A. Heck (ed.), Organizations and Strategies in Astronomy 6, 11-37. © 2006 Springer. Printed in the Netherlands.
Astronomy has undergone a huge "societal transformation" in recent decades Until the latter half of the 20th century, the building and use of the so-called "great telescopes", such as the Yerkes forty-inch refractor or the Mount Palomar 5m telescope in the US, were the preserve of a tight-knit, seemingly elite group of scientists - the endowed astronomers. Entry to this unique society was through prestigious institutions. These were, for example, the large private observatories in the United States; the best known are the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Lick Observatory at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and to a lesser degree, prestigious east coast and central states institutions like the University of Chicago (which operates the Yerkes Observatory) and the University of Texas (which operates the McDonald Observatory).
In Europe, the traditions were more deeply rooted in the past. Lead institutions were a mix of many prestigious national observatories like, among others, the Observatory of Paris-Meudon (France), the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh (United Kingdom), the Hamburg-Bergedorf Observatory (Germany).
The task of erecting these great telescopes and the protocols of observational astronomy were both considered unique and exclusive skills of this rarefied group. Even in the late 1960s, when the United States National Science Foundation tried to broaden participation in ground-based optical astronomy by providing the first federally funded telescopes, the designs and utilization were based on (and constrained by) the cultural traditions and prejudices of this entrenched group. As we will show, astronomers at new national institutions found that trying to free themselves from the confines of the past "hierarchical wisdom" on how to build telescopes was difficult. This was an era when university scientists and astronomers (in contrast to working in close partnership with engineers) still played a dominant role in imposing the design and technical approach to be applied. Modern engineering and (by then) experimental practices already in use, or under consideration, at large scientific facilities such as particle accelerators or the emerging radio and space-based telescopes, were not yet part of common practice.
However, broadened access to modern telescopes (albeit still restricted largely to researchers of the "endowed" observatories and academic astronomers of an increasing number of universities with an astronomy program) was made possible by increased government funding of these facilities. Combined with the rise of competition from both Europe and Japan in the building of "Very Large Telescopes" (today, 70% of the capital in vestment in 6m to 10m facilities has been from outside the US), broader funding opportunities have transformed the way these telescopes are now built and used.
Finally, traditional observing with a major telescope was once the preserve of "lonely" astronomers whose heritage put the highest regard on the assumption of the unique "added value" a skilled observer brings to the whole process. Nowadays teams of specialists are re-defining the way we use our telescopes.
This paper discusses these changes, both as they apply to the current generation of 8m to 10m facilities, and how the sociology of future communities of ground-based telescope builders and users will change with the emergence of 20m to 100m "Extremely Large Telescopes" over the next few decades.
How do we justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to look at the stars? It is mind-boggling to consider how astronomers have managed to sell astronomy and astrophysics to the public. This esoteric-seeming science produces spectacular pictures of stars and galaxies but appears to have no other spin-offs beyond new knowledge about things we will never touch. As we discuss later in this article, there are spinoffs and mutual technological developments from astronomy that also benefit society.
Still, a great part of astronomy's popularity is due to the community's passion for understanding the universe and sharing its discoveries with the public. Astronomers also now routinely use advances in communication technology (such as posting spectacular images and data on Web pages) to distribute their work, and have learned to mobilize key individuals, groups and organization to help promote their research and their telescopes.
How do astronomers "sell" a project? What drives the funding of astronomy in modern societies? Well into the second half of the 20th century, astronomy institutions and observatories were constrained by historical narrow definitions and viewpoints of what such institutions should be and do. The duty and role of the observatory director, an individual generally entrusted with significant power, were to continue the tradition; this was often successful but sometimes at high costs and at the expense of innovation. Several ambitious, often wasteful, eclipse expeditions were mounted and just too many new telescopes were built in poor quality observing sites. Hundreds of telescope instruments were built that produced a trickle of no-impact publications. These ventures were perhaps acceptable in a climate of relative academic freedom, loose and/or permissive internal evaluation criteria and limited competition on resources, because each member or group had a "right to a share" of institutional resources. Nowadays, wasted resources cannot be hidden behind successes. The funding environment has changed for all disciplines, including astronomy. An intricate approach helps to define the background in justifying new spending.
