been achieved.

The dissolution of the partnership began with the withdrawal of the Dutch agency NWO in March 2013. NRC Canada then withdrew on 30th September 2014, and I would like to record here my thanks to NRC and the Canadian community for their financial, technical, scientific and personnel contributions to the JCMT over more than 27 years. The JCMT has unquestionably been a stronger and more successful telescope over this period because of Canada’s participation. It is extremely gratifying to observe that Canada is now a partner of choice in submillimetre astronomy missions and experiments – Herschel, ALMA, BLAST and ACT to name a few, and potentially CCAT and SPICA in the future – and this is a direct consequence of the experience gained with the JCMT.

Confronted with these decisions from the Netherlands and Canada, the UK funding agency STFC decided in May 2012 that it could no longer support the operation of the JCMT beyond the date of Canadian withdrawal. It is a tautology to say that this was a profoundly disappointing decision for everyone associated with the observatory. In retrospect, however, it is a clear consequence of the funding pressures occasioned by mega-projects: although the details in the two cases are different, the withdrawals of both the Netherlands and Canada were driven by their commitments to ALMA.

My mission since then has been to find a new entity to take over the operation of the telescope. In previous issues of Cassiopeia I reported that an Announcement of Opportunity had been issued in June 2013, and that four Expressions of Interest had been received: one each from the UK and Canadian communities, one from Purple Mountain Observatory, and one from the East Asian Core Observatories Association (EACOA), an umbrella organisation representing astronomy research institutes in Taiwan, China, South Korea and Japan. It is particularly gratifying to me, as Director of the observatory, to note that the user communities in the UK and Canada are determined to retain their access to the JCMT: in Canada, this effort is being led by Christine Wilson. Following a workshop in Vancouver in December 2013, these interests were eventually consolidated into a single proposal, which was accepted by the University of Hawaii (UH) in June 2014. The actual transfer is now firmly scheduled to take place at midnight on 31st January 2015: the legal ownership of the facility will transfer from STFC to UH, and the telescope will be operated by EAO in partnership with the UK and Canadian communities. EAO is the East Asian Observatory, a non-profit corporation set up by EACOA in the State of Hawaii. All of the legal arrangements for this transaction are now being put in place. The transfer of the UK’s two world-leading telescopes (UKIRT and JCMT) to new management is, as far as I am aware, unprecedented in the history of observational astronomy.

In parallel with the legal arrangements, we have been working with EAO to ensure as far as possible a seamless transition of observatory operations. For example, the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC) will continue to host the JCMT Science Archive for data taken under the historical partnership, and it is expected that they will also provide this service for data taken under the new management, at least in the short term. The observatory’s science support and scientific computing teams will be retained intact by EAO and will continue to be available to provide support to users, for both old and new observations.

From October 2012 to September 2014, Dr Doug Johnstone was seconded to the JCMT from NRC Herzberg and served as Associate Director. I am extremely grateful to Doug for agreeing to take on this challenging but vital position for two years, and for splitting his time between Hilo and his permanent residence in Victoria. His primary responsibilities were to oversee the JCMT Legacy Survey and the JCMT Science Archive, both of which he fulfilled admirably and with his usual infectious enthusiasm, and I think he even enjoyed the experience! Doug has now returned to his position as a staff scientist in the Radio Astronomy Programme at NRC Herzberg.

This is my last column for Cassiopeia after more than 12 years as Director of the JCMT. Following the transfer of the telescope at the end of January 2015, I will be moving to the UK to take up a new position as Director of Operations Planning for the SKA project. It is a challenge to which I look forward with enormous enthusiasm, not only because it will take me back to England, where I spent several happy years as a student and postdoc, but also because it will be a huge change of outlook to be involved at the early stages of an ambitious project rather than continually being on the defensive. I look back on my time at the JCMT with pride at what has been accomplished: three new instruments working extremely well (ACSIS, HARP and SCUBA-2), two more ready to be commissioned (POL-2 and FTS-2), a vibrant legacy survey programme producing frontier science across a wide range of astrophysics, a full-featured science archive in collaboration with CADC, and most recently of course a secure future for the observatory and its staff. It has been a labour of love.

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