Friday, June 28, 2013

Comment: Outreach facilities can help launch careers

Megan Tannock

Everyone who has lived in Victoria has seen the iconic white dome of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Observatory Hill. I remember asking my parents what it was when I was very young; when they explained to me what a telescope is for, I begged for one of my own.

One year for Christmas, my parents had a special surprise for my brother and me — our very own telescope, which I use to this day. Later, I was able to visit the Centre of the Universe on Observatory Hill and see the Plaskett Telescope.
Seeing the telescope and learning about the research that can be done with it helped me realize I wanted to devote my life to science. I attend the University of Victoria and I am completing my bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy, with the intention of continuing on to graduate school to obtain my doctorate in astrophysics. Because of the accessibility of the facilities on Observatory Hill, I was able to make the decision of what I wanted to study at a young age. Thanks to the opportunities in my hometown, my career in science is well on its way.
Outreach for astronomy, and for all sciences, is extremely important to the future of scientific research and the knowledge of the public in Canada. One of the top outreach facilities in Victoria is the Centre of the Universe. It is an important learning facility, tourist attraction and landmark. It provides summer camps for children, outreach for local schools, an interpretive centre open to the public and tours of the Plaskett Telescope, a national historical site which has been in operation since 1918.
In addition to the public outreach, it provides valuable opportunities for post-secondary students from across Canada to work in the field they are studying and share their passion for science with the public.
The decision to close the centre is simply outrageous. A facility like this, so closely linked with a world-class research centre (the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics), is unique and irreplaceable.
If the Centre of the Universe closes, many children and adults will miss out on learning about the universe we live in. What will be closed next?
Without the Centre of the Universe, who knows if my passion for science would have been sparked at all? Thanks to the centre, I will have an exciting and valuable career in science, helping to push Canada forward in the scientific world.
Without the centre and similar facilities, how will the young scientists of the future discover their passions? Yes, it can be argued that some people will find their passions in science regardless, but most people require access to these facilities to learn about the possibilities of a future in science. Some of the most brilliant, life-changing scientific ideas of the future exist within Canadians; without outreach programs like this, they may never be discovered.
Canadians need to find ways to make their government realize that it is not OK to take facilities like this away from the public. Saving a small amount of money is no excuse to close something as valuable as the Centre of the Universe.
Politicians focus only on their four-year terms, investing in projects that show immediate results to impress the public; perhaps they have forgotten the importance of long-term investments that extend past their re-election date.
Canadians deserve access to outreach facilities to learn about science. We owe it to children and young people to give them the tools they need to make choices about their lives. Instead of thinking about ways to save money right now, the government needs to make investments to inspire the scientists of the future, continue making scientific advances and keep Canada in the forefront of scientific research.
Megan Tannock, born and raised in Metchosin, is a University of Victoria student studying physics and astronomy.

© Copyright 2013

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Times Colonist: Centre of the Universe in Saanich closing by summer’s end in bid to pare costs

General Manager Greg Fahlman says it's unfortunate the
Centre of the Universe is closing, but tough choices had to
be made. Photograph by: ADRIAN LAM, Times Colonist
The astronomy interpretive centre adjacent to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road will shut its doors to the public, the federal government confirmed Thursday.
Cost-cutting was cited as the reason; $245,000 will be saved in wages for three staff — one full time and two part time — plus $32,000, which includes maintenance, utilities and taxes. The full-time staffer will be moved to another federal job.
“The activities of the centre will no longer be sustained due to financial constraints,” said Charles Drouin, chief spokesman for the National Research Council Canada, in a phone interview.
The centre opened in 2001 as an educational arm of the observatory, a national historic site. In 2012 it attracted about 10,000 people, including busloads of school children, seniors groups and tourists to see things such as an iron meteorite — bringing in $47,000 in revenue.
“It’s unfortunate those things are going to stop,” said Greg Fahlman, general manager of the centre and the observatory, which employs 110 people.
Education for the public is a necessary part of astronomy research at the observatory — it’s why the centre was built — but tough choices had to be made and priorities chosen, Fahlman said.
The observatory is anchored by the Plaskett telescope, built beginning in 1914 and in operation since May 1918. For six months, with a 1.8-metre aperture, it was the biggest telescope in the world, said Chris Gainor, national vice- president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. “I am very sorry to hear this news,” Gainor said. “The telescope is quite historic … and it’s nearing its 100th anniversary.”
There are no plans to repurpose or “bulldoze” the centre, said Fahlman.
“The building itself will not be torn down and we are very mindful that this is part of Victoria. This [adjacent observatory] dome is visible almost everywhere in the city,” Fahlam said.
“What we are currently doing is searching for ways of delivering appropriate levels of access to the grounds and the telescope and we just haven’t got our heads around how to do that without the Centre of the Universe.”
Drouin said the hope is that volunteers will open the building on weekends.
He said in the absence of the centre, young people will have access to astronomy websites and smartphone applications.
Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca NDP MP Randall Garrison, who represents the observatory area, said he can’t grasp axing a hands-on community program promoting science and technology. “It drives you crazy.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May called news of the centre closing “outrageous” and said the interactive centre is irreplaceable. “It’s one of those penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions which so typifies the Stephen Harper administration,” said the Saanich-Gulf Islands MP.
Victoria NDP MP Murray Rankin called the closure “a serious blow” to the community. “This has to be understood in the broader context of what the Conservative government is doing to the scientific base of Canada,” Rankin said.