Director of German-Spanish Observatory Resigns Over Funding, Strategy

José María Quintana, director of the German-Spanish Astronomical Center at Calar Alto (CAHA) near Almería, Spain, has resigned from his post, arguing that a budget plan being imposed by the observatory’s funders is too harsh. His resignation will be effective late next month.

The budget dates back to an operating plan signed in May 2013 by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPG), which jointly operate the observatory. That agreement guaranteed an operating budget of €1.6 million per year until 2018, when MPG will cede its role in the observatory. Quintana came out of retirement in June 2013 to direct the observatory. He says that at the first executive meeting, he told the vice president of CSIC that operating the observatory on the proposed budget was impossible. An earlier 2010 operating plan envisioned annual budgets of about €4 million.

Spanish media reports say that since Quintana’s resignation, the observatory's interim managers have already fired cooking and cleaning staff and restricted the operation of one telescope by 10 days a month.

During his tenure as director, Quintana advocated a 2014 budget of €2.7 million followed by €2.6 million per year until 2018, which he says would have enabled the observatory to continue operating all three telescopes and retain the core of its staff. At a 27 January 2014 executive meeting, he learned that the 2014 budget would be €2.2 million, of which about €600,000 would come from leftover funds already in the observatory's accounts. The observatory's funders kept the following years at €1.6 million annually. "They hadn't changed anything," he says, so 2 days later he resigned.

The flat budget may not have been a surprise. CSIC suffered a budget emergency last year requiring the central government to issue emergency injections of €95 million, ScienceInsider reported. Still, the Spanish Astronomy Society issued a statement claiming that the approved budget is insufficient for the observatory's operation and that the staff cuts will harm the observatory's ability to carry out its science mission.

Calar Alto is not the only medium-sized observatory having problems. As larger telescopes become more common, astronomers are having to find new roles for medium telescopes—for example, studies that require many nights of continuous observation. One drawback to Calar Alto compared with Spain's other top observing site in the Canary Islands is that it has less reliable weather.

Astronomer Janet Drew of the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, who chaired an international review of medium-sized telescopes in 2010, writes that despite that limitation, "good/important science is about good instrumentation, unique capabilities—not purely data volume." She adds: "CAHA certainly has had very-evidently internationally-competitive instruments, and could again."

One of those future instruments is CARMENES, designed to use the observatory's 3.5-meter telescope to search for extrasolar planets. It should go into service toward the end of this year. It is an example of the kind of observing programs that have emerged over recent decades as astronomers have turned to smaller telescopes for long-term studies of planet-hosting stars. Such studies are an important complement to more expensive space-based extrasolar planet discovery missions, such as the now-defunct Kepler. "I think it's great to invest in big scientific instruments, but you have to have a balance with smaller telescopes," Quintana says.

Drew and Quintana both expressed hope for CAHA's long-term future. "A reduced budget doesn't have to be the end of the road - it does demand careful specialization," Drew writes. And Quintana says that "maybe we have to pass through an era when we have some unreasonable minimums, but I'm sure that it will have a better future."

Posted in Europe, Funding, People & Events, Space