For any funding agency, the issue of deciding which small telescopes to keep and which to shut down is fraught with difficulties. But the US National Optical Astronomy Observatories, based in Tucson, Arizona, at least has the advantage of controlling a suite of observatories serving astronomers across an entire continent, making it possible to consider the provision of telescopes within an integrated system.
In Europe, where individual nations run a handful of telescopes each, it is much harder to get an overview of how best to serve the continent's astronomers. “If each country keeps operating its own telescopes independently, you will end up with a large number of telescopes doing substandard work,” says René Rutten, director of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands. He argues that European nations should close many of their existing small telescopes and run the remainder jointly, concentrating on developing the best site for optical and infrared astronomy in Europe — La Palma.
For now, such radical moves are not under serious discussion. But in March this year, an organization called OPTICON (Optical and Infrared Coordination Network for Astronomy) was established in an attempt to improve the organization of astronomy at the European level. “We look at new ways of making sure that the small telescopes do what they are good at in a cost-effective way,” says Gerry Gilmore, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge, who chairs the group.
Funded by the European Commission to the tune of 1 million euros (US$836,000) over three years, OPTICON has neither the budget, nor the political influence, to enforce better coordination. But Gilmore is optimistic that national agencies will see the merits of eliminating “needless duplication”. That streamlining process will start in earnest at OPTICON's first major meeting, to be held in Lyon in December. In the long run, says Gilmore, “it's highly likely that we will have a smaller number of more efficient telescopes”.