Brussels, 26 Oct 2004
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has formulated a number of recommendations on astronomy that propose closer international collaboration on large scale research projects.
The recommendations are contained in a report based on the findings of two workshops on large scale projects and programmes in astronomy and astrophysics, which were organised at the request of the German delegation to the OECD.
'Earth- and space-based instruments often cost hundreds of millions of dollars, require more than ten years for design and construction, and are often exploited by a worldwide community,' states the German proposal. 'Increasingly, projects and facilities are planned and implemented on an international basis, yet at the moment there are only ad-hoc ways to agree on priorities or cost sharing.'
While enormous progress has been made over the past few decades in astronomy and astrophysics, a number of 'Big Questions', for example concerning the distribution or origin of life, remain unanswered. These questions define the need for new projects and programmes, according to the report, and because of the enormity of the projects, international cooperation is essential.
The report recognises that collaboration may not be attractive to some because of the autonomy that must be sacrificed in order for it to work. However, multi-national projects will lead to access to cutting-edge equipment and technology for all, and will avoid the costly duplication of research.
If countries are to work together, there should be a strategy, observes the OECD. It should therefore be the task of funding bodies to draft a balanced, integrated and globally coordinated roadmap, based on advice from the scientific community. Links to other relevant fields, including high energy and nuclear physics, earth sciences and biology should be kept open, while communication between the agencies for ground and space-based observation should be stepped up.
The recommendations make the case for encompassing both basic and applied research in the selection of astronomy and astrophysics projects, or as the recommendations call it, 'special purpose' and 'general purpose' projects. 'The selection and operation of new projects should be based both on the science case and on the opportunities for serendipitous discovery,' states the report.
Global strategic planning would not only give agencies a broader perspective, but would also enable smaller countries to see what is being planned elsewhere, and perhaps identify areas for participation. 'The maximum benefit would come from a strategic view that would transcend the boundaries of individual projects and possibly even subjects,' states the OECD report.
Another area identified as in need of collective thinking and action is data management. The huge volume of digital information flowing from new observatories raises the challenge of collecting, using, storing and sharing data. Progress has been made towards the establishment of a 'virtual observatory', but agencies and governments have to recognise that this is a long term issue, states the report. It therefore requires the coordination of plans on a long term basis in order to transform existing virtual observatory collaboration into a fully representative global activity. New projects must also take this aspect of their research into account at the earliest planning stages, consulting potential users in the process, the report recommends.
Before tackling individual projects and research priorities, a number of general issues must first be decided, emphasises the report. These relate primarily to legal, organisational and managerial issues. The 'major issue of principle' regarding access and participation by countries outside the inner core of initial advocates of this initiative - not just in terms of facilities, but also in the research and construction phases - must be settled at the outset, concludes the OECD. For access to the report, please visit: http:///www.oecd.org/sti/gsf