November 9, 2006

Arecibo May Lose Funding

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Last Friday, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced an internal review committee’s recommendation to raise $30 million for future astronomy projects and facilities by slashing its contributions to current projects and facilities. Cornell’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico was one of the hardest hit: the report suggested that, unless they can find outside funding, the observatory should close sometime after 2011. If enacted, the plan will cut funding for Arecibo by up to $2.5 million per year
Cornell’s official statement on the matter is that the University “will not take any actions which would lead to closing Arecibo,” according to Prof. Martha Haynes, astronomy.

The report was given by a committee of astronomers known as the Senior Review panel, who were appointed by the NSF over two years ago to reallocate funding within the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences based on the projects they felt were the most beneficial to the scientific community. They recommended cutting funding to Arecibo and a number of other national observatories by 20 to 25 percent over the next four years and possibly closing Arecibo. Cornell astronomers stress, however, that the committee merely gave suggestions on how to redistribute funding.

“The senior report is an advisory tool to the NSF,” said Prof. Jim Cordes, astronomy. “How the NSF chooses to act on it is still up in the air.”

Prof. Joe Burns, vice provost for physical sciences and engineering, called the committee’s suggestions “harsh and unrealistic.”

“We feel that the Senior Review panel ignored several important aspects of Arecibo,” said Burns, a professor of theoretical and applied mechanics.

Haynes and Cordes echoed this sentiment. Arecibo, with its 1000-foot diameter dish, is the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world and can collect light from a much larger slice of the universe than its smaller relatives. This makes it ideal for conducting large-scale surveys of the sky, many of which are conducted by Cornell astronomers.

“We basically sweep the sky looking for pulsars, ionized clouds of hydrogen, surveying the galaxy and extra-galactic space,” Burns said.

The Senior Review report stated that the current surveys would be finished by 2010, which was a significant error. The surveys are actually expected to continue for at least another ten years.

“We were asked by the Senior Review group when the survey would finish, and we said we would be half finished in 2011. They took it to mean that we would be finished in 2011,” said Burns. “Furthermore, the reason you do a survey is to find weird things. When you find something weird, you go back, and you study it. We are probably the only people who will be able to study most of the weird things we find, because we’ve got the world’s largest telescope.”

Haynes agreed with Burns, adding, “The most interesting objects are the faint ones. The only telescope you can observe these faint objects with is Arecibo.”

If Arecibo closed, scientists would lose this capability to study the oddities of the universe.

“Another aspect that has been ignored is the fact that the telescope is also used by the atmospheric community,” as opposed to the astronomical community, said Burns. “That part of the NSF was not consulted on this.”

Cornell astronomers feel that it would be extremely unfair to go through with closing the primary atmospheric observatory without even asking the researchers who would be affected by it.

By cutting Arecibo’s funding, the NSF may actually be endangering the safety of the planet. Arecibo is also the world’s most sensitive radar telescope and has been used to characterize asteroids that could threaten to collide with the earth.

This capability is “unique in the world and expensive,” according to Haynes. “If the budget is reduced 25 percent, we can’t operate the radar. This is obvious to us,” she said.

According to Haynes and Burns, NASA has a Congressional mandate to identify and characterize all the near-earth asteroids.

“If we ever find a threatening asteroid, we can use Arecibo to really understand its composition,” said Burns. “We want to know whether or not this thing is made up of blue cheese or made up of iron, because you’re going to use one strategy to deflect it if it’s blue cheese and another if it’s iron.”

In light of this, Cornell will urge NASA to fund the planetary radar functions of Arecibo from now on.

The Review committee also ignored the value of the visitor’s center and the observatory to Puerto Rico and to the effort to diversify the scientific community, according to Cordes.

Burns agreed, adding, “One of the pillars of the NSF is to diversify the workforce. Here you’ve got a facility where 85 percent of the employees are Hispanic, where 95 percent of visitors — and that’s 120,000 visitors a year, more than all the other NSF facilities combined — are Hispanic. It’s the primary educational, scientific outreach facility in Puerto Rico.”

Arecibo is also a valuable classroom for Cornell grad students and undergrads alike: according to Haynes, 53 grad students used Arecibo in 2004, 15 undergrads spent the summer at the observatory in 2005, and another estimated 20 undergrads used the telescope in 2005.

Haynes feels that there is a lot of reason for optimism. The NSF has agreed to spend $5 million to clean and paint the telescope platform, ensuring its safety for the next 20 years. She thinks that this strongly demonstrates that the NSF doesn’t actually want Arecibo to close.

“They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and in effect telling us what they think of the Senior Review decision,” she said. “You don’t close a telescope you’ve just painted, and you don’t paint a telescope you’re about to close.”

Astronomers from Cornell and Arecibo are preparing a report to send to the NSF, bringing these errors and oversights to their attention.

“This is a challenge to us to prove that the committee was not 100% correct,” said Haynes. “We think we’re up to that challenge.”

The full text of the Senior Review report, “From the Ground Up: Balancing the NSF Astronomy Program,” can be reached from the NSF website,