Senator Manchin visits NRAO in Green Bank to talk about the site’s future
No one questions the value of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank to Pocahontas County, to the state of West Virginia and to the scientific community at large, not to mention all of the unmatched educational opportunities the site provides each year. So why does a cloud of doubt still hang over the future of the facility?
That was the primary question discussed during a visit to the observatory last week by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin, very familiar with the observatory from his work as senator and former governor of West Virginia, wonders why more isn’t being done to address the question.
“Tell me who does what we do here, and why has the federal government not stepped up to the plate and not held this at a higher importance for our national interest really,” said Manchin. “The funding becomes quite complex at times, and right now with sequestration and all the different things that have happened and our country getting in such a mess and politics being so toxic, and you really jeopardize good programs that we have, really essential programs for our country.”
Manchin said he’s concerned that the NRAO at Green Bank is becoming less of a priority with the National Science Foundation, the primary source of funding for the facility, and that science as a whole seems to be less of a priority for the country.
“You’re starting to see a lack of concern or a lack of interest – that worries me more than anything,” said Manchin. “We don’t have an interest from the standpoint of the national sciences, or the sciences if you will, until other countries put that on higher priority. And you’ve got other countries trying to move into it, [like] China; China’s moving in so many different directions that we watching every day.”
Manchin said he’s working with other senator’s to remind them of the importance of the site, but admits it can be a hard sell to someone who’s never visited it. Site Director Dr. Karen O’Neil said employment at the NRAO is between 105 and 155 employees per year. The economic impact to the region and state from scientific and tourism activities generates about 30 million dollars in revenue each year.
Manchin pointed out that’s a 30 million dollar hole that the state can’t fill and that’s part of the message that the NSF needs to hear, and to take that message to the highest levels of government. O’Neil agreed, but said from a scientific standpoint, their priorities are on doing the science, not lobbying for the funding to support it. Manchin suggested a good place to start might be in talking with philanthropists like David Rubinstein, and others who he said are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of leadership in the federal government.
NRAO electrical engineer Tim Weadon said he believes the NSF’s assessment of the facility, conducted 2 years ago was not a fair evaluation.
“I believe that many of us here, especially the scientific staff believe that the assessment that NSF had on Green Bank was very flawed,” said Weadon. “But we are employees of NSF and we can’t say anything. But in terms of what NSF has done to us in saying ‘you can take this work and put it over here, you can move it to Germany, you can move to Puerto Rico; they made a lot of basic mistakes that are wrong.”
The result of that assessment was a recommendation of divestiture of Green Bank to the NSF and to put the money used to operate the facility into other projects around the world. O’Neil said she is encouraged that they have not yet acted on that request and are still keeping an open mind on the future of the site.
“It’s very clear to me that the NSF has taken a look at that recommendation, but also looked at more realistically all the things we do, and decided not to fully accept that recommendation,” said O’Neil. “In other words, we’re still here, we’re still looking for opportunities, and in fact they’re interested in continuing to fund us at some level to make sure that we can stay open.”
But the continuing uncertainty about the level of funding is also having an effect on employee morale, according to Electronics division head John Ford.
“We’re living with this big cloud hanging over us and nobody can tell us what’s going to happen,” he said, “we’ve not heard a single word from them. But that’s maybe the worst thing of all, you have this beautiful facility and all these very talented people sitting here waiting to find out what’s going to happen. And the first opportunity that someone has to go somewhere else that has just as exciting a job, they’re going to take it.”
Chris Clark, head of the computing division agrees, saying he’s already lost some personnel and that it’s becoming harder to recruit talented people to come to Green Bank.
O’Neil said she understands the frustrations, but with the federal government basically continuing to operate on continuing resolutions, they can do little but wait to see what happens and to continue to work on securing other funding and partnerships that will allow the site to continue well into the future. Senator Manchin again pledged to do all in his power to help.