Community Perceptions of the Relative Worth of Large and Small Telescopes
It is hard to think of an issue in astronomy more likely to generate controversy and bad feelings than the comparison of the scientific value of small and large telescopes. This is not just a matter of money, papers cited, and ‘impact’, for if it were the extensive literature on publishing trends would already have led to some general and widely accepted conclusions., Moreover, we would now have a coherent strategy for the future benefit of all astronomers and our science.
Although the debate usually rages around money and citations, the underlying causes of the intensity instead relate to very personal and emotional issues such as jobs, self worth and individual psychology. By psychology, I mean that some people are naturally inclined to dig very deeply into particular problems, with the goal of finally resolving them. Other people prefer to get a zeroth or first order answer to what the bigger picture looks like. Both approaches are essential to the success and vitality of any science. Coupled with these issues are individual preferences for sticking with instruments you know, or wanting to learn something completely new. Some astronomers are passionately committed to the concept of national facilities, and others are equally committed to their demise (or at least emasculation), sometimes under the assumption that money saved there would automatically go to their private observatories. These personality differences have become increasingly important because of some recent factors largely out of the control of astronomers.
We have gone through a relatively bad decade with fairly flat funding to the operations budgets of the national facilities and individual grants programs (though new money came into astronomy through new facilities such as Gemini and the Very Long Baseline Array), at a time when National Science Foundation (NSF) policies actively encouraged the overproduction of PhDs. Moreover, as we seek to build new telescopes, especially on new sites, there is increasing resistance amongst environmentalists, who often view us as being greedy in wanting all high mountains for ourselves. As environmental awareness increases in developing countries, we must be more vigilant and selective in choosing priorities.
Changes in how we do our science, how we view ourselves as scientists, and how we interact with the wider world all are necessary. I do not see any quick fixes or easy choices ahead of us, but I hope that if we can acknowledge the underlying roots of our conflicts and face squarely our inadequacies in dealing with the public, we can make the difficult decisions that will benefit astronomy as a whole.
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