Big Science in a Small Country

Canada has scarcely more than 10% the population of its neighbor to the south and spends less than one-seventh as much, per capita, on astronomy. Yet, somehow, it still manages to be a world leader. How does it do it?

The key to their success, say experts, is keeping a focus on particular research niches while maintaining a stake in some of the most important international astronomy projects. "By nature, we do things like a small country would, and gather our limited resources together," says Ralph Pudritz, professor of astronomy at McMaster University. "We also have the innate ability to come together with our international partners and strike-up interesting solutions and become a strong key player." But Canada's continued success, say Pudritz and others, will depend on its future investments and its ability to find a role in future international astronomy endeavors.

A Shoestring Only Takes You So Far

Canada's investment in astronomy research is tiny. Figures from 1998--the most recent available--show that the United States spends $7.25 per citizen on astronomy every year. The United Kingdom, Germany, and France pay out $4 to $6 per citizen per year. Canada was dead last in the survey, spending a mere 98 cents per capita annually on astronomy. But measured another way, Canada ranks first. In May 2005, Canada staked a claim to world leadership in astronomy by ranking first among all nations in the rate of citations of Canadian astronomy papers, according to the Institute for Scientific Information.

Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA

For years, cash-strapped Canadian space scientists have enjoyed success largely by partnering with other countries, an approach that gives them access to large-scale, powerful instrumentation in return for a relatively small investment. Canada holds a 15% stake in the two 8-metre Gemini Telescopes in Hawaii and Chile and a 43% partnership in the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope, also in Hawaii. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA), meanwhile, has partnered with the American, European, and Japanese space agencies, providing technology and science packages for planetary and space-telescope missions.

But over the course of the next decade, say experts, many established projects will cease to be state-of-the art. Pudritz and his Canadian colleagues are afraid that as bigger and more technologically advanced instruments begin to come on line, on the ground and in space, Canada could be left out in the cold. “Much has been made of Canadian ability and creativity and making use of small funds of money to do great things; that’s absolutely true,” says Pudritz. “But there’s a point where doing clever things get you so far but no further; I very much felt like we reached that point in 1998.”

A Vision for the Future

That year, a blue-ribbon panel from the Canadian Astronomical Society (CAS), chaired by Pudritz, hammered out a report aimed at the federal granting councils in Ottawa. The Long Range Plan (LRP) outlined areas that needed to be developed in order for Canada to maintain its status as a major player in astronomy. The LRP lists the projects the panel deems most crucial to the future of Canadian Astronomy, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)--a giant ground-based radio observatory in Chile--and the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor. Astronomers hope to use these new instruments to peer back to the dawn of the universe and examine the formation of the very first stars, something even Hubble cannot do.

Credit: NRAO/AUI and ESO

But if Canada is to maintain its role as an international leader in astronomy, Pudritz's panel concluded, it will need to be a partner in these projects. Unlike the Hubble, warned James Hesser, President of the Canadian Astronomical Society (CAS) and Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, the international mega-observatories now on the drawing board will not be available to nations that don’t chip in for their construction.

The LRP report also recommended that Canada invest $100 million in space-based programs via the CSA over the next decade, an additional $147 million for facilities to be developed by the National Research Council for the Canadian astronomical community, and another $17 million through NSERC to support university-based research. According to a progress report, in 2003, Canada had secured major roles for scientists and Canadian industry in development, construction, and observation time on new and upcoming international observatories. Canada had also invested $89 million toward meeting the LRP's goals.

One of the jewels in the crown of the astronomical world of the future--a project that Canadians are hoping to be part of--is the 30-Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the world’s largest optical observatory when it is completed, hopefully in 2015. The size of a football field and costing $US 750 million, the TMT is expected to see 100 times farther in space than anything currently operating on the ground and be 12 times sharper than Hubble. Canada has secured a 25% share in the design and development of the project and is now seeking funds to be a partner in construction.

