Up the down staircase. Do you ever get the urge when standing at the bottom of a down-bound escalator, to make a headlong rush to the top? If yes, then perhaps you are suited to a career in modern astronomy! With the growing advances world-wide, it seems that one has to run just to stand still, and it takes a mad dash to re-emerge at the top. The older one gets, the more immobilizing can be the “what ifs” borne from experience. Will my way be blocked by some down-bound traffic? What if I fatigue half-way up? Even if I reach the top, is there a support system (maybe an ambulance!) for me? To succeed, each one of us needs to keep some of the madness that comes with youthful enthusiasm, and we need to foster a new generation with the confidence to make the dash as we pass the torch. There are some indications that I am no longer youthful, but I am still perhaps sufficiently mad and unencumbered to be of some use as the CASCA President. I certainly believe passionately that ours is a great science for humanity, in which Canada can show leadership and excel.
When is a web webbed? Like it or not, our science has become a “big science” which requires major injections of funding. Just look at the goals on which our community has agreed in the Long Range Plan (LRP). Without these investments for the long term, then the privilege we enjoy in the short term in carrying out our day-to-day research and training will vanish or be rendered irrelevant. These are reasonable investments to expect in a country like Canada, but not assured or to be taken for granted. Looking at the anticipated funding sources for the LRP – CSA, NSERC, NRC, and CFI (and with the CFI the implied provincial contributions) – reveals the challenges. Attached to the Industry Canada foot, each of these offers some toe-hold for us, but none has been designed with the end-to-end needs of astronomy research at the fore and taken together as a support network or web they are not inherently highly interconnected. Now to morph the escalator analogy, throw this chicken-footed bird into a rapidly moving torrent and ask it to make progress upstream. Lunacy you cry. Would progress be better if this “ugly duckling” had webbed feet? A search for more coherence, perhaps an emergent swan, has been the focus of an inter-agency Working Group this year whose first report is anticipated soon.
From patchwork to coherence. The LRP is the critical distillation of many possible ways forward into the essence, what we are now focused on achieving. This coherence and the ability to make hard choices need to remain the hallmark of our discipline. The LRP itself needs to be a living document, ready to respond to the creative ideas so characteristic of our community and to the changing collaborative opportunities internationally, and yet remain coherent and focused. Helping us to match resources to expectations (or vice versa!) is a new organization ACURA which harnesses the energies of our universities. While still a fledgling, it appears to have webbed feet, and perhaps with time it will help create a paradigm shift so that we can instead rise up and fly upstream. CASCA, ACURA, and Industry have come together in the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy which lobbies for LRP funding. This is a remarkable innovation that has achieved great profile for our discipline in Ottawa, wide-spread multi-party buy-in for the LRP concept, plus impressive new funding. Still it is a heady challenge. ACURA has matured and more industries have come on board, so that the Coalition is increasingly well prepared for another mad dash up the escalator; since CASCA member participation is essential, this could be your opportunity to satisfy that pent-up urge!
New opportunities. Both the LRP and the update in the Mid-term Review (MTR) have a breathtaking number of recommendations. Progress can be measured by the extent to which each has been achieved. Likewise, progress can be made by addressing individual recommendations. Two will be mentioned here.
NSERC initiative. Another step toward coherence would be to adopt envelope funding for an Astronomy and Astrophysics GSC within NSERC. This was in fact proposed in 2003 by NSERC, but it foundered for several reasons including many not really related to us (e.g., the restructuring of GSC 09 and whether it would have an envelope). The MTR subsequently discussed this and gave its endorsement. NSERC is now considering this again and this time as a mature and cohesive community we need to ensure this outcome on favorable terms to optimize this aspect of the LRP.
CSA initiative. The MTR also recommended “that CASCA conduct a study of the needs of Canadian astronomy in the area of space astrophysics to inform the next Long Range Plan.” Yes, it is time: current space projects are in hand and the lead time for developing new ones is long. A very important Canadian Space Astronomy Workshop (CSAW) is being held at the CSA on 23-24 November which will require a lot of forethought. So block off this time, prepare, and participate.