County bands together to fight divestiture of NRAO
Concerned residents spoke out at the town hall meeting Wednesday at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Education Center after hearing news that the National Science Foundation is considering a recommendation to divest the NRAO Green Bank site.
NRAO Site Director Karen O’Neil gave a brief explanation of actions that led to the divestment recommendation.
“The astronomy community works fairly tightly together to look toward the future, and they always have,” she said. “So, every 10 years, the U.S. Astronomy community gets together and they put out what they call the decadal survey.”
The decadal survey looks at the state of science where it is now and where it will be 10 years from now. The astronomers look to the future and try to identify what the most important science topics are or will be.
“In 2010, one of the decadal surveys came out and it had a lot of recommendations for what NASA should do and what the NSF should do, looking forward in order to achieve these fantastic science goals they had,” O’Neil said.
When the decadal survey made these recommendations, it was assumed the NSF Astronomy budget would continue to increase, like the rest of the NSF budget.
“The economy continued to slide downwards and things didn’t look as good in the federal budget,” O’Neil said. “The federal government did decide to continue this upward trend for the NSF. They put a huge focus on science – the last administration and the current administration – and so they continued to put money into the National Science Foundation and continued this path toward doubling the NSF budget over the decade.”
Unfortunately, the astronomy budget did not increase and was in fact, flat. Now, with the decadal survey recommendations, the NSF is looking for funding to create new facilities.
“As soon as you say we’re going to go and build new instruments that were predicted when they thought the budget was going really good, [and put it] into a scenario where the budget was flat, you immediately have to start taking things out of the existing budget,” O’Neil explained.
The committee’s recommendations were to divest the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Large Baseline Array (VLBA) in Socorro, New Mexico, and the four optical telescopes in Kitt Peak, Arizona.
The funds saved from the divestiture will be used for three new facilities which will all be located in Chile, South America. Construction will begin on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the CCAT and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope in 2016 if the divestiture is approved.
O’Neil clarified that NSF does not want to close the Green Bank facility.
“The NSF is not looking to close this facility, they just don’t want to pay for us anymore,” she said. “The reason they don’t recommend closure for the site is because they repeatedly say 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.”
Although the divestiture is just a recommendation and the NSF has turned down committee recommendations before, the NRAO is operating under the worst case scenario in order to be prepared for the future.
O’Neil said the facility has begun the arduous task of looking for other funding sources and said Pocahontas County’s representatives have followed suit.
“Our legislative bodies are fantastic right now,” O’Neil said. “They are talking with the National Science Foundation to try to understand exactly what is going on in terms of the report for divestiture. They are looking at the ideas behind it.”
State Sentators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, as well as Representative Nick Rahall have been lobbying for assistance to either stop the divestiture or to find alternate funding.
At this point in time, O’Neil said the best thing supporters can do is get information out to the public and to add their voice to the cause.
“Jerry Beck started a change.org petition, it has over 1,200 signatures on it,” she said. “That’s fantastic. Steve Weir and the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Council, along with David Fleming of the county commission, have been working on putting information out on a website.”
Weir said he got permission from the West Virginia Film Commission to use 126 photographs of the Green Bank site on the website to draw attention. He is also setting up a Facebook page and Twitter feed for the cause, and added that he secured the domain named www.savethegbt.org which will be live by next week.
O’Neil said the NRAO website will have updates, but cannot advocate or suggest what people should do or say.
“We are funded by the federal government and I cannot advocate politics,” she said. “I cannot ask you to do anything politically, but I’m happy to answer any questions you have.”
While the entire NRAO site is in danger of losing funds, the greater loss to not only the country, but to the world, is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or the GBT.
The world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope not only attracts astronomers from all over the world, but engineers and electricians, as well.
“There is absolutely no wasted time on the GBT,” O’Neil said. “The astronomy community is clamoring for equipment that we have. For every three-and-a-half-hours of science time requested by the [astronomy] community, about one hour is granted.”
While it has only been in operation nine years, the GBT is still a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that receives upgrades on a regular basis.
“It was built with the idea to be continuously improved,” O’Neil said. “With the surface of 2.3 acre collecting area, it is accurate to within five human hairs across the entire dish. It’s incredibly perfect. In the last five years alone, there has been $26 million invested into this facility from colleges, universities and the state of West Virginia to continue to upgrade it. It is by no means an older facility.”
What makes the GBT even more unique is that international and U.S. astronomers have the opportunity to work together because the GBT is open for anyone to use, as long as their proposal is approved.
