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All the astronomers know that there have been a bajillion blog posts about the decadal survey (those are just a few), but I think this Decadal Survey has a huge flaw.

Where is the emphasis on training the next generation of astronomers? In these days of Sloan and HST data, we have a large section of the graduate student and postdoc population that can’t even reduce or troubleshoot their data. I see grad students in my program do photometry, but not be able to tell if the data has been flat fielded or even calibrated properly. If they do know how to reduce their data, it’s because they blindly trust ccdproc in iraf to do it right which most of us oldsters know better than to believe (god I hate to call myself an oldster, but I remember the last decadal survey!).

Where are grad students and postdocs going to practice running their programs and reducing data? Where are they going to learn the great arts of cursing at the bleepity bleep camera or sitting at the telescope running grating angle calculations? Where are astronomers in training going to be able to go to do some small science program that they came up with one afternoon when asking “but what if. . .”? It certainly isn’t going to be at Kitt Peak given that the decadal survey is advocating cutting funding such that the 4 meter is the only thing funded.

Much as I hate to say this, bigger isn’t always better. My undergrad observing days and grad school observing days have all be done on the same 2 meter class telescope and I’ve been able to churn out publications that were new based on that data. In some cases it was revisiting old targets that people had done in well over decade. . . in ohter cases observing at a small telescope allowed me to obtain considerable spectroscopic data on a time variable object that was perfectly suited for a small telescope in terms of its apparent magnitude.

And god help us, but if we go the direction of big monolithic surveys where the trainees just naively trust the catalogs they’re given without checking how the photometry was derived and how the data was reduced and calibrated, I’m going to stop having an identity crisis about being an astronomer or a planetary scientist and am going to go straight to the planetary world and work on squashing rocks for lab astrophysics (also a section the decadal neglected even with JWST coming online in the next decade and the need for lab spectra of dust in appropriate astrophysical particle sizes so we can fit the spectra of protoplanetary disks and the like).

July 2018
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