Interview Marco de Vos

– Acting Director’s Report

Marco de Vos

“For ASTRON, 2016 was clearly a year of transition.”

Our parent organisation, NWO, was in a formal transition to make excellent science possible in a more transparant and efficient way. In this process, a detailed organisational design was made to group all NWO institutes in a single legal entity, the NWO Institutes organisation, NWO-I. This was of course a different type of design process than we are used to, but it was crucial to contribute to it. A clear mission and mandate is crucial for the continued scientific excellence of ASTRON (as well as of the other NWO institutes). In the process, we have stressed the specific way in which we contribute to the scientific landscape in the Netherlands and abroad, not just with excellent science, but also as developer and operator of national infrastructures and as Netherlands representative to international organisations.

Region of Smart Factories
We expect the merger within NWO-I will lead to an increased collaboration and a better alignment of e.g. plans for large research infrastructures. This is necessary since research facilities become ever larger in scope and cost. “Road mapping” is used so often these days that it has become a somewhat empty term, but I’m convinced this is what science has to do in order to maintain momentum: making well aligned and realistic long term plans. I realise that this is not an easy task, given the uncertainties that surround the planning and R&D for large innovative international instruments.

ASTRON itself was in transition as well. After serving as ASTRON General & Scientific Director for a decade, prof. Michael Garrett took up a position at Manchester University as Sir Bernard Lovell chair of Astrophysics and Director of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA). This decade saw the completion of LOFAR, a steady growth of the Astronomy Group in numbers and profile, the maturing of the SKA and ASTRON’s contibution to it, and a wide range of other developments that strengthened the position of ASTRON in the national and international science system. We thank Mike once more for all his efforts to make this happen! As this Annual Report 2016 is published, prof. Carole Jackson has been in position as the ASTRON Director General for nine months. Under her leadership, important steps have already been made towards a new strategy, in which APERTIF will be succesfully completed, LOFAR will continue to be a world-class scientific instrument for another decade, and the Netherlands position in the SKA will be maximised.

More data-oriented way of working
All this requires yet another transition of science in general, towards a more open, and a more data-oriented way of working. In the H2020 ASTERICS projects, important pilots are being done to expose our astronomical community more to Citizen Science. Regionally, the concept of Open Science Hubs is applied to contribute to public engagement. In 2016 the ramp-up of our activities in data-science started. We now have a clear outlined Science Data Centre program line. Combining short-term, but strategically important activities, around data collections with the big H2020 AENEAS project that prepares the way towards a European SKA Regional Centre. We’re forming a team within the Astronomy Group, close to the scientific users, to develop expertise in data science, together with partners in the Netherlands and abroad.

Impressive number of personal grants
In 2016, preparations started for the ASTRON will be evaluated by an international panel, the so-called SEP evaluation. As we’re busy writing our self-evaluation, I realise how much real achievement we’ve made since the previous evaluation in 2011. Of course, there have been delays and set-backs in many areas. LOFAR has been brought from a promise to an operational instrument producing a steady stream of science. WSRT-APERTIF is in the commissioning phase, and is well prepared for both imaging and time-domain surveys. We contribute to the SKA development in several critical areas, increasingly bringing LOFAR expertise into the project. The past years have seen an impressive number of personal grants, in particular from the EC (in fact it will bequite a challenge to consolidate this level). By the end of 2016, we were facing the upcoming evaluation with confidence. This turned out to be quite justified, but more on that in the next annual report!

Dr. Marco de Vos
Acting Director General 2016.