“Although the majority of our projects we have here on the telescope have U.S. observers on them, astronomy is an international game, so there’s a huge number of international astronomers who also use the telescope, usually hand-in-hand with the U.S astronomers, which I think is fantastic,” O’Neil said. “It allows the people in the U.S. to work with the best in the world.”
The NSF suggested that, if the GBT were to lose funding, that U.S. astronomers could turn to international facilities to collect data, including the Effelsburg telescope in Germany.
“It’s a 100-meter telescope that is fully steerable. It’s a much older telescope, too,” O’Neil said. “They said U.S. astronomers can apply for use on Effelsburg to do their science at higher frequencies. That’s simply not true and the directors of Effelsburg have agreed with that fact.”
Effelsburg is trying to make sure that the astronomy community understands that the NSF was wrong and that the facility is only open for use for a fraction of the time the GBT is.
O’Neil said even if the facility would be available, it needs a lot of work to match the abilities of the GBT.
Germany is not alone in its exclusivity. Most telescopes in other countries are privately owned and kept private. The telescopes are only open for use by the contributors to the facilities. This might be the case for the Green Bank site if it seeks funds from private contributors.
Given that the NSF funding will leave the United States to fund projects built in Chile, creating international facilities, Business Manager Mike Holstine said he is concerned about losing federal funding to another country.
“The national facilities were created, and I quote, ‘to keep the United States at the forefront of science,’” he said. “What concerns me is that they’re closing the national facilities and putting the money in others parts of the world.”
Chile was selected for the new instruments due to the appeal of its location, terrain and small population.
“The reason astronomers are global is because we have to keep moving away from all these people all the time,” O’Neil said. “We have to go to areas where you have a very dry environment and to try to go to an area that is very unpopulated. To get a very dry atmosphere, you get two things. First, you go to a desert, but that’s not good enough, you want to go to a high desert, so you’re actually moving up in the atmosphere and you’re reducing the amount of stuff you have to look through to get to see what you want to see.”
With that in mind, the sites in Chile are ideal, but O’Neil is worried about the availability of the new instruments, especially to students.
“I can say that it is very difficult for students to get to Chile,” she said. “It is very difficult to get to the high sites. The astronomers like me who already know what we’re doing, we’d be in pretty good shape. We could use them, we could use them remotely. It’s the students I worry about and the student access to the facilities.”
Each year, thousands of students, from kindergarten to college, come to the NRAO to study the telescopes and the skies.
West Virginia University has developed a working relationship with the NRAO, where students and professors come to the site to work on astronomy and engineering projects. O’Neil is also an adjunct professor at the university.
“The loss of the GBT to WVU would be significant,” O’Neil said.
Universities are one of the types of facilities the NRAO has considered for alternate funding sources but O’Neil said it is difficult to find any one organization to fund a site like Green Bank.
Others suggested asking the Sugar Grove Naval Base and the Department of Defense for funding.
O’Neil said the NRAO cannot be funded by the DOD as long as it is a federally-funded facility. The DOD is not a good option because the facility may no longer be ran as a fully open source/open sky facility.
Holstine explained that the Sugar Grove Naval Base provided funds in the past for use of three telescopes, but it is no longer utilizing services in Green Bank. The base is also downsizing, with the naval facility moving to a different base, but the observatory will stay in Sugar Grove.
“We need sustaining funds, not one time funds, which is a different ballgame,” she said. “It’s more straightforward to get someone to donate once than to say we need funds to continue for many, many years.”
The operating budget for the NRAO is an estimated $10 million a year. O’Neil said 85 percent – about $8.5 million – of that goes into salaries, which in turn, returns to the county and state. The NRAO is the fourth or fifth largest employer in the county, and alternates with Snowshoe Mountain Resort, depending on the season.
Holstine added that the NRAO attracts $7.5 million in tourism dollars.
The NRAO has several options to consider, depending on the final decision made by the NSF. O’Neil said it could result in the NSF rejecting the divestiture, or it could result in the site losing funding.
If the site loses NSF funding and is unable to find alternate funds, O’Neil said it is possible the GBT would have to be disassembled.
“Were the NSF to decide to fully divest and were we unsuccessful in raising any other funds, then yes, that would be the ultimate result,” she said.
While the future is unknown, O’Neil said it is important to remember that the NSF has rejected committee recommendations in the past.
“NSF stated that they would have divestiture plans in place in December of this year,” she said. “That might be an ambitious plan on their part, but that is the current, official plan.”
O’Neil said the NRAO will continue to keep the county informed with new developments and will be available to answer any questions that may arise.