Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Reopening the Centre of the Universe

RASC Victoria members at a public viewing at the Centre of the Universe in August 2013. Chris Gainor photo

My home town of Victoria B.C. is a world centre for astronomical research. The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO), Canada's premier astronomical research institute, is located on Little Saanich Mountain just north of the City of Victoria. Not too far away is the University of Victoria Physics and Astronomy Department, which also generates cutting edge research.

In 2014 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start of construction of the two-metre Plaskett Telescope at the DAO, which for a few months in 1918 was the largest working telescope on Earth. We will also mark the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).

Although important research is still done on the Plaskett Telescope, the focus of DAO astronomers' research work has shifted to larger, better located and more up-to-date instruments in Hawaii, Chile and even outer space, where the Hubble Space Telescope and other astronomy satellites operate. Astronomers and other DAO staff, who are employed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), also design and build highly advanced equipment that is used in all these facilities.

In an effort to help the community learn about the scientific research going on at the DAO, the Centre of the Universe educational centre was opened in 2001. It includes an interactive museum about Canada's astronomy efforts, a lecture room, a small planetarium, and telescope facilities. Since then, thousands of people, many of them young people, have had their eyes open to Canada's role in the exploration of the universe.

Despite the great programming offered at this educational outreach centre, receipts failed to come close to covering the salaries of the skilled educators who worked there and other operating expenses. In the wake of the sponsorship scandal a decade ago, restrictions on advertising by federal government agencies meant that the Centre of the Universe couldn't advertise its programs.

In late June, the NRC announced that the Centre of the Universe would close down at the end of August, which duly happened. The reasons included budgetary restraints and a new mandate from the Harper government for the NRC to focus on immediate economic returns, topics I will discuss in later blog posts. The educational mission of the Centre of the Universe didn't fit in with those imperatives. 

The NRC's decision to close the Centre of the Universe has proved to be very unpopular both in Victoria and among informed people elsewhere in Canada. Two petitions obtained thousands of signatures, and large numbers of people who came to the Centre last summer got a taste of its programs before it closed.

This reaction has helped bring the community together to reconstitute the Centre of the Universe under new management. While the government of British Columbia has remained silent in the face of calls for help, an opposition member of the BC Legislature, Lana Popham, put politics aside and pulled together a meeting of various groups and individuals from around greater Victoria to begin this work.

A plan emerged from the meeting to resume public astronomical viewing at the Centre on Saturday nights during the warmer times of the year using the telescopes of RASC members. The NRC will help by providing security and by making it possible for visitors to tour the Plaskett Telescope. RASC Victoria's tradition of public outreach at the DAO goes back decades, long before the opening of the Centre of the Universe.

The University of Victoria, which provides science programs to school age students through its Science Venture program, is also in discussions with the NRC about picking up programming aimed at children.

These two initiatives are just a start. The community representatives at the November meeting recognized the need to create a non-profit organization to run the Centre of the Universe. As well, work is beginning on a longer term plan to make programming at the Centre of the Universe economically sustainable.

I am involved in the work to bring back the Centre of the Universe in my capacity as an active member of the RASC and as a member of one of the working committees formed at the November community meeting. I will provide updates in this space about the work to bring back the Centre of the Universe.

We cannot depend exclusively on schools and other formal educational institutions to ensure that Canada has the scientists it needs in the future. We also need places like the Centre of the Universe to inspire younger people to look to careers in science and to inform other people who need to better appreciate the work done by our astronomers and physicists.

In a time when governments are making short-term and shortsighted decisions on a daily basis, community groups are being compelled to step up to preserve important services. The Centre of the Universe will show how much our community values scientific research, education and inspiration.

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