“Tough Times” at the Observatory, but Getting Better
After hearing rumors that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has recently been losing financial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), I decided to talk with Mike Holstine, the Business Manager at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to separate fact from rumor. Mike confirmed that recently the Observatory has been losing funding.
“Like my little cartoon over there says ‘Tough times at the planetarium’, it is a challenging time for the Observatory” said Holstine. “We have certainly been working with the National Science Foundation pretty hard to ensure the livability of the facility. Our funding level certainly is dropping from the National Science Foundation. That’s their need in their present economic situation.”
But Mike added that they have known about this and have been preparing. Mike.
“And they had told us a couple of years ago that this was going to happen and we needed to try and find some extra sources of funding” Holstine said. “So we have been working hard to do that, and have actually have been fairly successful at it. We have several contracts for the use of our telescopes, not just the GBT (Green Bank Telescope) but the 140 foot telescope as well. Some of those are somewhat long term; some of them are short term- one or two year contracts.”
And one project in particular has helped out.
“The project that really put a boost into us was the ‘Breakthrough Listen Project’ said Holstine. “It was funded as a 10 year project by a private investor, and will search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The one telescope on this end of the planet that will be in that is the GBT. And it is a great infusion of money into our budget, which is really going to help us. We’ve signed a 5 year contract. We anticipate that will be renewed for a second 5 years. And we are searching for maybe one or two other projects that will completely fill all of the gaps that we have presently. And we still have a year or so to do that, so we’re pretty positive about where we are going.”
Mike says the new direction of the Observatory holds opportunity as well as challenge.
“As I said, it has been challenging” Mike said. “It has been an opportunity for the Observatory to grow in different ways because some of this funding may eventually come from commercial entities instead of just commercial entities. And that means we will be doing things differently than we had in the past, but we are using the telescopes in different ways than they had before as well. That also opens up some opportunities for us and some challenges too, and most of the people that do any job of any sort do it because there are some challenges involved. That’s what makes it satisfying. So it’s certainly not something here that the staff is shying away from.”
According to Mike, the Observatory here in Green Bank is undergoing a process of divestiture from the NSF. He pointed out that the Observatory here in Green Bank is actually run by a non-profit corporation called Associated Universities Inc., so no one at the Observatory is a government employee. Under the divestiture, the NRAO here in Green Bank will, starting next Fall, operate independently under the new name “The Green Bank Observatory” instead of the current name, NRAO, and he sees this as a good thing.
What will this mean? Mike explains.
“Probably what the public will see, probably won’t change much at all” said Holstine. “We’re going to continue to search for sources of external funding in every way we can because as you and I and everyone knows, the one thing that is not certain is what the Federal Government is going to do, so we want to be prepared for that. But we think that the operation of our telescopes here and our educational programs if anything are probably going to expand and maybe even have more offerings to the public, both locally and to the general public to come and see what is going on here. I think it is possible a pretty exciting time. We’ll be having an open house in September. The public is absolutely invited to come. It is all free. You may see a big roll out at that time –so there’s a teaser- you might see a lot of things changing here as far as the visibility of the Green Bank Observatory.”