Austria Joins the European Southern Observatory - ad Astra per Aspera

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Rudof Albrecht, Paul Beck , Gernot Groemer, and Norbert Frischauf

esologo.jpg“Ad Astra per Aspera” – They say that the road to the stars is rough. This old Latin proverb could not be truer than for Austria’s long journey to finally accede to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in summer 2008. After the decision by the Austrian federal government to join ESO (on April 23, 2008), the ESO council also gave the green light on June 4, 2008. Now the only hurdle is the ratification by the Austrian parliament. When this ratification is complete, it will mark the successful ending of a 30-year-long astronomical zigzag course to join one – if not the – world-class astronomical organization.

At this point, we will stop for a moment and invite you join us in looking at this scientific thriller. We will do this from a variety of perspectives to shed light on the different questions, misunderstandings, and motivations that have emerged over the last 30 years. Our analysis will be three-dimensional, just like space is. With the help of an Austrian working at ESO, we will provide an inside-out perspective, trying to describe ESO in its fundamentals, what it does, and how it works. Next, we will add an outside-in viewpoint, offered by an Austrian astronomer who will describe why he considers the Austrian accession to ESO an important scientific step. And finally we will finish up by taking a look into the future, offered by an Austrian student who will realize his expectations as a student of astronomy.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} But before we go into the details of the Austrian-ESO science mystery it is imperative to set up the background knowledge framework and to tackle a potential misunderstanding that has jeopardized Austria’s ESO-accession over the last 30 years. This relates to the question: “What do astronomers do and what role does ESO play?”


Question 1: How do astronomers work?

One of the most common stereotypes about astronomers is based on “historic” depictions of old grey-bearded men serenely gazing through telescopes. Maybe that’s the reason why "stargazers" used to enjoy the second highest life-expectancy right next to librarians. Sorry to bust that myth: Astronomers have become highly specialized physicists using state-of-the-art gear, which sometimes becomes available to our society many years after its first use in science.

The quality of our science depends on the tools we are using – hence there is an open scientific competition for who gets to use the best telescopes, those that allow for higher spatial or spectral resolution, precise timing, light collection capability (translating into deeper penetration of the cosmos), and other benchmarks. A researcher might spend weeks in preparing a high-quality proposal to use a world-class space telescope for a few hours of observation time and then spend a year or more of analysis to understand the data and publish a paper. And that is exactly where ESO comes into play: Weather conditions, the inaccessibility of the southern celestial hemisphere, and the lack of world-class telescopes force Austrian observers to apply to external institutions for access to better facilities.
In the past, the observation time ESO could allocate to external astronomers (not from member countries) was sparse at best – so finding a collaborator at an institution  in a member country was the only way out of the dilemma. This is intrinsically a bad precondition for pursuing multi-year research programs.

The process of having scientific panels review the technical quality of  proposals will not change, but access to the world-class research infrastructure will dramatically improve. For Austrian astronomers, ESO membership means not only unrestricted access to ESO's world-leading observational facilities – including the world's most advanced optical telescope, the Very Large Telescope, and full participation in the quasi-global ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) project -- but also the possibility of participating in future ESO projects, including the construction of ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope project (E-ELT).



Supernova SN1987A

OK. At that point it should be clear that an astronomer is not a backyard scientist who owns a telescope and gazes at stars, but that astronomy is a scientific discipline that requires world-class instruments at non-light-polluted sites with optimal weather conditions. Only then can an astronomer be sure of having squeezed out the last photons for deep-sky observations of faint nebulas and galaxies, or having managed to obtain a broad enough spectrum to predict the future behavior of a supernova (like SN1987A), or having had a sharp enough image of a celestial body to understand variations in its atmosphere due to weather conditions (such as those caused by global sandstorms on Mars) or due to the impact of a comet (like Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter). Of course, these world-class instruments come at a price – €24.1 million looks pretty impressive at first glance, but in fact this is closer to a good bargain when one takes a look behind the scenes.

Aerial view of the Paranal summit and the fourth VLT Unit Telescope

Question 2: Why should I pay a €24.1 million membership fee?

Austria buys into a multitude of scientific facilities mainly located at the Paranal and La Silla sites in Chile for a price tag of €24.1 million – to be paid over a time span of 15 years, with the option of reducing the fee by 25 percent by means of in-kind contributions such as software development and hardware contributions. In additional to this entrance fee, an annual contribution of €3 million is envisioned. The Ministry for Science and Research has now declared its full political will to join ESO, and the ESO council gave the green light on June 4, 2008, with only ratification by the Austrian parliament pending. Before that, the first reaction from the official side was: “€24 million  plus annual fees for maybe 40 professional astronomers in Austria is way out of proportion!” – nearly bringing the negotiations to a halt after several decades. Most certainly, industrial policy arguments provided the final push for Federal Minister for Science and Research Johannes Hahn to finally join the European organization. Remarkably, it seems fairly difficult to find contractors who are eligible and willing to contribute to the 25 percent in-kind dues – after all, this means €6 million of contracts available exclusively to highly specialized companies, rendering the management of the industrial return a mammoth task for scientists. For comparison, the total amount available for the domestic aerospace R&D sector via the Austrian Space Agency is roughly €9 million – in a field where there is a well-established industrial infrastructure available, including ground applications like remote sensing, GPS applications, and costly space hardware research.

