Telescope Wars

Over the last few months the Science and Technology Facilities Council has been setting up a review of its ground-based astronomy programme. The panel conducting the review has produced a consultation document, and is asking for input via an online questionnaire. There will also be a (rather short) public meeting in London on July 9th. The consultation period closes on July 31st.

Reviews of this kind would be necessary in the best of times in order to establish long-term scientific priorities and try to align the provision of facilities with those strategic objectives. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the best of times so the backdrop to the current review is a shrinking pot of money available for “traditional” ground-based astronomy and the consequent need to target planned programmes for the chop.

Andy and Sarah have already blogged about this -and they both know a lot more than me about ground-based astronomy – so I won’t try to cover the same ground as them. I would however, like to make a  couple of points.

The review has to help STFC strike a balance between current facilities and projects for the future. The largest elements of the current ground-based programme include the subscription to ESO (including associated costs for ALMA, which amounts to over £200 Million), the twin 8m telescopes known as Gemini (North and South, about £60 Million), E-Merlin (about £24 Million), UKIRT and JCMT (about £34 Million); figures represent costs over the next 10 years or so. The two biggest projects that the UK would like to get involved in are a European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), an optical telescope currently aimed to be about 42m in diameter, and the Square Kilometre Array, a futuristic radio telescope. Each of these would cost the UK over £100 Million over the next decade.

The consultation document puts it quite succintly:

It would be unrealistic to imagine that in 2020 the UK would have a large stake in large facilities like E-ELT and SKA, and would also retain all its current ground-based facilities. It is always hard to forego a workhorse facility that has supported an active and successful science programme, in order to start construction of some future facility many years hence. But our bid for the capital costs for E-ELT and/or SKA would not be credible if we do not show that we are willing to do this.


I agree that it maintaining the current programme as well as acquiring an interest in both E-ELT and SKA is completely implausible. The more relevant question though is how deep we have to cut the ongoing astronomy programme in order to afford either of these, or whether we can do that at all. It seems quite likely to me that future funding of the ground-based programme is likely to suffer drastically, both because of cuts to the overall STFC grant that appear inevitable in the next comprehensive spending review and also the current STFC leadership’s bias in favour of space technology at the expense of science. On the latter point, it is worth noting that it is specifically the ground-based astronomy programme that is being lined up against the wall here; space-based projects of negligible scientific value, such as Moonlite and BEPI-Columbo are not to going be weighed in the same balance. At the very least, future involvement in a next-generation X-ray telescope  should certainly have been in the mixer with other observatory-type facilities on the ground. I fear that the STFC Executive sees the current UK ground-based programme as significantly too large, and would like to squeeze it all into the box marked ESO. I would like to be able to sound more optimisitic, but I think that the most likely outcome of this review is therefore that the only current facilities that will survive into the medium term will be those provided through ESO  membership. JCMT and UKIRT are nearing the end of their useful life anyway, but the writing is definitely on the wall for both Gemini and E-Merlin. Not that it hasn’t been before now…

If this the way things go, then the remaining issue is whether we can afford to be involved in both E-ELT and  SKA, which seems to me to be most unlikely. If we have to pick one, which should it be? That is clearly going to be the topic of much debate. In the spirit of the drive for rationalisation I touched on above, it may well be that we don’t do anything at all outside the ESO umbrella. In that case the United Kingdom ends up with a ground-based astronomy programme consisting of the ESO facilities plus a share in the E-ELT (itself an ESO proposal). I think this would be a tragedy because  I find the scientific case for SKA much stronger than that for E-ELT; it would have been a closer call if the ELT were still the 100m optical telescope as originally proposed many years ago (and which I used to call the FLT). I’m sure many will disagree for legitimate scientific reasons (rather than the desire to play “mine’s bigger than yours” with the Americans, who are currently developing a 30m telescope).

I’m sure there will also be many astronomers who would rather have neither SKA nor E-ELT if it means losing access to the suite of smaller telescopes that continue to produce many interesting scientific results. If it came to a vote I’m not sure what the result would be, which is why I want to encourage anyone who has any input to fill in the questionnaire!

A final little wrinkle on this question is the following. Suppose STFC decides  not to support future involvement in SKA – I hope this isn’t the way things turn out, but in our dire financial circumstances it might be – does this make continued funding for E-Merlin more likely or less likely? Answers on a postcard (or even via the comments box)..

12 Responses to “Telescope Wars”

  1. Thanks for the nod Peter. I’ve been involved in (European) ELT-related work pretty much since the start of my career – although the UK initially leaned much more closely (in my experience) to the Swedish-led Euro-50 concept than to ESO’s OWL. There were many alternative acronyms floating around for that project by the way, none of them good. The E-ELT itself leans much more closely towards the Euro50 too now, but I think we’re not supposed to mention that. But I digress.

    I never really questioned our involvement in the ELT until a senior astronomer mentioned over coffee one time that he was opposed to the ELT altogether. He argued that we would sink all our national funds into it for the next 20 years, with relatively little return-per-astronomer – compared with, say, building another 10 VLTs. Who knows, who will judge? Perhaps the consultation with tell us more.

  2. Chris Evans Says:

    I’ve heard similar comparisons of the science cases from others, but I would argue that the transition from OWL to E-ELT was the reality check that SKA hasn’t had to go through yet which is still a much less-clearly defined project. Perhaps the OWL study raised everyone’s expectations too much? A lot of our projects are already straining for sensitivity with the VLTs/Geminis. The coming decade will undoubtedly see these facilities exploited to their limits with new instruments/”wide field” AO etc, but a much bigger leap in sensitivity is *hugely* compelling (I get 5 magnitudes deeper for my targets!).