There are four motivations that modern astronomers use to attract and justify funding for large initiatives like new telescopes. They are: the quest for knowledge, the quest for achievement, the quest for survival, and the quest for power. This set of motivations was originally proposed by R.W. Schmitt (1994). They are cast broadly and can be applied to most fundamental and applied sciences. The relative importance of these four motivators can be adjusted depending on the scale of the project, the nature of the competition, and the budget "envelope" of the funding organization. These drivers are also used to justify the continuing operation or salvage of existing facilities.
These categories also help us understand how astronomers develop strategies to get funding for advanced projects in a world where the fulfillment of many other more basic societal needs clamor for the attention of our politicians.
2.1. THE QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE: A PHILOSOPHICAL DRIVER
A facility is built, an experiment conducted, or research accomplished to satisfy the fundamental human urge to understand the universe, explain its origin, and reconstruct its evolution. Supporting arguments draw extensively on our natural curiosity and a general desire to understand the world around us. To satisfy our restless minds, we daringly attempt to answer many basic questions: where do we come from? how big is the universe? did the universe have a beginning? how old is it? are we alone? what is the origin of life? what is the fate of the universe?
The drive to answer these key questions - to "make the science case" - is not new. Nevertheless, the context is much more critical than it was in decades past. An informed public, astute politicians, and pressure to justify research expenditures all compel astronomers to express their goals in clear, well-stated "Big Questions." This is not bad, but it can lead to an erroneous assumption that when the questions are answered, the job will be done, the shop will close up and everyone will go home. A methodical effort to orient a field toward realistic goals leads to a process of research finalization (Ziman 1995). If done properly, such finalization results in a strong science case and strengthens the image of science as an ongoing process.
The strategy of making the science case has been employed successfully since the 1970s by astronomers in the US to garner funding for new initia-
tives like the Very Large Array (VLA), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). More recently, a group of American physicists and astronomers, led by physicist Michael Turner, achieved a stunning success through their remarkable document "Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos." They came up with 11 fundamental questions to be answered by scientists using a host of proposed space and ground-based capabilities (NRC 2003). The science case was considered by decision makers to be so convincing that NASA, the US Department of Energy, and the US National Science Foundation have set aside $900 million to fund a range of experiments and new facilities in space, on the ground and even underground (neutrino detector facilities). On a smaller scale, the Gemini Observatory, built by a consortium of seven international astronomy communities, duplicated that approach to seek funding for a second generation of instruments to be commissioned at the Gemini facilities. This ambitious program represents an investment of about $70 million. More than 100 Gemini community members from several countries used the "big question" approach to develop a robust justification for improvements to the observatories. The result is an ambitious new instrumentation program (Simons et al. 2004).
Today's new paradigm requires full scientific justification for advanced instrumentation and subsequent boosts in operational capabilities. Astronomers must use this science case to engage public interest and trigger the enthusiasm of the key decision makers in government agencies and the politicians who must approve the necessary funding. The broad science questions and especially their answers should have the potential to make headlines in the world's media, and allow the funding Agencies, Foundations and/or Benefactors to be acknowledged for the achievement.
2.2. THE QUEST FOR ACHIEVEMENT: AN EMOTIONAL DRIVER
A second motivation for funding research is to satisfy the need to achieve something big - to do something because it has not been done before, or doing it ten times better than before. It drives scientists to push the frontiers of knowledge, to open new areas of study, or to try new ways of doing things. Climbing a difficult mountain peak "because it is there," walking to the South Pole because no one has done it before, or going to the Moon because "America can do it" - all are examples of emotional motivation. Astronomers can use this driver in a two-pronged approach. They can claim that a new facility will be the largest or the most optimized telescope system ever built, that it will surpass what was done before, or it will give us views of the universe never before obtained.