In addition, Austrian governmental payment policies with respect to fundamental sciences are not always compatible with the needs of ESO. For instance, after 30 years of negotiation, ESO wants to see the first payment milestone fulfilled within this year – a time frame the Austrian government hoped to postpone several years into the future. Within the domestic Austrian science community, this policy of overly delayed payments has become a miserable tradition, but it might be a potential point of conflict with ESO. Besides Austria’s direct contributions to ESO, it is still unclear how the domestic research framework for astronomy will evolve in the long run, although minor grants have been allocated for beefing-up the national institutes.

Evening view of La Silla (The dome of the Swiss 1.2-m Leonhard Euler Telescope and the adjacent building are seen in the foreground, immediately to the right of the ramp leading to the ESO 3.6-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) in its octogonal enclosure), 

Still, all other alternatives to this process seem to be unacceptable, like re-negotiations, etc., and after all, one should not forget that Austrian astronomers will soon have much better access to ESO’s infrastructure and hence can do better science. And that, at the end of the day, is all that matters from the research perspective.

In the end, €24.1 million, paid over a period of 15 years, should not be considered a financial show stopper. But of course the question always remains – and needs to be answered – what do I get for my €24.1 million? Most likely nobody would complain if such an amount were to be spent for any infrastructure project. When Galileo, the European civilian Satellite Navigation System, was criticized for its costs of €3.2 billion, the European commission had an easy-to-understand comparison at hand, stating that 150 km of Autobahn would cost roughly the same amount as Galileo. This was a sufficient argument –also because Galileo is an infrastructure project – and no one really complained about the costs anymore. Now, €24.1 million would account for something like 1.1 km of Autobahn, which is much less than the length of a typical construction site that causes the “beloved” summer vacation traffic jams. But then astronomy is not an infrastructure project, but fundamental science. So the real question is: “Do we need astronomy and is it worth the amounts that are spent at it?”

Question 3: Why do we do astronomy?

Notwithstanding the positive shift in the public perception of astronomy during recent years, there is still considerable hesitation when it comes to supporting and funding astronomy and astrophysics. There is the nagging question: what is it all good for? And there is the nagging doubt, especially among civil servants: if I support astronomy, how do I justify this to my supervisor?

Let’s go back in history and examine what we know about our predecessors and how we appreciate their achievements.

Of course there are the tangible things like buildings, roads, amphitheatres, pyramids. Impressive. They built all this without modern machinery. And there are the military achievements such as battles, creating states and empires, suppressing other people. But if we ask what it is that we really admire, the answer is: the "useless things" that they produced. Greek drama. Roman poetry. The thoughts of Aristoteles. Philosophy. Ethics. The great religions. In fact, we regard the Borgias with disdain, even though they were ruthless realists, and we really admire Galileo, although his realization that the Earth in fact moved was "useless" in the extreme at the time. About as useless as our realization that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, which means there must be an unknown force that is responsible for this. We call it, for lack of a better term, "dark energy." Will this ever be as useful for humankind as Galileo’s finding has been (for space travel)? Will we, perhaps, be able to tap into dark energy and get real use out of it? Impossible to tell at the present time. But one thing is certain: If we do not investigate it, we will certainly never be able to utilize it. So it is prudent to investigate. It is prudent to do astronomy. It is wise to join ESO.

Three questions – three answers. Three is a magical number, easy to overlook, easy to grasp, easy to remember. If we had been able to compress the issue of accessing ESO into three bullet points, Austria might have joined ESO right at the start. But the story evolved in circles and waves, like a thrilling football match, except that this time there was only a handful of spectators and not 50,000 like at the final of the European soccer championship in Vienna. But then who would have been willing to watch a football match over a period of 30 years?

I hope that, by this time, we have piqued your interest enough that we can take you for a closer look at the long journey of Austria’s accession to ESO. Now that the knowledge framework has been properly set up in the preceding pages, we will take a quick tour through history, covering 30 years in a bit more than 600 words.

Austria and ESO – the arduous journey

The idea of joining ESO is by no means a novel one. ESO was formed in 1964, but this was a time when not every office in the Institute for Astronomy of the University of Vienna had its own telephone, and a long distance call to a foreign country was expensive and required operator intervention. So it is not totally surprising that Austria was not among the founding countries of ESO.

