Monday, February 18, 2008

Welcome back to our British friends

Gemini North Observatory on Mauna Kea struggles to dig out from snow and bureaucratic nightmares
Image Credit: John Randrup / Gemini

Last month I blogged about how a budget crisis in Britain forced our friends to withdraw their support from the Gemini Observatory, an international observatory consisting of two identical telescopes in Hawaii and in Chile.

After the British governement announced their withdrawl, the Gemini board, per contract rules, suspended all astronomical observations that were scheduled for British colleagues (the current schedule runs through July). Further reviews on the state of science in Britain led the British government to question their own actions, and they began negotiations to try and prevent their partnership from ending completely. These negotiations have played out in public and have been difficult for both sides. The ultimate fate of Britain's participation in the Gemini Observatory probably has yet to be decided.

In this political mess, it is our colleagues in Britain who have suffered. Their access to two of the larger telescopes in the world has been a crucial part to many astronomer's scientific plans and roadmaps. To have their projects terminated with little notice is, in my opinion, a rather rotten thing for the British government and the Gemini board to do. Yes, both institutions were acting within their rights as partners in the Gemini project, and the Gemini project's future has been thrown into turmoil by the British uncertainty, but it is the science that has suffered the most from this fiasco.

Last week, it was announced that existing, approved observing programs led by British scientists will be carried out. So, while the future of British science involvement in Gemini remains uncertain, most of the observations that British astronomers had been promised will be carried out. I think this is a good thing. It gives our British colleagues time to make contingency plans and find new telescopes to use. It also gives the British government and the Gemini board time to cool off a bit and enter serious, extended discussions about the future of British involvement in the Observatory. My hope is that all parties can find an amicable solution to the problem, and that future observatory partnerships can learn from the Gemini debacle.

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