Astronomers can also use the big questions put forth in the science case to play the technological challenge card. In the new paradigm, industries become full partners in research initiatives. Astronomers promote this industrial role when proposing the development of required technologies (new lasers and optical systems, faster computers, and more powerful software). Industries need to be at the forefront of technological expertise by participating in such projects. Mitsubishi, for example, played an important role in the success of the Subaru Telescope (built by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan). Companies are generally happy to support astronomers' arguments and help lobby the granting organizations, since funding may fulfill their own research and development objectives. Corning Glass Works, the large American glass and ceramic company, may not make significant profits from telescope mirrors, but it uses telescope-related contracts to pursue R&D efforts that benefit other activities of the company and promote its technological leadership. Since its invention of Pyrex and the building of the Palomar 5m primary mirror blank, Corning has maintained a very successful and fruitful partnership with astronomy that has benefited both industry and science. The successful co-ventures with AMEC/Coast Steel (the Canada-based company that built the dome for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and enclosures for several other large telescopes around the world) have made this company very supportive of astronomical projects. Its CEO has lobbied the Canadian government to fund that country's involvement in large astronomical projects. Industrial linkage has become a necessary condition for funding large science initiatives.
2.3. THE QUEST FOR SURVIVAL: AN ALTRUISTIC DRIVER
Humankind's needs for survival, improved quality of life, and new societal demands are powerful drivers for funding research. Astronomy is at a disadvantage since it is not an applied science and its purpose does not lead to immediate applications. Nevertheless, astronomers have been right to point out several astronomical technology-related breakthroughs resulting in useful applications and spin-offs. They range from detector technology (from the photographic emulsion to charged-coupled devices or CCDs), timekeeping technologies (positional astronomy, quasar research with long baseline radio interferometry that led to the global positioning system or GPS), to advanced image analysis techniques, the hydrostatic bearing, X-ray imaging technology in airports and elsewhere, adaptive optics in the medical field, and many others.
Not surprisingly, astronomers have at times invoked the relevance of their work to protect the Earth from the most threatening danger that can face our planet over long time scales, a collision with an asteroid or a comet that could wipe out humankind and most living species. There is substantial work going into the monitoring of near-Earth asteroids and the funding for such research is increasing.
2.4. THE QUEST FOR POWER: A POLITICAL DRIVER
Scientists can invoke national pride to show that their communities and respective countries are among the best performers in the world, or are in need of new facilities to maintain their leadership. They quickly link the health of their own discipline to the research environment of their countries. By the same token, astronomers in countries where their discipline is less favored use political arguments to show that getting involved in a new large observatory will bring prestige to the country's scientific community, help it develop new technologies, and strengthen its image and visibility in the world of high technology.
The emergence of Europe as a leader in 21si-century astrophysics has been stunning. European Union astronomers have developed a very powerful and ambitious plan in the past few decades to take the lead in ground-based astronomy. The purpose of building the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile has been clear all along: establish a solid world leadership position in astronomy and not trail the United States. The success of the VLT (and its next phase, the VLT-Interferometer) and of European astronomy in general, have certainly played a role in attracting the United States, Japan and Canada to collaborate with European Southern Observatory (ESO) in building the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a nearly billion-dollar initiative, in northern Chile. The proposed European Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL) is another even more ambitious and technically challenging project that Europe has decided to push to demonstrate that it is "second to none." In these large initiatives, the science cases are big drivers, but the goal of affirming European pre-eminence and uncontested leadership is a major driver, and the European politicians are buying into the idea.
States also fund astronomy projects to display their power and to increase the visibility of their institutions and industries. In this game, astronomy is at an advantage because, as noted earlier, the public holds a very favorable view of the discipline. It is also perceived as research with zero military content, which is partly untrue since the military funds astronomy projects. An example is the US Air Force Midcourse Experiment satellite that produced a map of the sky at infrared wavelengths to detect and distinguish human-made objects in space from celestial mid-infrared sources. Furthermore, support for astronomy is viewed and used by politicians as public support for funding space research and space experiments,
where the scale of investments and industrial or military spin-offs are many times greater.
