Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Famed astronomer:
Excessive politics
hurt UH institute

By Helen Altonn


The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has lost prestige because of lack of coordination and too much time spent on political issues, says an internationally renowned astronomer.

"The scientific part is being neglected," says Richard Ellis, 48, University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy director.

Ellis is considering an offer to direct Hawaii's astronomy institute. He was here last week on his fourth visit since November to discuss what he views as a "complicated job."

"It's not like taking a car that's in neutral. It's going backward and you almost have to push it uphill," he said in an interview before returning to England.

The award-winning astronomer said his goal would be to raise academic standards. "What I offer is academic leadership. It takes time and effort at the expense of doing politics."

Hawaii is entering "a golden era" with the world's most powerful telescopes operating and under construction, Ellis said.

He said it would be "a great challenge" to direct the UH institute at this time but he would need university support to manage it as he'd like. "I don't want to lose my scientific credibility."

Ellis said the institute has been weakened by lack of long-term leadership since Don Hall's departure 18 months ago.

He said there is some confusion about what the institute needs. He doesn't believe one person can handle both the political and scientific aspects.

Hall dealt with political situations while his associate director, Len Cowie, directed the science, Ellis noted.

He said a new partnership is needed because he doesn't want to be immersed in politics. His emphasis would be on "academic excellence," bringing in new people and opportunities for the telescopes.

UH astronomers have more time on telescopes than those at any other university, Ellis said. Yet, the UH ranks in the top 10 universities in excellence in astronomy when it should be in the top three, he said.

He said he has written a letter to UH outlining how he would do the job and requesting university support and administrative assistants to help shoulder political issues.

The proposed relocation of the astronomy institute to Hilo is among issues being debated.

"The national effort probably will move to Hilo," Ellis said. "We would lose terrifically if we were not part of it. Hilo has a great future. It's a question of juggling the future of Hilo with protecting Manoa (where the institute is located)."

Ellis supports the idea of the Mauna Kea Advisory Committee to work out conflicting interests on Mauna Kea.

He said the institute must be sensitive to the community, but most expansion on the mountain is over. Future work largely will involve replacing old facilities with new ones, he said.

"The issue that tends to be forgotten is scientific exploitation of the telescopes," said Ellis, who has used them for cosmology research.

He is involved in several long-term programs studying the origin and evolution of galaxies, distant supernovae and distribution of dark matter. He's interested in new instruments and observational opportunities.

He said he's upset about the UH's solar observatory at Haleakala, Maui. "It's a tremendous resource neglected . . . One of the challenges is to turn that around and make it a place of use to the university."

Ellis said the Air Force telescope on Haleakala is "very impressive, a terrific achievement," but he's puzzled as to its purpose.

"I think there is a need for the university and Air Force to join forces and look critically at the long-range purpose of the telescope for academic and military use."

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