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Our National Observatories (1Dec95) (from Director's Office, NOAO Newsletter No. 44, December 1995) Even as astronomy enjoys increasing popular support inside and outside the Washington beltway, NOAO is under attack from some in our community. How is NOAO really doing? The good news is that it enables and produces top quality science cost-effectively. See the list of all-time science highlights in this issue. Working for and with Wisconsin, Indiana, and Yale, NOAO built the WIYN telescope within budget and on schedule. It has reached world-class performance in an astonishingly short time. GONG is deployed and works perfectly. NOAO's twin children, the Gemini telescopes, are now independent under international sponsorship and proceeding well, despite numerous technical and other challenges. At its three observatories, NOAO serves more than 1,000 users per year. On a comparable basis, its operating costs are similar to or less than those of other observatories, even those with fewer telescopes, sites, and users. It competes favorable for instrumentation, and its costs for facility-class instruments compare very well with others. What is the bad news? It is certainly not bad news that there are private observatories. To the contrary, the "privates" enrich US astronomy in innumerable and immeasurable ways. NOAO, even by providing access to Gemini, could not begin to provide the depth and breadth of observing capabilities the US community now enjoys and looks forward to, certainly not without "astronomical" amounts of additional Federal funding that would be very unlikely to emerge. The existence of the privates is therefore in the best interest of US astronomy. That is why I have consistently encouraged private initiatives and invited them to locate at NOAO sites. I support them whether or not they opt to co-locate with NOAO, even though many of them are not open to the general community but primarily to those of the sponsoring private institutions. That policy makes sense as long as there are national observatories, places where any astronomer with a good idea can go and get data--Leo Goldberg's principle. More access may become available if NSF implements the McCray panel's recommendation that privates provide access to the general community in return for NSF funding for instruments. I am hopeful that NSF will do so. If it does, AURA will endeavor to make this idea work. What then is the bad news? Not enough money to operate the observatories and to provide grants for observers, theorists, and builders of instruments. Funding for NOAO declined by 25% in real terms since 1984, after correcting for inflation. The "national observatories" to "grants" funding ratio in NSF's Astronomy division declined from 2.0 to approximately 1.6 during the past two decades. Fortunately for the grants program, this shift from centers to grants in NSF was complemented by NASA which increased its funding for grants substantially. For example, HST funding for grants to General Observers, Hubble Fellows, and archival researchers increased from near zero in 1990 to a projected $25M per year in 1996. Funding for grants is essential. It would not make sense to operate observatories that people do not have the resources to use and derive knowledge from. The reverse, however, to close national observatories and put the money into grants instead--if Congress would permit that--would not make sense either, certainly not to anybody without the privilege of access to private telescopes. What to do? To find the right balance is NSF's job. As lead agency for science, NSF considers all sources of support for our science, federal and private, and uses its funds as a "flywheel" to provide the right overall balance. Our job in AURA and NOAO is to enable the best possible science through merit-based, open-to-all access, and to do that at the lowest attainable costs. NOAO now has an outstanding record of enabling excellence, while completing projects on time and within budget. And it has the lowest overhead rate of any institution I know. What is AURA's view? We are committed to national observatories that enable the best possible science and that are cost-effective. We are committed to provide as many such capabilities at NOAO as we can. Our national facilities should compete with the best. If lack of funding forces us to do so, we may be forced to shut down some of them because it is better to operate few facilities well than many submarginally. If so, we will look for other ways to enable the science that would be lost. And we will continue to encourage NOAO to propose, and NSF and partners to invest in, improvements that enable better science while lowering operating costs. It should "do better--if not necessarily more--with less." It is possible that NOAO, like much of the federally-funded research effort, may grow yet smaller in the coming years. All astronomers must face this reality, not just at the national facilities but at universities as well. If further contraction is unavoidable, we need to accomplish it in the cleverest way that preserves the maximum science for our discipline as a whole. NOAO's excellent scientific, technical, and managerial performance is necessary to ensure its future. But it is not sufficient. The future depends critically on broad support in the community for the concept of national centers. That support is strong and broad but not unanimous: it is shared by those who depend on national observatories, and by many who do not--but it is not shared by everyone. What do you think? Comment to (goertel@stsci.edu), or to Sidney (swolff@noao.edu), or to our new Chair, Bruce Margon, (margon@astro.washington.edu), or to Observatories Council Chair, Lee Anne Willson, (s1.law@isumvs.iastate.edu). Goetz Oertel
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