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New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics
program as currently configured is not serving the needs of the U.S. astronomical community well. The level of future investment in Gemini will presumably be assessable following the next senior review.
The Gemini international partnership agreement is currently under renegotiation, and the United Kingdom, which holds a 25 percent stake, has announced its intent to withdraw from the consortium in 2012. This change presents an opportunity for the remaining partners to restructure the governance, simplify the management, and improve the responsiveness of Gemini. The goals are streamlined operations and decreased operating costs.11 The savings should be applied to offset the loss of the UK contribution while increasing the U.S. share of observing time. In addition, the Gemini partnership might consider the advantages of stronger scientific coordination with major U.S. science programs. This approach would also provide a good rationale for increasing the U.S. share of Gemini while increasing the scientific output. The committee recognized that unless a new partner is found, some increased cost for Gemini is likely, but it believes that any additional cost should not be in proportion to the added U.S. share of observing time.
NOAO has a valuable role within the OIR system. It provides merit-based access to the small telescopes under NOAO management, it administers TSIP and ReSTAR-based funds for access to a broader range of apertures and instruments, and it serves as a community advocate and facilitator for LSST and GSMT. NOAO could be called on to play a greater role in leading the OIR system, so long as it involves all relevant parties. Actions taken in response to the 2001 decadal survey and the 2006 NSF-AST senior review have led to greater attention to stakeholders in the ground-based community.
However, despite having much better relations with the user community, NOAO’s future is not without controversy. As OIR astronomy moves into the 20- to 40-meter-class telescope era, the relevance of the current NOAO facilities will diminish further, along with the level of support that can be justified. Any specific direction on how to find economies within the NOAO budget falls outside the charge of this report and will, presumably, be part of the next NSF-AST senior review. However, the committee notes some options, including consolidation of part or all of the staff and management of NOAO and Gemini; closure or privatization of some of the telescopes; closure or privatization of one of the sites; and a gradual transition in the staffing and staff responsibilities toward an operations-focused model. At the same time, NOAO could also assume a larger role in managing the federal interest in Gemini, LSST, and GSMT. Now is the time for
Gemini is now going through an exercise to cut its operating budget to 75 percent of the present figure, so that the existing partners can increase their shares with no increase in expenses. This effort is partly in response to the community’s strong opinion that the Gemini operation is the least cost-effective compared with all the other 8-meter telescopes in the world.