Shutting down science

I have been given an opportunity to spend some time during the coming months studying the politics and practice of shutting down large-scale scientific facilities. The topic has been in the back of my head or kept in the desk drawer labeled “research ideas” (or whatever metaphor one could use for the things you might possibly want to do in the future) for quite some time now. Now, thanks to my taking part in a new project at the Pufendorf Institute here at the Lund University, I will start exploring the issue.

One of the themes I am particularly interested in is to look at cases where you have different groups arguing over the existence of these facilities. One group could be arguing along the lines of “this facility is outdated, it needs to be shut down so that we can divert funding to more cutting edge facilities”. This perhaps feeds into the increased monitoring of the production at scientific facilities that are an increasing part of the way scientific resources are allocated and planned for today1, something that my colleague Olof Hallonsten and myself have started calling “scientific facilitymetrics” to denote the fact that not only individual researchers or departments are evaluated today, facilities are also being measured and monitored.

Arguments against shutdown can come from extra-mural interest groups. When a facility has been successful in getting support – on the level of the local community, or on a national level – these groups can become an organized resistance to the policy of shutting down. One example is the David Dunlap Observatory, where a local community protested against a decision to shut the observatory down. “It’s not just about science — though that is important — it’s about place, people and community” as one commenter argued. The activities against closing down this observatory was, apparently, lively:

March to DDO on Hillsview Drive

[photo: Rod Potter]

[video: Rod Potter]

A possible future debate will be on whether to deorbit the Hubble Space Telescope, where one type of argument can look like this.

The ReSTAR committee is an example of intra-scientific arguments for for the continued use of telescopes that were once large but progressively becomes relatively smaller. (ReSTAR, by the way, was pointed out to me by a commenter on the DDO post, showing one of the benefits of blogging your research even when you are in the early phases of research.) Its findings are, among other things, that

Small and mid-size telescopes continue to produce innovative science in themselves, and to provide precursor and followup
observations that enhance the scientific productivity of larger telescopes. Small and
mid-size telescopes also enable scientific investigations that are not possible on
larger telescopes

and that

Small and mid-size telescopes contribute additionally to the discipline through their
training and education functions and as test beds for innovative new instrumentation
and techniques.

Two main themes emerge from the science programs presented. First and foremost is the
clear picture of the important science that can and will be carried out on modest-sized
telescopes. While it is sometimes the case that “bigger is better” when it comes to
astronomical observing, the realities of limited resources and facilities demand that not
all observations will take place on the largest telescopes. Furthermore, the increased
flexibility, agility, amount of telescope time, and sometimes instrumentation of smaller
telescopes often make them the preferred mode for carrying out many programs.

The report, throughout, uses the metaphor of “workhorse instruments” to describe the uses of telescopes in the 2-4 meter range. Time domain astronomy and surveys are important parts of modern astronomy.

Also, the report looks at training. Small telescopes make it possible to gain experience in the practice of astronomical observation, as compared to large telescopes, where students

do not typically have the opportunity to participate significantly in the technical operation of the instrument or the telescope – very often they are miles from the telescope during the observations. The development of students’ engineering knowledge, as well as the problem solving experiences they gain from telescope and instrument operations in an observatory setting, are invaluable for ensuring the health of the field in the future.

Perhaps the most important skill for young astronomers to learn, particularly in groundbased
astronomy environments where weather and technical problems greatly affect the quality of observations, is to teach students how to examine data critically. Seeing firsthand what conditions or problems affect the calibration of data, for example, and learning how a simple technical problem can preclude needed data from being obtained, are experiences that almost every observational astronomer has taken away from an observing run. On larger telescopes, queue scheduling, service observing, and, to a lesser extent, remote observing compromise this learning experience.

  1. U. Grothkopf et al., “Using the h-index to Explore the Scientific Impact of the VLT,” The Messenger 128 (June 1, 2007): 62.U. Grothkopf and S. Stevens-Rayburn, “Introducing the h-Index in Telescope Statistics,” in Library and Information Services in Astronomy V, vol. 377 (presented at the Library and Information Services in Astronomy V, ASP Conference series, 2007), 86. J. Madrid et al., “The Development of HST Science Metrics,” in Organizations and Strategies in Astronomy Volume 6, 2006, 133-143. S. Stevens-Rayburn and U. Grothkopf, “Creating Telescope Bibliographies Electronically — Are We There Yet?,” in Library and Information Services in Astronomy V, vol. 377, 2007, 53 []
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