Two years ago I was asked to be part of the OPC, the Observing Program Committee, of the ESO (European Southern Observatory). Twice per year, the astronomers submit their proposals to ESO to request telescope time. This is an highly competitive process and some telescopes like the VLT are oversubscribed by a factor of 6 to 8
ESO is a complex organization which manages various observatories located in Chile (La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor (part of the ALMA project)) with several telescopes in optical (from 2 to 8m in diameter) and in the millimetric wavelength range. The Headquarter of the organization is located in Garching, nearby Munich in Germany, but they also have offices in Santiago de Chile, Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama. I did most of my Ph.D. study at La Silla Observatory but I was based at Santiago de Chile. Therfore to work again for ESO is like being back to the “family”. 🙂
ESO always impresses me with their commitment in having a well-organized and transparent procedures; this also applies in the process of selecting proposals. The head of the OPC chooses various reviewers from diverse institutions and field of interest to review the proposals. We received them about one month after they have been submitted (april 1st, October 1st) since they are screening by the OPC to avoid conflicts of interest, meaning that I cannot judge the proposals submitted by a colleagues, myself (of course), or someone from my institution. The reviewers are part of one of the 12 panels which are defined by topics. There are 2 panels in “Cosmology” (A), 2 panels in “Galaxies and Galactic Nuclei” (B), 4 panels in “ISM, Star Formation and Planetary Systems” (C), and 4 panels in “Stellar evolution” (D). I am part of one of the panel C which is the closest to my field of interest.
Last week I received electronically the stack of proposals and I was surprised to see that my panel has 103 proposals to review! We are supposed to submit our comments and grades in less than a month meaning that I should start reading very soon these proposals (at least 4 per days). It is an interesting job since it gives me the ability to learn about a new topic or update my knowledge, but it also have a practical use.
Some proposals are extremely well-written and it is a pleasure to read them, some others were obviously last-minute decision and you can see that in their quality. Being a reviewer made me realize how important the style and conciseness of a proposal will help in making it successful. Small details like labeling the figures clearly in the proposal, making sure that looking at the figures one can understand the key part of the proposal, choosing the right number of collaborators and well estimating the telescope time needed are mandatory to make a proposal well received. Astronomers from English speaker countries have obviously an advantage in this race for telescope time, but since most of us are non-native English speakers, we try to judge a proposal based on its scientific content and not be fool by a perfect style and correct grammar (I hope you do the same for this blog btw).
After grading and reading all these proposals, we will meet in Garching for 4 days at the end of May. This is an interesting process since they basically locked out in a room 6 astronomers (the panel) which review all the proposals and discuss them in details. The final grade of the proposal is an average given by the 6 of us. The OPC uses this grade in a complex model to decide which proposals will get time or not. In fact at the end of the meeting, we do not know yet who will get telescope time since they could be competition between proposals of different fields which are not judged by the same panel.
I obviously summarized here the way the proposal decisions are made at ESO. There are different classes of proposals and for instance the “Large proposals” are judged by all the members of the OPC. I do not know how the proposals are reviewed at Keck Observatory even if I have been asking time on this telescope for year. What matter to most astronomers is whether or not they got time for their project. 🙂
I am flying Thursday to Granada in Spain for the Planetary Defense Conference. More news soon from Andalusia. Now back to the proposals…