OIR astronomy in the United States historically has benefited from significant private investment, with considerable progress made over the past decade in public-private collaboration and partnerships. The OIR future is certain to include ever more complex facilities.
CONCLUSION: Optimizing the long-term scientific return from the whole of the U.S. optical and infrared system requires a readjusting of the balance of the NSF-Astronomy program of support in three areas: (1) publicly operated national observatories—the combined National Optical Astronomy Observatories and Gemini facilities that currently dominate spending; (2) private-public partnerships—such as support for instrumentation at and upgrades of privately operated observatories; and (3) investment in future facilities.
Gemini is an international partnership that constructed and now operates two 8-meter optical-infrared telescopes, one in the Northern Hemisphere, the other in the Southern Hemisphere. The United Kingdom has recently announced an intention to leave the partnership in 2012, resulting in a need to replace the UK support. This change presents an opportunity to revisit the management of Gemini as it transitions to stable observatory operation.
RECOMMENDATION: To exploit the opportunity for an improved partnership between federal, private, and international components of the optical and infrared system, NSF should explore the feasibility of restructuring the management and operations of Gemini and acquiring an increased share of the observing time. It should consider consolidating the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and Gemini under a single operational structure, both to maximize cost-effectiveness and to be more responsive to the needs of the U.S. astronomical community.
With the commissioning of ALMA and the expectation for SKA in the future, radio astronomy stands poised to continue to offer considerable promise in the exploration of our universe.
CONCLUSION: The future opportunities, worldwide, in radio, millimeter, and submillimeter astronomy are considerable, but U.S. participation in projects such as the Square Kilometer Array is possible only if there is either a significant increase in NSF-Astronomy funding or continuing closure of additional unique and highly productive facilities.