May 1, 2008

Skeptics Challenge Clinton's Push to Fund C.U.'s Arecibo

Print More

As the Cornell-operated Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico struggles to find financial support after the National Science Foundation slashed its funding, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is proposing, in legislation she introduced two weeks ago, that the NSF completely restore the research facility’s grants. But with just a month until the Puerto Rican primary, some Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) supporters are calling the move political posturing.
On April 15, Clinton introduced a bill in the Senate — S.2862 — that directs the NSF to “ensure that the Arecibo Observatory is fully funded.” The bill cites the scientific and research value of the observatory and also calls for the observatory’s collaboration with NASA for the research of near-Earth objects.
Arecibo is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is operated by Cornell under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. In 2006, the observatory was dealt a major blow when an NSF Senior Review panel drastically cut its funding. By 2011, Arecibo will receive four million dollars, only half of the funding Cornell needs to safely operate the observatory, according to Jacqueline Powers, director of Cornell’s Federal Relations.
“We recognize that the bill … is really just a show of support and does not have any real teeth or expectation of passing,” said Powers. “We are of course pleased that Senator Clinton recognizes and supports the important contributions that [Arecibo] has made and can continue to make to the world’s scientific community.”
In October, the representative from Puerto Rica Luis Fotuño (R-P.R.) introduced a nearly identical bill — H.R. 3737 — in the House of Representatives. Clinton’s introduction of the same legislation in the Senate just weeks before the June 1 Democratic primary in P.R. has drawn criticism from local Obama supporters.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Obama supporters on the island questioned the timing of the bill.
“Arecibo has been in peril for a while now,” Andrés López, co-director of Obama’s campaign in Puerto Rico, told The Sentinel. “That she, by chance, finds about it now is an example of the type of old politics that Obama wants to change. The timing is more than suspect.”
Despite these allegations, Cornell professors and Arecibo researchers did not think the bill was politically motivated.
Prof. Donald Campbell, astronomy, who was director of Arecibo for seven years, suggested that the legislation is not necessarily related to the primary.
“There are many people of Puerto Rican extraction and background in New York State, and they care very much about Puerto Rico,” Campbell said. “Senator Clinton is interested in being helpful to residents of her state.”
“I would hope that the observatory does not in any fashion get involved directly in politics,” said Campbell. “That’s not something we would be interested in doing. We’re just working for the good of the observatory and the good of Puerto Rico in terms of the observatory’s role in it.”
According to Robert Brown, director of the NAIC, Arecibo is not the major political issue in Puerto Rico given the island’s poor economic situation.
“In Puerto Rico, politics is a contact sport and the people routinely discuss politics,” said Brown. “When the observatory comes along and our financial situation is also not good and we have to lay off a quarter of our staff we get a lot of sympathy, but our situation pales in comparison to the other problems.”
Although Cornell did not specifically lobby for Clinton’s latest bill, the University has worked with Clinton, other members of Congress, and the NSF in an effort to keep Arecibo funded, according to Powers.
The University is seeking funding for Arecibo from a variety of sources, including NASA and another division of the NSF, she said.
Puerto Rico’s Department of Education recently granted Arecibo 2.3 million dollars, yet this money targeted tourism and educational programs. Powers said little of the funding is likely to go towards research.
While this bill does technically circumvent the NSF merit-review process, Powers said that Cornell is happy to receive this symbolic support.
Powers said that Cornell has never made any requests outside of the NSF’s peer-review and merit-based funding procedures and would not accept funding outside this process.
Any federal research funding at Cornell, according to University policy, must be obtained through peer-reviewed and merit-reviewed processes like the NSF and National Institutes of Health.
“We have a long, fruitful and valued relationship with the NSF,” Powers said, citing the large sums of money the University receives every year from the organization.