    I also understand the question of return-per-astronomer and the sociological issue of “only” having one ELT (ala CERN). Have we not just been spoilt by the abundance of 8-m options? Presumably when the UK/Aus was building the AAT they weren’t worried about having access to one 4-m class (southern) telescope, they were just seriously excited by it’s potential. Similarly, I’ve heard the “but you’ll never get ELT time so why bother?” I don’t see how this differs to HST – frighteningly competitive, massively oversubscribed, resulting in proposals of the very best calibre, yielding truly outstanding, high impact results.

  3. Chris Evans Says:

    On a more flippant note, at a VLT AO conference last week, Roberto Gilmozzi acknowledged that they’re looking for a better name/abbreviation than “E-ELT”. Answers on a postcard to ESO if you have anything catchy…

  4. Is the FLT larger or smaller than the BLT?

  5. Chris – right. Other astronomers often point out that in the 4-m era people never considered that they would have access to more than one 8-m telescope, let alone the numbers we have now.

    I know the ESO outreach people would like to open the naming of the E-ELT to the public, have a naming competition or something (but ESO council would make the final decision). Could be interesting.

  6. When the AAT was being built did it mean that all other, smaller, telescopes were scrapped?

    Personally, I don’t think it is good to have very limited numbers of facilities. However excellent the science, the type of science/observations that can be done becomes limited by what is allowable (physically or politically) with what is left. I suspect that it also gives fewer opportunities to PhD students and post docs to learn their trade.

    Peter, my guess is that decisions around SKA and e-MERLIN would be de-coupled (or at least claimed to be de-coupled).

  7. If you’re concerned with the UK’s stake in world astronomy, consider that MERLIN and e-MERLIN are things which simply don’t exist anywhere else and are essentially completely UK-funded. There is a lot of expertise in this area, at Jodrell Bank and elsewhere. Killing e-MERLIN in return for a stake in one of the big international projects, whatever their scientific value, would shift the focus away from the UK.

  8. One often hears that big-science projects are so big that no one country can afford them alone, so they are done with international cooperation. However, there are more than one big-science projects, so each country ends up with, to first order, shares in n projects of size 1/n each. For the moment, assume all countries are big enough to fund at least one big project alone. They could then fund just that project. The total amount of money is the same. Advantage: less organisation needed. Disadvantage: it might be easier to pull the plug (though the loss of status in cancelling a whole project will be larger than cancelling 1/n of a project, or even of 1/n per project in n projects.) Another disadvantage: scientists will, unless something else is agreed, have access to their own country’s project but not the others. Advantage: it would be obvious to all which countries manage to fund and manage something sensibly and which don’t.

    It might be that the two advantages outweigh the two disadvantages, especially considering the caveat with the first disadvantage. With regard to the second, instead of negotiations involving the funding, the organisation, juste retour etc, one could have negotiations after a project is up and running: I’ll give your country x% of MERLIN time in return for Y% of time on your big optical telescope.

    Small countries—which are more used to working together with other countries anyway—could band together and fund one big project between them, but in the negotiations act as essentially one big country for all practical purposes.

    Would this be a viable alternative to current long-term funding of big-science projects? Discuss.

  9. telescoper Says:


    I accept the point that Merlin and E-Merlin are unique, but that’s not in itself a good argument for continued investment. The more relevant point is the quality and quantity of the science they produce. Oversubscription rates for optical telescopes are significantly higher, a fact which has led some to suggest that Merlin/E-Merlin could be regarded as a niche rather than a vital part of our astronomy provision. It might be argued, you see, that they’re only unique because nobody else would want them.

    However, I think what should matter is what comes out the other end rather than how many applications go in the beginning. I hope the review at least tries to measure the scientific impact of the various facilities rather than the oversubscription rate or the volume of papers resulting from their use. I don’t know what would come out of that, but I suspect it’s a much more complicated picture than the “bigger is better” ideology that seems to be dominant at the moment.



  10. I didn’t mean to imply that UK astronomy is better per se, or even that it should be given a higher priority by UK astronomers. However, this aspect has cropped up in various places in the discussion, so I thought it was worth mentioning.

    What does oversubscription really mean? Suppose we have 10 jobs, and
    each job receives 50 applicants. Does that mean we have 50 times as many applicants as jobs? No, because many people apply for several jobs. Could something similar apply to optical telescopes, i.e. why not apply to several telescopes for essentially the same thing, in the hope that (at least) one of the applications will get approved? There are several similar 4–5 m telescopes in various parts of the world, run by different countries, with different TACs etc. An international collaboration could find a PI for each country.

    You can’t do that with MERLIN or the VLA. If you have a project which needs these facilities, there is no alternative. Thus, the fact that MERLIN is not as oversubscribed as, say, the Keck doesn’t necessarily mean that there is less interest, it could mean that all proposals are “real” proposals whereas a proposal for, say, the WHT might be a reserve in case no time is granted at Palomar or whatever.

    Also, MERLIN is rather non-standard, so for those not familiar with it more effort is involved in the data reduction etc whereas for optical astronomers the data from different telescopes is more similar, so the hurdle to put in an extra proposal is lower (especially since they can be recycled).

  11. […] down the line. There are several ongoing consultation exercises (see Andy’s discussion and my earlier post for details) which will no doubt be used to draw up hit lists that will be used to make further […]

  12. […] is all good news, especially because not long ago it seemed quite likely that the UK would have to make a choice between the E-ELT and the Square […]

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