I’m writing this on the train on the way home from the Users’ Committee for Gemini meeting. This committee meets annually to give advice to the Gemini Observatory director on behalf of the astronomers who use the observatory. There are members from each of the Gemini partner countries; I’m just finishing up my term as one of two Canadian representatives. (I’m also on a similar-but-not-identical committee for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope; that meeting was about a month ago.)

Committee meetings of this kind general go something like this:

  1. (sometimes) visit the telescope involved
  2. review the response to the committee’s previous report
  3. hear about what is currently going on at the observatory
  4. discuss issues on which the observatory wants feedback, or which users have raised with committee members
  5. write a report for the observatory
  6. discuss the report with observatory staff

At least some observatory staff are in the room for all of the items except (5). People who are neither staff nor committee members are not explicitly invited; I don’t know if someone else who really wanted to come would be refused (but it’s not as if people are clamouring to get into extra committee meetings, in general). Occasionally people might be asked to leave temporarily if a sensitive issue is being discussed, for example about personnel.

This particular UCG meeting was held in conjunction with the every-three-years Future and Science of Gemini meeting, which involves lots of Gemini users as well as staff. The meeting wasn’t at the telescope, so we skipped item (1) above, and the UCG meeting skipped item (3) because it had largely been covered at #fsgem15. We got right to discussing the issues, which included lots of different items about how the observatory functions and how astronomers turn its photons into science. I attempted to take notes during the discussion, which is not easy with a committee this large.

Near the end of the day, we wrote our report collaboratively using a Google document, with each committee member taking responsibility for one or two items. This meeting was a little short: because it was tacked onto the end of a four-day conference, no one really wanted it to run for two full days, but we ran a little short on time for item (6). We will need to refine the report and polish it up next week after we all go home, and eventually it will end up here on the Gemini website.

A committee like the UCG is an interesting one to be on. It provides some opportunity to travel that one might not otherwise get: although I have used both Gemini telescopes, all of my observations were made in queue mode and so I hadn’t been to either telescope before being on the committee. You get to meet new people, both the other committee members and Gemini staff, and learn a lot about how a world-class observatory works. The downside is the travel required – getting to either Hawaii or Chile requires at least a full day’s travel on each end of a trip, and at least one committee member seems to have some travel diaster every time – and the time spent at the meeting itself. Compared to telescope time allocation committees, though, there’s a lot less preparation time required, usually just some documents to be read on the plane and some report-writing afterwards.

My experience to date is that the committee discussion is vigourous and wide-ranging as well as quite thoughtful. While committee members certainly do disagree, they do so in a respectful way: I haven’t seen shouting or stomping out of the room or other unprofessional behaviour. I think the reports we produce are useful: we give a balanced user perspectice, and we come up with some useful ideas. Overall, being on an advisory committee like this is definitiely a worthwhile experience and I would recommend it!