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US Astronomers to face tough choices

GSSummit_snowTight budget projections have prompted the US National Science Foundation to launch a review that is likely to recommend consolidations or divestments for some major US astronomy facilities, officials warned a town hall meeting at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston today. “The time for difficult decisions is here,” said Tom Statler, a program director in the NSF’s division of astronomical sciences.

Jim Ulvestad, the division’s director, told the meeting that the current capital cost of astronomy facilities run by NSF is $1.2 billion, which will increase to $2 billion by the end of the decade once the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope are online. Assuming a facility costs 10% of its capital cost per year to run, the NSF astronomy budget will be $200 million in facilities alone, Ulvestad said. “There would basically be no money left over for grants,” he said. The current astronomy budget of NSF is $245 million and thanks to deficit control measures in Washington that is expected to fall or be flat over the next decade.

To respond to the situation, NSF will shortly be charging a portfolio review panel consisting of up to 20 researchers – most or all astronomers – to advise on where cuts should fall, Statler said, appealing to the floor for nominations of people who might serve. The panel will be asked to deliver a draft report by March 2012, in time to influence budget planning leading up to the intended start of LSST construction in 2014. “We know that this is going to affect the careers of a lot of people,” he added.

One facility that may see changes is the Gemini Observatory (GO), which consists of two 8.1 meter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. The Astro2010 decadal survey recommended that NSF consider consolidating the Gemini project with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory but that is complicated by the fact that GO is an international project whereas NOAO is a US organization. Ulvestad says GO governance is the problem he spends most time on at the moment.

At the town hall meeting, Ulvestad also acknowledged news that the agency has decided to switch management of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico from Cornell University, which has run it since 1963, to a consortium led by Menlo-Park-California-based SRI International. NSF officials had previously declined comment because the award hasn’t yet been made. “There hasn’t been a hand-off of this type in astronomy before,” Ulvestad said. In response to questions he said SRI International was selected because its bid included a particularly strong involvement by Puerto Rican institutions, but declined to discuss the Cornell bid.

Image: Gemini South/ Gemini Observatory


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