June 12, 2011

After Nearly 50 Years, Cornell Loses Management of Arecibo Observatory

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Following nearly five decades of directing the world’s largest single-dish telescope, Cornell lost its multi-million dollar bid to continue operating Arecibo Observatory last month. As of Oct. 1, the site’s management will change hands to SRI International and a consortium of partner universities, according to the telescope’s current director, Prof. Donald Campbell, astronomy.The anticipated transfer of Arecibo’s management could jeopardize the competitive edge of Cornell’s astronomy program and the jobs of Cornell staffers at Arecibo, according to Campbell and Prof. James Cordes, astronomy.

Cornell does not own Arecibo, but it was contracted to manage the facility on a long-term basis by the National Science Foundation, Campbell said. Cornell has operated the Arecibo Observatory, located in Puerto Rico, since its construction in 1963.

“I’m very regretful that Cornell will no longer be operating [Arecibo],” said Campbell, who has conducted research at the observatory since 1965.

The NSF made the decision to transfer Arecibo’s management this year following a competitive bidding process between Cornell and SRI International, the only two bidders. The contract is a five-year agreement worth $42 million to SRI International, the organization stated in a press release.

The decision by NSF to transfer operations could imperil the jobs of 110 Cornell employees at the observatory, according to Campbell.

“We hope they will be reemployed by SRI International, but we don’t know if they will be and they don’t know themselves,” he said.

The NSF’s decision to shift management could undermine Cornell’s astronomy program and put the department at a competitive disadvantage, according to Cordes.

“A lot of our resource opportunities were tied to the organization,” Cordes said. “It’s definitely a setback that we have to deal with.”

Cordes, who has conducted research at Arecibo since 1972, said he has traveled to Puerto Rico “more than times that I can count, at least a couple of hundred times.”

“We at astronomy tend to rack up a lot of frequent-flyer miles,” he said.

Cordes said that the decision to change management lacked a clear pretext.

“My feeling is that I really think the NSF made a questionable decision,” he said. The transfer “wasn’t a scientific decision; it was a management decision.”

Because Cordes has not had the opportunity to view SRI International’s proposal, he said he was only speculating as to the rationale behind the NSF decision. However, he said “there may have been somewhat of a mandate [from the NSF] to change managers,” and given the weak fiscal climate, “the budget will be tight, and that always puts pressure on how things work well.”

Aside from budgetary constraints, Cordes remained skeptical of the ultimate decision. “It may be that the competing proposal said that they could operate it better than Cornell, but I don’t believe that,” he said.

Campbell suggested other reasons why the NSF opted for SRI International’s proposal. Cornell maintained its operations headquarters on the Ithaca campus, a distance from Arecibo that may eventually cause problems, he said.

“The reviewers felt very strongly that they wanted the headquarters at Arecibo,” Campbell said.

The NSF did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Despite Cornell’s losing bid, Campbell maintained that Cornell researchers and professors would still be able to visit the facility and conduct research. Even when the University operated Arecibo, Cornell professors and students were required to submit access proposals, as did other institutions.

“If Cornell or any other Cornell faculty member wants to continue to use Arecibo, we can put a proposal in and hopefully they will be accepted,” Campbell said.

Campbell recounted Arecibo’s many discoveries and his own personal experience at the facility.  Campbell said Arecibo is “a fantastic telescope with people doing very cutting edge research.” Research conducted at the observatory garnered a Nobel Prize in physics and in a separate breakthrough, verified Einstein’s work on the existence gravitational radiation, he said.

Cordes said he hoped that the observatory would continue to operate effectively and that a dose of optimism was necessary.

“I work with a lot of younger people. Younger people are looking forward and that’s very healthy, that’s what you have to do,” he said.

Original Author: Max Schindler