NRAO director holds town hall on funding issue
Green Bank, W.Va. – A National Science Foundation committee recommended cutoff of federal funding for the Green Bank Telescope – the GBT. NRAO site director Karen O’Neil hosted a town hall meeting at the observatory science center Wednesday evening to inform the public of the possible repercussions of the recommendation.
O’Neil describes the Green Bank Telescope.
“The GBT is a unique instrument and it is the best in the world at single-dish radio astronomy,” she said.
The director says NRAO employs more than just scientists.
“Well, in fact, just a very small part of our staff are astronomers – only about 10 out of the 110-140 people that we have working here,” she said. “The rest are engineers, technicians, plant maintenance, electricians, cafeteria workers – the whole realm.”
The U.S. astronomical community develops a research and construction plan every 10 years. O’Neil says the 2010 plan included incorrect assumptions about astronomy funding.
“Well, at that time, the National Science Foundation’s budget was predicted to be increasing at a fairly high rate and, in fact, doubling over the next 10 years,” she said. “And so, the people that wrote the report made the assumption that the astronomy budget within the National science Foundation would also double over the next 10 years.
“Then, the economy continued to slide downwards and things didn’t look quite as good for the federal budget. The federal government did decide to continue this upward trend for the National Science Foundation. They put a huge focus on science and so, they continued this path towards doubling the National Science Foundation’s budget over the decade. Unfortunately, the astronomy budget within the NSF did not follow that path. The astronomy budget was kept flat.”
The 2010 astronomy plan includes construction of three new facilities in South America. Faced with a budget shortfall, the NSF committee recommended de-funding six facilities in the U.S. in order to fund three new projects in Chile.
“Now, as soon as you say, ‘we’re going to go and we’re going to build new instruments,’ that were predicted up here, when they thought the budget was going really good, and there’s a scenario where the budget is flat, you immediately have to start taking things out of the existing budget – and that’s what happened,” the director said.
“We want to divest these, so that they can begin building new instruments.
“All three of these are to be built down in Chile, with some access as a national facility, but primarily, as university facilities.”
O’Neil says the NSF recognizes the value of the GBT.
“The NSF is not looking to close this facility,” she said. “They just don’t want to pay for us anymore. Which is like a bit of having your cake and eating it, too. But, it’s a lot better than them recommending closure. The reason they don’t recommend closure for this site is because – they repeatedly state – that the loss of this facility is going to have a huge impact on astronomy and astronomy education in the United States and the world. So,they know that.”
The director says West Virginia’s federal government delegation is working on the issue.
“Our legislative bodies are fantastic, right now,” she said. “They are talking with the National Science Foundation to try and understand exactly what’s going on. So, they’ve been meeting. They’ve met a couple of times already. This would be senators Rockefeller and Manchin and Representative Rahall, primarily. And, they’re meeting again tomorrow with them. As we learn anything about that, we’ll certainly get that information out.”
O’Neil says the NSF can reject the committee recommendation in whole or part.
“The NSF has certainly rejected committee recommendations before,” she said. “It’s accepted partial committee recommendations before and it has gotten new committees together. So, yes, this is 100-percent a recommendation. It is not a done deal.”
The director said other sources of funding for the GBT could be found, but that open access to the instrument’s unique capabilities could be curtailed, as a result. A petition to fund the GBT can be found at www.change.org. More information on the committee recommendation can be found at the NRAO website at science.nrao.edu.