NRAO director updates Pocahontas Commission
Marlinton, W.Va. – The Pocahontas County Commission held an abridged meeting Tuesday morning due to the untimely passing of Commissioner Martin Saffer’s wife, Sheila. The commission limited the meeting to two items for which people had traveled from out-of-town.
The commission heard an update from NRAO site director Karen O’Neil, who discussed a recent National Science Foundation committee recommendation to de-fund the Green Bank Telescope – the GBT.
O’Neil says a lack of funding for astronomy led to the recommendation.
“What happens is, every 10 years the U.S. astronomy community has what they call a decadal report,” she said.
“The most recent one came out in 2010.
“That report came out with the concept that, when they wrote it, they believed the National Science Foundation astronomy budget was going to double over the decade. Since then, the NSF astronomy budget certainly hasn’t doubled. In fact, it’s held flat and it’s currently predicted to remain flat throughout all or most of the upcoming decade.”
The original NSF plan, which assumed increased astronomy funding, included construction of two and possibly three new telescopes in Chile. O’Neil says the committee recommended de-funding, or divestiture, of six U.S. facilities in order to maintain the overseas construction plan.
“As soon as you make the decision that you need to build new instruments and you have a flat budget, you’ve got to take something out of your budget,” she said. “You simply can’t build something new if you don’t take out something that already exists. And so, they have six national telescopes listed for divestiture. Two of them are owned by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. One is the Green Bank site – the GBT. The other one is a series of telescopes that are distributed around the country called the Very Long Baseline Array. And then there are additional telescopes – optical telescopes – that all exist up on Kit Peak national Observatory.”
The director says NRAO staff is working on a response to the committee recommendation, which will clarify the impact to astronomical research of the loss of the GBT.
“Do they really understand, that if you shut, for example, the GBT, that many of the planetary radar – these experiments to go and look at the planets and the solar system – can’t actually be done?” she said. “Again, you have to know the details of the instruments to understand it. So, we’re going through that report and we’re working on that response right now and it’s aimed towards both the National Science Foundation and the committee members, to make sure that they fully understand the implications of this, so that, as the National Science Foundation moves forward, they have a very clear picture of what it is they would lose.”
O’Neil says the NSF published a plan to make the final decision Green Bank by December of this year.
“Currently the NSF’s plan, at least as they have it publicly out on their website, is that they’ll have a response to this report and a path forward on the divestiture out by December of this calendar year,” she said.
Senator Jay Rockefeller representative Phil Lewis, participating by speakerphone, said the NSF had made assurances no decision would be made until December of next year.
“NSF officials have pledged that no decision would be made on the divestment until the end of 2013,” he said.
O’Neil clarifies the issue with Lewis.
“According to the website, the plans would be out soon, but no action would take place until the end of 2013,” O’Neil said. “Have they extended the decision by 12 months or just the action?”
“NSF officials pledged to us that the decision would not be made until the end of 2013,” Lewis responded.
An additional year would give NRAO more time to coordinate alternate funding sources.
Business manager Mike Hostine discusses NRAO’s economic impact.
“Well, last year, we had about 50,000 tourists through the facility,” he said.
“Tourism dollars, alone, contributes about $7.5 million to the county.
“If you couple that with the salary base of the employees there – the percentage of wages that are used for their living expenses, buying gas or groceries and everything else – add that to the tourism dollars – the total’s about $22.5 million a year.”
Commissioner David Fleming recommended the commission send letters of support for the GBT to the NSF and elected officials. O’Neil requested that the commission wait until the NRAO response is published and Fleming agreed.
The NRAO will host a town hall meeting and open house on September 23 See the observatory website at www.nrao.edu for details.