Italian Observatories to Join Forces

NAPLES, ITALY--Small organizations usually resist being subsumed into a larger one. But for astronomers at Italy's observatories--all independent but funded directly by the government--their amalgamation into the new National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) can't come soon enough. They argue that the current fragmentation of astronomy in Italy is hampering their ability to play in the international big leagues.

The 12 observatories, which employ about half of Italy's 700 astronomers, control their own budgets, choose their own scientific programs, and hire their own researchers. Lacking a central authority to manage this scattered enterprise, the observatories have found it hard to work together on national and international projects. "It was rather difficult to start national projects that would imply big expenses," says Marcello Rodono, director of the Observatory of Catania.

The government approved the new institute in July and is expected to appoint a president and two board members in November. Rodono expects that INAF will become fully operational next summer, with its headquarters in Rome and its technical facilities possibly located on La Palma in the Canary Islands. INAF's total budget will be at least $54 million, the sum of the budgets of the 12 observatories.

Massimo Capaccioli, director of the Capodimonte Observatory in Naples, says the new institute should improve the management of projects such as the recently completed Galileo Telescope, the national 3.5-meter telescope on La Palma; the Large Binocular Telescope, two joined 2.84-meter scopes now under construction at the University of Arizona, in which Italy has a 25% share; and a 2.65-meter survey telescope that Capodimonte is building with the European Southern Observatory to aid its Very Large Telescope in Chile. INAF may also give a push to plans for Italy to join Spain in building on La Palma a replica of Hawaii's 10-meter Keck telescope.