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Chinese engineers and astronomers fight over new telescope design

A dispute over the design of a new Chinese optical telescope has broken out between the astronomers who will use it and the engineers who will build it.

In April, an international committee convened by [Chinese Academy of Science’s] Center for Astronomical Mega-Science, which is responsible for the project, reviewed the competing designs and recommended the three-mirror option [the preference of astronomer Jiansheng Chen and China’s astronomers]. On 10 July, [Xiangqun Cui, the instrument’s chief engineer] organized her own review committee that picked the SYZ design as better. Cui’s panel “leaned toward one side,” Chen says. And one member says that the three-mirror design was not sufficiently presented, partly because no one from the Huazhong team was there. Cui and Su explain in their open letter that a member of their own group who knows it well introduced the Huazhong design. “Members were repeatedly reminded they could abstain from voting,” they write. One-third of the 21 committee members did abstain.

Meanwhile, to date, more than 130 young astronomers have signed an open letter to the astronomical community urging that the recommendations of the international panel be respected.

The fundamental disagreement, according to Chen, is “whether a large science project should be technically or scientifically oriented.” Cui and Su say the choice is between incorporating “rapidly developing new technologies” that ensure a long life for the facility, or “simply replicating a 10-meter telescope built 30 years ago.”

This spat reinforces the impression gained from the recent other story about China’s inability to find a manager for its newly built radio telescope. Its top-down management approach (where decisions are made by well-connected powerful bureaucrats at the top of the chain of command) produces office politics that generally does not lead to good technical decisions.

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One comment

  • Edward

    The opening sentence of the linked article is misleading. It says that the division is among the astronomers, but the second sentence gets it right, that it is between the engineers and the astronomers.

    From the article: “The fundamental disagreement, according to Chen, is ‘whether a large science project should be technically or scientifically oriented.’

    Being an engineer, [Sarcasm Alert] I understand that a science project is all about advancing the technology, not at all about the actual science. That is why it is called a science project, not a development project. [End Sarcasm]

    This is what happens when you let central planners make the decisions rather than having the users decide what is needed. You get what they want, not what you needed.

    This kind of adverse centralized decision making is happening all around the world. Just ask Charlie Gard’s parents.

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