Credit: TMT Project

It's a crucial investment in the country's astronomical future, says Pudritz. In astronomy as in many other sciences, advancements are made every time a more sensitive instrument is built. “You build bigger, you go fainter, you go deeper, and you’ll have a shot at a major discovery,” explains Pudritz, “So building these larger machines will no doubt allow us to study the birth of the first galaxies and even planet formation around distant stars. It will give Canada an extraordinary ability, but it will take true leadership.”

“It just would not have been possible for Canada to have participated in the modern age of astronomy without … expanding the funding envelope," adds Hesser. "We simply couldn’t be part of the facilities without that expansion. The trend today is for larger more expensive projects; they have become so complex that no single country’s resources can provide for them.”

Canadian Career Prospects

The lack of access to many major instruments caused a brain drain in the community up until the early 1990s, when Canadian science began to catch up. “But since we’ve gotten into these cutting edge facilities, we can now compete for world talent and bring the world’s best here to Canada because they don’t suffer scientifically and they can take advantage of a very pleasant social system,” says Pudritz. “An important part of the whole LRP was that we wanted to become truly competitive so that you could do the best stuff here, and you don’t have to leave the country.”

According to CAS statistics, Canada has about 500 professional astronomers, of which 150 are faculty at 22 universities. The field is extremely competitive, with only about a half dozen permanent positions opening each year at national facilities and universities. But, Pudritz points out, the last 5 years has seen the creation of new professorships at astronomy and physics departments across Canada, thanks mostly to the Canadian Research Chair program. The next decade, he says, promises to be a boom for young astronomers as new observatories and facilities come online. Still, it isn't a mass market. "Hiring continues to be done very deliberately now in areas like cosmology, galaxy formation, planet formation--all identified in the LPR as crucial in the long term for the nation," says Pudritz.

A Holding Pattern

For the 160 or so Ph.D. students and postdocs scattered across the country, the reality is nebulous, with funding an eternal concern. For Universite de Montreal postdoc Ashley Crouch, the intellectual challenges of solar magnetism are aggravated by the constant pressure of wondering what work opportunities await, something he did not anticipate. “I always knew there were relatively few jobs in the field, but I didn't really know how it would feel to be constantly worried about it,” he says.


For Edward Thummes, who is doing a postdoc--his third--at University of Toronto in extrasolar planet formation, science has been a waiting game so far. Despite working in one of the hottest fields in astronomy, he feels he is in a holding pattern. The consensus among his peers, he says, is that the postdoctoral period is getting longer, and Pudritz and Hesser concede that it’s not unusual to do two or three postdocs lasting up to 8 years, before landing a potentially permanent post. Thummes thinks this is because enrollment in graduate programs is going up while faculties have not been increasing in size.

Consequently, he concludes, it's essential for young astronomers to look outside Canada. "You’re left up in the air until you actually get something, and if you restrict yourself in trying to get something in Canada, you’re dealing with a fairly small market," Thummes says. Anyone coming to the end of a fellowship, he recommends, had better start thinking fast, not be too picky, and apply for any job.

Postdoc funding, says Pudritz, is where Canada needs serious improvement, and quickly. Many talented young researchers, after finishing off their studies in Canada, hit the ground and move to another country. “I think everyone’s aware of the problem and we identified it in the LRP, but I don’t think that it has been fully addressed," he adds.

A Stellar Forecast

The stakes, says Pudritz, couldn’t be higher, with a potentially huge scientific payoff awaiting the winners who get to help push astronomy forward. Some of the greatest mysteries in astrophysics, like the nature of dark energy, the universe's beginnings, and the discovery of extrasolar terrestrial planets--are all fair game. “You name it, in any corner of the cosmos you think about, there are open questions that can finally be deeply investigated for the first time with these new telescopes and facilities," says Pudritz. “My generation of astronomers spent a huge effort building this dream, but it’s really this next generation that will truly capitalize on this investment.”

Check out CASCA’s Long-Range Plan in PDF format.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at

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