Criticism of the Government is a cherished prerogative of a democratic people. Shortcomings that would be regarded as inevitable in the conduct of a private institution, when discovered under Government control, are apt to be the target of very free speech. We believe that the scientific work at Washington is, on the whole, carried on as economically and efficiently as in our endowed universities, but no human institution is perfect, and just now the U. S. Naval Observatory is being subjected to a good deal of criticism by the astronomers of the country. There is a general consensus of opinion that, while researches and discoveries of the highest order have been made at the Naval Observatory, there has been a lack of the far-reaching and long-continued fundamental work which should be the chief end of a national institution of this character. It is also pretty generally agreed that one chief difficulty is the division of control, the Observatory having for superintendent a line officer of the Navy, with no knowledge of astronomy and a scientific director with no real authority. Last year a board of visitors was appointed by Secretary Long, consisting of the Hon. William E. Chandler, the Hon. Alston G. Dayton, Prof. E. C. Pickering, Prof. George C. Comstock and Prof. George E. Hale, who made a careful report, their chief recommendation being that the Observatory be under the control of a permanent board of visitors, who should prescribe the work to be undertaken and fill vacancies on the staff, the astronomers so appointed to be no longer officers of the Navy. The naval officer who happens to be superintendent of the Observatory has just now made a rather acrimonious reply to the report of the board of visitors, calling its recommendations 'preposterous' and 'ridiculous,' and maintaining that the work done at Washington is equal to that of the Greenwich Observatory.
It must be confessed that there is small likelihood that the recommendations of the board of visitors will be carried into effect. The naval officers at Washington have great and well deserved influence, and they must be persuaded either to consent to the transfer of the Observatory to another department or else to conduct the institution under the Navy in the way that will be most creditable to it and to the country. We regard the latter alternative as the more feasible. There may ultimately be a national department of education and science with a secretary in the cabinet, but the time for this has not yet come. In the meanwhile scientific work is distributed to different departments, and the Department of the Navy can conduct the Observatory, as is the case in Great Britain and France, as well as another department, even though the work of the Observatory and the Nautical Almanac are not exclusively, and perhaps not chiefly, of concern to the Navy. The stars—so long as they are not annexed—may logically belong to the department having to do with foreign affairs, but in this world logic is of less concern than making the best of existing circumstances. What we regard as essential is to convince the Department and the officers of the Navy that there should be a single head of the Observatory, selected as the man most competent by scientific attainments and executive ability to administer the institution. The promotion of the officer longest in the service to the scientific directorship and his retirement at the age of sixty-two years will certainly