April 22, 2008

Puerto Rican Government Grants Funds to Arecibo

Print More

The Cornell-managed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has been under cost-cutting pressure due to budget cuts by the National Science Foundation. However, the observatory received a break with a new partnership agreement signed last week to bring in $2.3 million annually to Arecibo.
The National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center and the Puerto Rico Department of Education will run the program together, though the Department of Education will contribute the funds.
The money will go to fund a program called “Inspiration to Science,” which aims to educate kindergarten through 12th grade Puerto Rican school children.
“The money will provide for a bus to the schools to pick the children up, bring them to the observatory, tour the visitor center, get an overview of the observatory, provide lunch, and get them back to school,” said Robert Brown, director of the NAIC. “For the older children from seventh grade up till 12th there is a hands-on science workshop that gets presented as well.”
Currently, 30,000 school children have gone on guided tours to the observatory, but the goal of the program is to bring that number up to 50,000.
However, the money provided by the Department of Education will not help the research side of the observatory very much.
“I would say Arecibo is very important from the point of view of understanding how the universe works,” said James Cordes, astronomy. “The reason I think it’s important to Cornell is that there have been many graduate students trained at Arecibo and many undergraduates that have gotten research experiences. It is great for educating people all over the world.”
According to Cordes, the technology in Arecibo is unique because it can be used as a radar system. It allows researchers to calculate things such as the orbits of asteroids that may one day hit the Earth.
“Arecibo is irreplaceable because it is the only telescope in the world that can really do the forefront of this sort of work, and is 20 times more sensitive than the one other telescope that is similar to it,” said Donald Campbell, astronomy, who was director of Arecibo for seven years.
The 2009 budget for Arecibo was cut about $850,000 by the NSF, compared to the 2008 budget, according to Campbell. The NSF plans to further cut the budget in 2010 and again drastically cut it in 2011. This comes after the 2007 budget was cut by about $2 million from the previous year.
These budget cuts imply that the observatory cannot employ the right number of people to keep it operating as efficiently as possible.
Brown said that the NSF is cutting Arecibo’s budget because it is interested in building new facilities for research. The NSF feels that in order to build new facilities they need to close old ones to free up funds.
“Although it was founded more than 40 years ago, the facilities are not 40 years old,” Brown said. “The telescope has been resurfaced three times, the instrumentation is nearly brand new and hence the facility is not 40 years old.”
Cornell’s role in Arecibo is to function as a managing organization. Arecibo belongs to the United States government and is operated for the U.S. academic community by the NAIC. The NAIC does not have a legal identity so it cannot sign contracts and employ people, which is where Cornell steps in. All of the employees at Arecibo and all of the people who work for the NAIC are Cornell employees.
Campbell said that he thinks Arecibo is going to continue to function for quite some time, although it is clearly facing some serious funding issues that need to be resolved.
“I think that future is good. I think that the new program is a great use of the funds in Puerto Rico because Arecibo is great for educating young people all over the world,” Brown said.