Hubble Fellows, the Future is in Your Hands

Riccardo Giacconi

Text of a talk given at the Institute on March 8, 2010, by Riccardo Giacconi on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the start of the Hubble Fellowship Program.

The creation of the Hubble Fellows Program was part of our (the scientific staff and I) vision of what the Institute was designed to accomplish. The Hornig Committee had recommended that an independent institute should be created to ensure the broadest participation by the scientific community in the Hubble program, and we also had the funny notion that the purpose of building Hubble had to do with the study of our Universe. For this reason we had developed a methodology which we called a science systems engineering approach to guide us in developing the necessary hardware and software tools to carry out our operations from end to end. This meant that we examined all required intermediate steps from proposal selection support to the archiving of calibrated data to determine that each step was properly conceived and ready to perform as required. It was natural to extend this systems approach to include the question of whether the community had the required number of scientists to effectively use the data, and the assistance and computer support appropriate for the task.

We were approaching a period in optical astronomy in which the capital investment in facilities was to increase by factors of about 100. Up to that point, university or institutional funds had provided the bulk of the support required to carry out most of the research in astronomy through salaries and internal research funds. This support had been essential to supplement the meager funds provided by NSF and NASA. Given the magnitude of the program that was envisaged with Hubble, however, it was no longer possible for research institutions to provide the scale of support necessary to make full scientific use of the data. While NASA would directly provide the funding for the builders of the scientific instruments to analyze their own data for a few years, most of Hubble’s observing time (>70%) would be used by astronomers who had not had a direct previous association with the Hubble project.

The Institute initiated a study led by professor Neta Bahcall (then a staff member) of what the Institute would need to provide (ultimately by NASA) to ensure the proper utilization of the data within a reasonable time. The committee recommended that the Institute make grant funds available to the competitive winners of observing time.

Yet I felt that something more was required. I was troubled to see PI groups use postdocs in essence as research assistants, without much opportunity for the pursuit of their own research, and I was fearful that this would become the norm in the future.

I remembered a suggestion for a different approach that Chris McKee had made to me while we were strolling in the English Gardens in Munich where we were attending a meeting in 1982. If I remember correctly (Chris is here today and can correct me), I was complaining about theoreticians who, in my opinion, tended to look down on observers and experimentalists as mechanics rather than natural scientists. In particular, I was upset by the fact that theoreticians who had no management capabilities and little physical intuition about the natural world always chaired the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Decadal Surveys. While thus pleasantly engaged in this debate, he dropped his suggestion of creating fellowships for research.