This reasoning is most clearly summarized by former US Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's statement in The Future of Science: A Twenty-Year Outlook, (which describes a strategy to develop a plan for research facilities costing $50 million or more in the next 20 years):
"These additional world-class Office of Science user facilities and upgrades to current facilities will lead to more world-class science, which will lead to further world-class R&D, which will lead to (greater technological innovations and many other advances, which will lead to continued US economic competitiveness."
Historically, few astronomers had the wealth to fund their observatories from personal fortune. Apart from Ulugh Beg, Edmund Halley, Lord Rosse (Charles Parsons), George Ellery Hale, and a few others, astronomers do not generally come from rich families. Furthermore, their scholarly activities generally prevent them from making fortunes, and they depend on generous donors, or the state, to build the observatories they need. To achieve their goals, astronomers have developed unique skill sets, and have been surprisingly efficient at getting funding from wealthy benefactors and from government agencies.
Astronomers act as literati when they push for a better understanding of the universe, to answer fundamental questions about our cosmic origin and future. Several members of the community have been extremely effective at communicating; for example, the popularizing books of active researchers and amateur astronomers have reached a wide readership in many countries and penetrate a remarkably wide range of cultures. Some of these "scientific ambassadors" have become true media "stars." While educational and outreach efforts have been minimal until a few decades ago, present funding for large projects almost always comes with a substantial allocation for outreach and education efforts and several observatories have established true public relations offices.
Astronomers are salespersons when they push for a given project and deploy strategies to make their project the best in the field. Indeed, like almost everyone vying for public money, astronomers have to compete with colleagues in their own or other fields. Being from a relatively small scientific community, they need to make a convincing case for spending millions of dollars to benefit a few hundred users. Astronomers may dramatize the "over subscription" of observing time on existing facilities, yet most modern observatories are actively soliciting the best users to apply or are paying them generous sums to use their facilities. For example, users of the Hubble Space Telescope (and of some other space facilities) do receive relatively generous funding to analyze and publish their data. This can be awkward when the relatively small size of the community indicates that there could be overcapacity. This is when astronomers play other powerful cards like strong technology drivers or the close involvement of companies in high technology development. The promotional pitch knits together several effective arguments. This "transdisciplinarity" - the coalescence of elements from a number of fields like cosmology, high-energy physics and computational physics, as done in Connecting Quarks With the Cosmos - sells well and gets funding (Ziman 1995).
Finally, astronomers are the courtiers who must use the right manner to "flatter" those in power and those with the resources astronomers need to build their observatories. This has to be done with art, skillfulness and a certain degree of shrewdness. Indeed no space mission to Titan, no new large-millimeter telescope on the Atacama Altiplano, no next generation 30m telescope can be funded without generous donors or science agencies, or both. Astronomy has had a remarkable succession of benefactors: Ulugh Beg (1393-1449) who founded the Samarkand Observatory, King Frederick II of Denmark who supported Tycho Brahe, the multi-millionaire entrepreneurs Charles T. Yerkes (Yerkes Observatory) and Andrew Carnegie (Mount Wilson Hooker 100-inch telescope and Palomar 200-inch telescope), the Rockefeller Foundation (Palomar 200-inch telescope), banker William J. McDonald (University of Texas McDonald 100-inch Telescope), petroleum magnate W.M. Keck (10m Keck Telescopes) and more recently Intel's CEO Gordon Moore (along with spouse Betty Moore) (the Thirty Meter Telescope Project). However, the newest projects have become so large that they surpass the scale of the most generous private donations and even the research budgets of national funding agencies (Mountain 2004).
4. A New Evolving Partnership and Shifting Roles: How to Deliver the Science
In contemplating a 4m Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) telescope "for the masses" in the early sixties, astronomers at the new national observatory in Tucson found that trying to free themselves from the confines of the past "hierarchical wisdom" on how to build telescopes was impossible (Learner 1986; Mountain 1999). This was an era when university scientists and astronomers still played a dominant role in imposing the design and technical approach to be applied (Learner 1986; McCray 2004). Federal government accountability for these public designs dictated a technological conservatism that inhibited technical innovation in the design of both the
KPNO and Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) 4m designs (Kloeppel 1983).
