Self-Study Report

prepared for the External Review of the Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

June 2012

Executive Summary

Complete report in PDF (3.7 MB)

The Institute for Astronomy (IfA) of the University of Hawaii is one of the premier astronomy institutes in the world, and it is looking forward to a great future. In particular it is well positioned to assume a leading role in several upcoming major telescope projects on the Hawaiian islands. However, it is also facing severe challenges.

This document is the result of a faculty retreat process that started in 2011 after the new IfA director took office. Working groups produced a number of white papers which were discussed at a retreat at the end of September. The results of the retreat have been melded into this self-study report.

The overarching vision for the future of IfA is still very much in line with the overall goals set out in the executive summary of our 2001 self-study report: (a) play a leadership role in the next generation of the world’s most powerful ground-based telescopes, most notably the TMT, ATST and Pan-STARRS projects; (b) strengthen the activities on the neighbor islands of Hawaii and Maui, in particular building up a TMT instrument center of excellence in Hilo and enabling ATST technology development in Maui; (c) maintain and strengthen a first-rate research program, mainly by attracting excellent new faculty members in a highly competitive environment; (d) improve the visibility and efficiency of the IfA teaching and education program in a University systems approach; and (e) strengthen public outreach with a focus on fundraising activities.

The major conclusions of this self-study are as follows:

(1) For several years, IfA has been significantly underfunded, with the result that the flexible funds necessary for a healthy first-rank research program have been needed to pay salary increases, and vacant faculty positions could not be filled. IfA has been granted a moderate increase in its annual budget allocation and some other support measures to help alleviate these deficiencies. However, the outlook for extramural federal funding is challenging.

(2) We have to fill a significant number of new faculty positions in the next few years, most importantly to focus a vigorous research program towards the powerful new facilities (Pan- STARRS, ATST and TMT) and to remain competitive on the international scene. To this end the IfA director has negotiated a number of incentives. IfA will be provided with three new faculty position numbers. For a period of five years all retirements within the IfA will be returned to IfA for subsequent rehires, and there will be a 50:50 split of reasonable start-up costs between UH and IfA for the next four faculty hires. Several retirements are expected in the next few years. We are in the process of filling two junior faculty positions in a broad and open search. Further targeted hires supporting ATST on Maui and instrumentation in Hilo should follow as soon as possible.

(3) To optimize the cooperation between IfA and UH Hilo and to fully utilize the capabilities of the IfA Hilo building, an instrument center of excellence should be formed there. This center will play an important role in the institutionalized partnership in the TMT project (see below), and also for all telescopes on Mauna Kea. This will require extra funding for operations, investment and personnel, i.e., technicians, engineers and most importantly new faculty members with strong instrumentation backgrounds. In view of the significant development possibilities in the UH Hilo Physics & Astronomy department and the plans to create an instrument specialization for the UH Hilo astronomy undergraduate program, this activity should ideally be funded through a joint Program Change Request between IfA and UH Hilo. In the long run this center of excellence should radiate out into the Hilo community and economy, by teaching the important skills required for all telescopes on the neighbor islands. It should also be the nucleus of high-tech optical/ mechanical engineering spin-off companies.

(4) The highest priority for future development of IfA is to enable the State of Hawaii to become a full partner in the TMT project, ideally with a role comparable to the other US universities (Caltech, UC) involved in the project. This would require a project share of about 5%, in addition to the currently discussed UH fraction of observing time, and would give UH a seat on the TMT board and the important scientific advisory bodies. The necessary funding would require proportional contributions to both capital and operations. Part of this could be financed through in-kind contributions to the telescope infrastructure, and also by the Hilo instrument center, which could serve as the central facility for integrating, testing, calibrating and servicing TMT instruments.

(5) Obviously, the ATST as the largest ground-based telescope project currently funded by NSF, will enable tremendous new possibilities for solar research and technology development. Night observing capabilities on ATST may help to strengthen the solar-stellar research area. To this end it will also be important to strengthen the existing IfA solar group and to focus it towards the ATST.

(6) Pan-STARRS, a unique facility under IfA leadership and control, will have relevance for many different science areas, from asteroids to cosmology: thus it will be important to bring PS into the scientific focus of IfA. Funding of PS1+2 plus ultimately PS4 will be a major issue. In the baseline, PS4 will replace the UH 2.2 m telescope on Mauna Kea. However, the 2.2 m telescope needs to be maintained as a lively scientific facility at least over the next five years.

(7) Members of the IfA faculty, although hired mainly as research staff, are providing a substantial teaching contribution to the UH system. They are responsible for the full astronomy PhD graduate program and a significant fraction of the undergraduate teaching in physics and astronomy. However, these teaching activities are still not well enough recognized within the UH system. Together with the planned new specialization in Hilo and new synergies with the Physics and Astronomy department in Manoa, IfA is aiming for a better integrated, UH systemwide approach to physics and astronomy teaching. To this end we have started to plan a new undergraduate program in Astronomy and Astrophysics in Manoa, in cooperation with UH Hilo, as well as a reorganization of the graduate program into a “School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.”

(8) Astronomy provides an excellent basis for public outreach and in particular fundraising activities. Outreach and friend-raising activities have been significantly increased in size and quality over the last decade, but need better, institutionalized coordination. Fundraising and development is required for several of the high-priority goals described above and will therefore be a priority for the future.