Report of the ING Visiting Panel, April 1998


1. Introduction. The objectives of this Panel were to assess the ING facilities and advise the JSC on their long-term future. The Panel was set up by PPARC and the NWO; its membership and TOR is set out in Appendix 1. The numbering of these key points corresponds to the sections of the report.

2. Scientific Output and International Standing. The ING is currently functioning at an appropriate level, in comparison with other international observatories with comparable facilities. However, attention must be paid immediately to improving overall scientific productivity, and to completing the commissioning of instrumentation currently in hand. For the future, it will not be sufficient to simply maintain parity with other similar telescopes; the ING must find ways to do cost-effective cutting-edge science in the era of 8m telescopes.

3. Level of Resources. The total recurrent resources of the ING are similar to those of comparable operations elsewhere, and are adequate for a viable programme in the immediate future. The total ING budget (cash plus staff costs) should be maintained at the currently planned levels for the next few years, but some 10--20 per cent of budget should be transferred from the operations line and used for instrumentation development.

4. Instrumentation. The existing suite of versatile instruments is appropriate as a basic set for an observatory with a widely-based user community. Some, notably WYFFOS on the WHT and the WFC on the INT, have the potential to make important contributions, but only if they can be fully commissioned promptly. There is scope to simplify the existing suite of instruments, to release staff resources for the development of new instruments which will be competitive with, or complementary to, instrumentation on the 8m telescopes. There are currently too many different detectors to support and maintain. The computer facilities, both hardware and software, are in urgent need of an overhaul. The current plans for adaptive optics need to be reviewed and focused on real astronomical objectives.

5. Staffing. The level of morale and enthusiasm at the ING is high, and the staff are coping well with the loss of the RGO connection. The team should be encouraged to continue developing in the ways that they are now moving, and given an opportunity to concentrate on operating their telescopes and instruments smoothly and efficiently, for a period of at least the next two years. The Panel recommends that the ING should continue to employ local staff wherever possible, and should move towards making as many appointments as possible on local salaries and conditions, rather than continuing with expensive and divisive expatriation arrangements. The Panel finds that the current level of in-house research is quite inadequate to maintain a competitive international observatory. It also recommends that the ING change the practice of employing PhD students as Night Assistants and instead involve technical staff in this work.

6. External Management. The current external management structure of the ING is unwieldy and inefficient. A simpler linear structure is needed, with the Director reporting to a Board, which in turn has responsibility for dealing with the funding agencies and securing the budget. We therefore recommend that the JSC be modified, or replaced by a new body, with more authority and greater responsibility for ING operations. We propose that this new `Board' should have 3 UK members, 2 NL members and 1 Spanish member. One each of the UK and NL members would be a representative of the national funding agency, with authority to commit funds.

7. The Immediate Future. There is much scope to improve observing efficiency at the ING, the first step being to complete several actions already initiated. Enhancing the sea-level facility is a good start, but the current building is totally unsuitable for many of the essential functions: the search must begin immediately for a more suitable building, or a site where a new building can be erected. This is likely to require additional capital funds. The Panel also encourages closer co-operation with the other telescope groups on La Palma.

8. The Longer-term Future. The Panel believes strongly that there will be a major role for 4m and smaller telescopes in the new era of 8m telescopes. However, the ING telescopes will have to be operated more cheaply in future and be equipped with excellent instrumentation which is reliable, and which exploits the strengths of the telescopes and site. The ING must develop a viable long-term instrumentation plan, soundly based on astronomical objectives. Two types of instrument are envisaged: state-of-the-art `standard' instruments for survey work and back-up of 8m projects, and unique `niche' or experimental instruments, for specific projects not feasible on the larger telescopes. The ING should develop near-IR facilities, at least in the J and H bands, but should not try to compete with specialised IR telescopes at longer wavelengths. The Panel believes that it is unlikely to be cost-effective to transfer optical work from the ING to UKIRT.

9. Involvement of the Netherlands in the ING. Steps must be taken to ensure that the Dutch community plays a larger role in the future of the ING, and that it gets good value for the money invested.

10. Conclusions. Our overall judgment is that the ING is now functioning as an internationally competitive optical observatory, and that the funding and staffing levels are appropriate for the current programme. Given good management and adequate resources, the ING should be able to maintain its position and continue to make a cost-effective contribution to astronomy in the UK and the Netherlands. Provided that it is run efficiently, and is equipped with instruments which can compete with or complement those on larger-aperture telescopes, the ING will remain viable indefinitely.

Appendix 1


Visiting Group for the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma

Terms of Reference

The PPARC and the NWO wish to set up a Visiting Group to review the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) on La Palma in order to provide an international and independent perspective on its operation and needs. The Visiting Group will make recommendations to the Anglo-Dutch Joint Steering Committee (JSC) for the ING and through it to the Director ING.

The aims of the Visiting Group are to:

(i) comment on the international competitiveness of the ING and its likely astronomical prospects in the era of 8-m class telescopes, to include scientific output and an evaluation of the scientific benefit of the facility to the UK and NL astronomical communities;

(ii) review how the ING is organised and to recommend means by which maximum scientific effectiveness may be maintained.

(iii) comment on the requirements for the facility to ensure that the astronomical needs of the user communities in the UK and NL can best be satisfied with respect to operational and user support and future maintenance and development of the telescopes and instrumentation.

The Visiting Group shall comprise a chairman and four members of international astronomical distinction and experience, membership to be agreed between PPARC and the NWO. PPARC will provide

administrative support as required but it will be expected that the Group will be responsible for drafting its own report . The Group's work which should be planned so as to be able to report to the May 1998 meeting of the JSC. It is envisaged that the Visiting Group could become a regular feature of the JSC's evaluation of the ING, meeting every few years.


Dr Russell Cannon, Anglo-Australian Observatory (Chair)

Dr Marijn Franx, University of Leiden

Prof Ken Freeman, Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories

Dr Augustus Oemler, Carnegie Institution of Washington

Dr Richard Wade, Rutherford Appleton Laboratories