Some US university groups, on the other hand, acted as creative factions by exploring more innovative approaches. For example, the University of Arizona put into place its Multi-Mirror Telescope, and at the University of California, Jerry Nelson began to experiment with segmented primary mirrors which would eventually lead to the Keck telescopes. Interestingly, publicly funded European institutions, perhaps because they did not have to contend with what appeared to be a hegemony of the elite US astronomical traditionalists (principally at non-federally-funded institutions such as California Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Institution of Washington), found themselves more open to experimentation on new approaches to telescope design and construction. For example, the Royal Observatory Edinburgh was able to "experiment" with a lightweight 3.8m infrared telescope (United Kingdom Infrared Telescope - UKIRT) on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, using a primary mirror that weighed three times less than the KPNO 4m. The new European Southern Observatory began its crucial forays into active optics with its New Technology Telescope (Wilson 2003). Common-user adaptive optics systems were built and commissioned on the ESO 3.6m telescope in La Silla and on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea in the 1990s. Perhaps more significantly, these three institutions actively encouraged the participation of professional engineers (and industry) in these design activities at a very early stage.
As astronomers approached the next generation of 8m to 10m telescopes, both the technical challenges and the costs of the projects became more daunting. In parallel, the emergence of a strong partnership (particularly in the US) between the federal government and space and aerospace industries led to the development of a new technical approach. More importantly, management tools such as systems engineering and cost accountability through rigorous management for large complex projects were introduced.
In the US, the traditional hegemony of university-trained scientists prevailed until the mid-to-late 1980s. In California Jerry Nelson was allowed to experiment and perfect his segmented design, and the project used teams of scientists to work on the design and frame the scientific case to raise the requisite funding. However, once the $100+ million dollar project was funded and approved, Jerry Smith (an aerospace manager) was appointed to run the entire Keck Telescopes project. Smith subsequently placed the entire activity under tight project management and system engineering control-even the Project Scientist, Jerry Nelson, worked for the project manager. A team of engineers then built both Keck telescopes, and one of the key metrics of the Keck Observatory's success was not just that it was the biggest pair of telescopes in the world, but that it had also been built within budget and on schedule. At the magnitude of this project, even private foundations were now requiring strict accountability. This was in stark contrast to most previous observatory projects where independent project management and accounting control from the start throughout the whole project had not been done. (McCray 2004 discusses this in Giant Telescopes, p. 55.)
What many astronomers did not realize was that these were well-known lessons for those in the particle physics community and in the emerging field of large interferometer gravitational wave observatories such as LIGO (Gal-ison 1997; Westphal 2001; Riordan 2001; Collins 2003). In addition, despite the emergence of large space projects, the sociology and expectations of the astronomical community, particularly in the US, were still dominated by a self-referencing oligarchy based at prestigious US universities. In fact, the discovery of significant spherical aberration in the Hubble Space Telescope was taken as evidence that the changed methodologies for building large and expensive telescopes was in fact flawed.
A few years before the completion of the Keck telescopes, the Gemini 8m Telescopes Project became the fulcrum in the US of this entire transition in ground-based astronomy. Initially the US National Observatory's efforts to build a "very large telescope" had floundered on acrimonious arguments between prominent astronomers on the correct approach to take. In order to give the project a global significance, AURA Inc. (the university consortium running the National Observatory) and the National Science Foundation brought in international partners (initially the United Kingdom and Canada). Since Gemini was proposed to have two 8m telescopes, one in each hemisphere (on Hawai'i and in Chile), cost accounting and performance became paramount requirements for this entirely government-funded project. Controversy erupted almost immediately as the consortium attempted to pick a technology for its primary mirrors.
