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Arecibo set for shake-up

arecibo.jpgCornell University has lost its long-term contract to run the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world’s biggest radio dish, Nature has confirmed. A decision this week by the US National Science Foundation means management of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) that includes the AO will move from Cornell to a consortium including SRI International, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), the Universidad Metropolitana, and other institutions.

Don Kniffen, vice-president for science at USRA, says that the budget for staff was lower in the consortium’s bid than in Cornell’s. Since 2006, the NSF has been looking to reduce costs at Arecibo with a view to eventually decommissioning it; a position that has been highly controversial among planetary scientists who say the facility’s radar capabilities provide for uniquely valuable observations of near-Earth asteroids. A 2010 call for bids by NSF says that agency funding for NAIC was $10.7 million in fiscal year 2010. It budgets around $8 million for the years 2012 through 2016.


Despite the lower staff budget, Kniffen says he doesn’t expect involuntary layoffs at the observatory as a result of the transition. “We have no plans to lay anybody off but we costed it with a few less staff,” he says, adding that the consortium hopes to retain as many of the incumbent staff as possible aside from some natural attrition. “We very much want to continue and expand on the wonderful science Arecibo has done,” he says.

The NSF has asked partners in the successful bid to keep the news low-key as details of the transition, scheduled to begin June 1st, are worked out, and a press spokeswoman for SRI was tight-lipped. But rumors of the shake-up leaked out publicly on astrophysicist Steinn Sigurðsson’s Dynamics of Cats blog on May 17.

As of initial posting time, Cornell news office had not yet responded to requests for information, but the decision seems likely to be a blow to astronomers there. Cornell’s Arecibo website makes clear the association between Cornell and Arecibo goes back a long way, since the observatory’s conception in 1960 by former Cornell electrical engineer William Gordon.

Update May 20: Robert Kerr, an atmospheric scientist who was PI on the successful bid, says that because the bids are confidential, he does not know whether the consortium costed less than Cornell did for payroll, and doubts it because the NSF specified in advance what amount the contract would be worth. He insists that there will be no layoffs at the AO site.

Corrected May 20: The text was corrected to reflect that the third member of the consortium is the Universidad Metropolitana, not the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). UPR is one of 13 supporting institutions on the successful bid.

Corrected June 1: The title of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center was corrected.

Image: The Arecibo Observatory / National Science Foundation/NAIC

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    Bob Kerr said:

    There are a couple points in this posting that should be clarified. First, the consortium is composed of SRI (as the lead), USRA, and Universidad Metroplitana (UMET) – rather than UPR. UPR is a partner through the joint support of two faculty positions at UPR Rio Piedras and UPR Mayaguez.

    Second, the operating budget for the Observatory was strictly stipulated in the bid solicitation, and thus all competitors likely had similar total budgets. We have no information how staff budgeting compares, but do not expect major layoffs.

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    Eugenie Samuel Reich said:

    Thanks, we have corrected that.

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