The Stars in Their Courses


Analyzing x-ray photographs of exploding galaxies, looking for double quasars, searching for organic molecules in the far reaches of interstellar space--that's the fun part of what goes on at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CFA).

But there are problems at CFA that are very down to earth, like complaints about disorganization, an overcentralization of authority, and mangled lines of communication. Last June, an ad hoc committee came into town to look over the operations of the entire center for the first time, and present a report to both Harvard and the Smithsonian on the situation at CFA and what should be done to improve it.

The center encompasses two separate institutions--the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), which moved to Cambridge from Washington in 1955. Since July 1973, both HCO and SAO have worked under one director, George Field, Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy.

Field took over with the understanding that a committtee would evaluate the center's performance and his own. The committee endorsed the concept of the center and Field's performance. But it did not endorse the status quo. In a bland memo to CFA members, Dean Rosovsky and David Challinor, assistant secretary for science at the Smithsonian, said they had accepted "in some form" a recommendation to form a new committee to oversee the center's work.

The exact responsibilities and authority of the committee are yet to be determined, Rosovsky said this week. The committee is expected to deal with complaints from the CFA staff that decisions in the past have been made without adequate consultation, and that the entire center could be better organized.


"The main thing is that this is a large organization, and any large organization, is going to encounter some problems in finding out how it should run," said Jim Cornell, CFA public information director. "You've got two big bureaucratic organizations--Harvard and the Smithsonian--with a lot of bureaucratic rules that sometimes don't mesh."

"It sounds to me," commented a professor, "like one review committee just passed on its problems to another one."

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