However, by 1970, when one of the authors (RA) had his first observing run at La Silla, then the main Observatory of ESO in Chile, it became abundantly clear to him and to several other young astronomers in Austria that, without access to these high-tech observing facilities, the long-term future of astronomy in Austria was bleak. Unfortunately this view was not shared by some other Austrian astronomers, who were concerned that along with a membership in ESO would come other obligations – publication in English and in international refereed journals (rather than in an in-house journal), application for observing time to international peer review committees (rather than "owning" a telescope and not having to justify its use), developing a strategy for scientific research (rather than just doing what came to mind).

At that time there was not much support from the government either; astronomy as a science was not held in high regard. For example, when we bought a digital oscilloscope in the US we applied for exemption from import duties. This was denied with the argument that “hieramts” in the Austrian customs office it was not at all obvious why astronomers should have a legitimate need for an oscilloscope. This was at a time when astronomical research institutes were building the first electronically controlled photometers and spectrographs. What was most annoying was the fact that we were not asked to provide justification, but that astronomers were told by the customs people what they could and could not have!

Anyway, those days are gone. Hopefully.

It would exceed the available room to give a detailed account of the attempts to join ESO, starting seriously in the mid-’70s, and continuing until last year. Suffice it to say that the attempts came to naught for a variety of reasons. The common denominator and root cause was a certain lack of high/highest level direction, which of course is not conducive to decision making on the administrative level. Without “allerhöchste Willensbildung” (“a statement of intent by the emperor”) in the sense of Robert Musil, all movement will come to a standstill. And it did. For more than 30 years.

Hubble Space Telescope

Granted, during recent years things had become easier. Thanks to the spectacular success of several high profile astrophysics missions, in particular the Hubble Space Telescope, the Austrian public (and along with it, presumably even the customs office) realized that astronomical research did not consist only of gazing at stars throughout the night, but was a high tech endeavour on a par with high energy physics; and the methodology being used was oriented more towards aerospace than, say, philosophy.

There has also been a considerable shift in the perception of natural science by the general public. During the immediate post-war period and well into the ’60s, the priorities were on rebuilding the Austrian infrastructure and on improving the quality of life for the Austrian people. In those efforts Austria succeeded magnificently. The unfortunate by-product was a certain disdain for “useless sciences,” which offered no obvious contributions. This was also exemplified by the slow and hesitant way in which Austria joined the European Space Agency. However, in the case of ESA there was the tangible advantage of industry contracts, for which Austria was now eligible to compete. Of course the same was true, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale, for membership in ESO: the Very Large Telescope, which was built about 10 years ago, had a price tag of about €1000 million!

Following the legendary directive of the former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who corrected Ulrich Bruner, a journalist of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation in front of the TV cameras on February 24, 1981, by stating, “Lernen S' a bisserl Geschichte, Herr Redakteur!” (“You’d better learn a bit of history, Mr. Editorial Journalist!”), we have now taken a closer look at the historical background of this science-thriller. Now it is best to look into the future. And who could be better positioned to assess the future perspectives for astronomy students than someone who studies astronomy himself? Let’s hear what he has to say.

Perspectives for Students due to ESO

Science means exchange! The days when you studied and worked in your scientific position in the same institute until you retired are long past. The enthusiasm for science, as well as the ability and the will to go abroad on short, middle, and long timescales to participate in international collaborations such as observing runs or postdoc positions – these are now building blocks on the way to a promising career in science.

ESO Headquarters in Garching, Germany

Joining ESO will make life easier not only for the established senior scientists, but also for students. It will simplify access to world-class telescopes at one of the best astronomical observing sites on this planet. Especially PhD students, who need observational data for their scientific work, are given good chances to be granted observation time. These new possibilities will have a significant influence on the topics and the quality of the scientific undertakings, and will increase the competitiveness of Austrian students within the international astronomical community when looking for postdoc positions.

Besides better chances for PhD students to get high quality data for their research work, ESO offers the opportunity for young PhD students to work for 2 out of their (usually) 3 years of doctoral studies at the ESO facilities in Chile or Garching/Germany. Although this has only been possible for a few Austrian students in the past, in the future this opportunity will be available to a much large number of young Austrian astronomers. According to reports from colleagues who have participated in this program, this exchange is scientifically very stimulating and is a  good preparation for a successful scientific career in a variety of fields.

Austria entering ESO, one of the world’s leading astronomical organizations, will have more than an objective, measurable effect on the scientific environment in Austria. Until now, we had to apply in the shadow of the various ESO member states. Now, we can join the club and are able to work independently within the infrastructure of ESO. Austrian astronomy has grown up!

… and more than 30 years of scientific awareness raising, political interventions, and full-caliber negotiations of Austria accessing ESO have come to a successful end – even though the road to the stars was much rougher than expected!


This article is a collaborative work by the authors Rudof Albrecht, Paul Beck , Gernot Groemer, and Norbert Frischauf.