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‘Telescope time without tears’

Form an orderly queue here: The Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile (Courtesy: Gemini Observatory)

Hamish Johnston

Faced with the daunting task of spending a week evaluating a “bulging file of 113 telescope applications”, Michael Merrifield did what any sane person would do — he procrastinated.

But instead of tidying the tearoom down the hall from his office at the University of Nottingham, or putting all his textbooks in reverse alphabetical order, Merrifield joined forces with Donald Saari at the University of California Irvine to propose a distributed approach to peer review.

It seems that there is nowhere near enough telescope time to go around and as a result a small fraction of the astronomy community is burdened with deciding which proposals get the go ahead.

While most astronomers serve their time on such panels — Merrifield and Saari point out that others manage to avoid service. The pair also argue that one person cannot give a pile of one hundred or more applications the attention they deserve.

Their solution goes like this…if you want your telescope application to be considered, then you must chip-in and assess a few proposals yourself. The results would then be pooled to create a global priority list for a telescope.

The most controversial part of the Merrifield-Saari proposal is that the rankings submitted by individual astronomers will be compared to the global ranking — and those whose individual lists are in approximately the same order as the global list would be bumped up a place or two in the ranking.

Why? To “reward good refereeing” — the idea being that it would encourage astronomers to score proposals in line with “how the community would rank them, not her personal preferences”.

But is there a danger that this would make it even more difficult for more radical proposals to get telescope time?

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One comment to ‘Telescope time without tears’

  1. Michael Merrifield

    While the danger is certainly there, it is also always present even with “traditional” allocation processes. What is nice about the proposed new model is that observatories would, for the first time, be in a position to take active steps to mitigate such risks: by writing into the instructions to referees explicit advice that innovative and original proposals should be highly ranked, each referee would be aware that all the other referees are looking out for exactly these traits, so would rate such proposals highly themselves not only because it is the right thing to do, but out of self-interest as well.


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