A team of engineers and scientists guided by a Science Requirements Document undertook the majority of the early design work. They were required to work to a tight, fixed budget. After a competitive procurement, this team selected a meniscus mirror technology. This was also the technology choice of the four European VLTs. Gemini, along with the Japanese 8m Subaru telescope project, had selected their meniscus mirrors from Corning Glass Works. (As mentioned earlier, Corning had a long tradition of providing telescope mirrors and developed unique glass technologies for this application.) Nevertheless, part of the US telescope establishment expected Gemini to use mirrors developed by the University of Arizona Mirror Laboratory. An independent inquiry was called, followed six months later by an extensive public design review of the project's chosen design approach. At the inquiry, much was made of the then recent Hubble Space Telescope flaw, which many in the US community believed was the result of "engineers running away with the project."
However, at the design review, the meniscus approach prevailed. It was judged as "quite capable" of meeting the Gemini science requirements. The project proceeded using a more "corporate style" where management and systems engineering became as prominent, robust, and unavoidable as the project's science requirements (McCray 2004).
In a sign of the new paradigm of strict accountability, the entire project underwent a two-year intensive review by the NSF's Office of the Inspector General (NSF's auditors) after Gemini was completed. Although there was some controversy over definitions of some activities as construction, the telescope project management methodologies and delivered results were judged as "adequate" (an accolade by auditing standards). However, the management of Gemini's instrument program (which - as a concession to the participating partners - had been run by each institution or University as a "traditional" scientific principal investigator-led activity) was judged as "woefully inadequate." The whole ground-based sociological paradigm was firmly shifted out of the domain of telescope and instrument building as a scientific endeavor, and pushed into the realm of a tightly managed project, whose objective was to "deliver" a facility to a scientific community client on time and within budget.
Gemini was not alone in following the "corporate" approach. ESO followed a very similar paradigm but with little or no resistance from the European astronomical community. The impressive VLT facilities are a direct result of this paradigm shift. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese contracted with Mitsubishi to deliver an entire 8m observatory, Subaru, to their astronomical community. ALMA is developing along similar lines for its respective sponsors.
As our communities now contemplate the next generation of 20m to 100m "extremely large" telescopes, costing anywhere between $400 million and about $1 billion apiece, this changed relationship between "the scientists" and a team of engineers and project managers will become even more sharply defined. To quote from a recent article on the history of the defunct Superconducting Super Collider (SSC),
"The conflicts which erupted between the high-energy physicists and engineers hailing from the military-industrial complex during the abortive construction of the Superconducting Super Collider can be understood as another episode in [the] continuing struggle and, perhaps short-lived reversion to an earlier mode of social and political organization of the scientific enterprise. At the multi-billion dollar scale of the SSC (roughly equivalent to the Manhattan Project in constant dollars), powerful forces came back into play that had not figured at the hundred-million-dollar scale of Fermilab and SLAC [Stanford Linear Accelerator Center]"
Optical/infrared ground-based astronomy is in a transition. We have erected the "hundred-million-dollar scale" 8m to 10m telescopes, and now have billion-dollar-scale ambitions. To realize them, the sociology of astronomers, as a group will need to change: they are going to have to start thinking and behaving like space scientists or post-SSC particle physicists. As the LIGO Team members discovered when they decided to build their gravitational wave detectors "like bridges" rather than physics experiments, astronomers will have to relinquish cherished notions of individual and even institutional dominance (Collins 2003). Private foundations or consortia of government agencies (or a combination of the two), are going to expect that as a group, astronomers will design and build their future ground-based telescopes "like bridges"-structures that do not collapse nor bankrupt the research system.
5. Shifting from Gentleman Astronomer to Experimental Team
In the opening chapter of the remarkable book Image and Logic, Peter Galison (1997) describes a meeting of particle physicists in 1976 where the physicists were decrying the use of "computers" to scan their plates, and the growing reliance on "data pipelines and archives" to do their science. As a field, observational astronomy is on the cusp of a similar change, both in the way observations are now being done, and in the whole sociology of what constitutes "an observation."
Was this article helpful?