An Australian Observer on the ESO Council

By Matthew Colless
[email protected]

ESO Council meeting in Garching, December 2019. Australian observer Jane Urquhart at far left; Director General Xavier Barcons second from right; ESO Council President Willy Benz third from right. Credit: Matthew Colless.

Under the arrangements for our strategic partnership with the European Southern Observatory, Australia has two observers on the ESO Council: I’m one and Jane Urquhart from the Department of Industry is the other. The Council is ESO’s ruling body and has two representatives from each Member State, usually one government representative and one astronomer. Since ESO now has 16 Member States (plus one strategic partner), that means ESO Council meetings require a big room and a big table!

In addition to the Member State representatives, the Council also has a President, who has to be an astronomer and a member of the Council. The President’s job is to chair the Council meetings and support the Director General as the external face of ESO. At present the ESO Council Chair is Willy Benz, from the University of Bern in Switzerland. The President is meant to represent ESO rather than their country, so another astronomer is appointed to replace them as Member State representative. There is also a Vice-President, who fills in if the President is unavailable, although the Vice-President remains a Member State representative. The President and Vice-President are elected annually for one-year terms and may serve up to three years.

Since the Council has so many members, and because ESO is an intergovernmental organisation, the two regular Council meetings held at ESO HQ in Garching each year are generally quite formal and deal with a packed agenda including many required standing items. In order to allow more discussion of significant matters, ESO Council also holds two ‘Committee of Council’ meetings each year. These meetings, which involve the full Council and are hosted by Member States at various other locations, have a more open agenda and focus on discussing a few major topics without making any decisions. This allows Council members to debate potentially contentious issues before resolutions are put to the regular Council meetings. Every two years, one of these meetings is held in Santiago and Council members visit the ESO facilities in Chile.

ESO Council visiting Cerro Armazones in October 2018, while the foundations for the ELT were being excavated. Credit: Matthew Colless.

Each Member State, regardless of size or contributions, has one vote on Council. Voting follows fairly standard protocols, but one interesting addition is the ‘ad referendum’ vote. Such ‘ad ref’ votes are provisional positive votes that need to be confirmed in writing prior to the next Council meeting. This mechanism allows representatives to refer votes to decision-making bodies in their Member State on matters where they do not hold an absolute delegation (e.g. forward budget decisions). Some critical issues, such as the admission of new Member States, require the unanimous support of all existing Member States.

ESO Council is supported by key committees including the Finance Committee (FC), the Scientific Technical Committee (STC), the Users Committee (UC) and the Observing Programmes Committee (OPC). The Australian representatives on these committees are appointed by the Australian government through the Department of Industry (and with the advice of its ESO Coordinating Committee) and currently are Janean Richards (FC; COO, Dept of Industry), Michael Ireland (STC) and Caroline Foster (UC); a number of Australian astronomers serve on the OPC.

Council meetings are attended by members of the ESO Executive as well as the members of Council. This means the Director General (Xavier Barcons); the Directors of Administration (Claudia Burger), Science (Rob Ivison), Operations (Andreas Kaufer), Engineering (Michèle Péron), and Programmes (Adrian Russell); the Heads of Finance and Legal & Administrative Affairs, and the leaders of key programmes (ELT Project, ALMA Support Centre).

The Australian representatives sit in on most items of the Council agenda but are excluded from discussions relating to sensitive matters (mainly financial and staffing decisions) restricted to Member States or relating to ELT or ALMA, as per the partnership agreement. On the whole, however, our experience has been that ESO Council has been very welcoming to the Australian observers, with a clear bias towards including us rather than excluding us, even for quite detailed briefings regarding internal ESO matters and updates on ELT and ALMA. As observers we do not have a vote, but we can (and do) participate in the discussions and are consulted and listened to on matters that affect Australia’s enjoyment of its strategic partnership.

Overall, we have been positively impressed by the functioning of the ESO Council. Although its size and multinational composition mean that it proceeds in a somewhat stately manner, it is composed of capable and committed individuals who, while representing their national interests, also clearly recognise and respect the greater good of the partnership and are rightly proud of ESO’s successes as the largest observatory in the world.


Michael Murphy is the Australian representative on the ESO Science Technical Committee. Contact: [email protected]

Caroline Foster is the Australian representative on the ESO Users Committee. Contact: [email protected]

Stuart Ryder is a Program Manager with AAL. Contact: [email protected]

Guest posts are also welcome – please submit these to [email protected]