private capital and philanthropy for telescope projects and thereby offered strong leveraging of available public funding, which has gone to support instrumentation in exchange for public access. It also has allowed scientists to carry out larger, bolder, and riskier investigations than those typically approved by national or international peer review panels for heavily oversubscribed public telescopes. The U.S. privately operated observatories have an operations model that is leaner than the Gemini Observatory and ESO’s VLT, partially due to the provision of fewer user services. But access is restricted to the partner institutions, which may or may not include the federal government. The federally funded, publicly operated national observatories (NOAO and Gemini) provide merit-based access to OIR telescopes for the entire U.S. community and the sole access to large OIR telescopes for nearly half of U.S. astronomers, including students. Among the largest-aperture telescopes, Gemini provides 57 percent of the public-access nights; Keck, 25 percent (through the NASA partnership, with science restricted to that aligned with NASA’s strategic goals); and TSIP participating telescopes (through NOAO time allocation), 18 percent of public access time.

These various public and private elements taken together allow the United States to remain scientifically competitive in OIR astronomy even though greater public resources are being invested overseas. However, the strengths in the OIR system are balanced by serious limitations that have become exacerbated over time and that serve to frustrate and polarize the U.S. OIR community. Several fundamental problems arise repeatedly. First is the financial gulf between the aspirations of the U.S. OIR community and the limited resources of NSF, a problem when considering even minor initiatives, but one that is especially acute when raising public funds for the next generation of large telescopes. Second is the competition for the limited NSF resources between the private observatories, which operate the lion’s share of aperture for a subset of the user community, and the U.S. public observatories, which operate a small portion of the facilities with open access for all. A third problem is the competition between privately funded groups; although such competition has been generally beneficial to science historically, collaboration now seems imperative in order to realize next-generation facilities.

Figure 3.2 shows the effective ownership share in terms of the number of square meters of primary mirror of the world’s largest optical-infrared telescopes and illustrates how the share has evolved over the last two decades. Four categories of owners are shown: U.S. private (blue), U.S. federal (red), Europe (purple), and other (green). The large decrease in the federal share during the era of 8-meter-class telescopes, from 1990 to today, is noteworthy. When one takes into consideration factors such as number of smaller telescopes the comparison becomes less stark, but by any measure the role of the U.S. public sector in this arena has been contracting steadily.

The corresponding breakdown in U.S. federal (NSF) funding is divided be-

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement