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Unless a partner is found to share operating expenses, NSF should consider scrapping the Arecibo radio observatory, a panel recommends.

Courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

Famed Radio Telescope Faces the Axe

Two major radio astronomy facilities--including the massive Arecibo telescope that fills a crater in Puerto Rico--could cease operations in 2011 as part of $30 million in cuts to astronomy programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The cuts, which also would affect optical astronomy programs, are recommended in a report presented today to senior NSF officials, who embraced them.

"We take the report very seriously," says NSF Director Arden Bement. "I intend to act on it" once the report has been formally accepted by the NSF's mathematics and physical sciences directorate. NSF requested the review a year ago to make room for new facilities--in particular, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, an array of 64 radio telescope now under construction in Chile--with an anticipated flat $191-million-a-year astronomy budget. "We were headed for a train wreck between the aspirations of the community and the reasonable budget prospects," says Wayne van Citters, director of NSF's division of astronomical sciences. He told the panel that only $50 million devoted to research grants was off-limits.

The committee, chaired by astronomer Roger Blandford of Stanford University, held seven town meetings and heard from the groups that run the five NSF-supported observatories in a grueling year-long review. "We were faced with the choice of closing facilities that are doing tremendous science or having no future program," Blandford says. "That's not an easy choice."

The recommendations call upon NSF to find partners to pay the lion's share of the operating budgets for Arecibo and for the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a network of 10 radio dishes stretching across the United States from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. If partners cannot be found by 2011, the committee concluded, then the facilities should be dismantled. The committee also recommended a 50% cut in the $13 million a year spent on administrative and scientific staff by National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which supports telescopes smaller than 4 meters in diameter at Kitt Peak in Arizona and Cerro Tololo in Chile. The committee recommended similar cuts to the $5 million staffing budget of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico as well as the VLBA.

Robert Williams, an optical astronomer who headed the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory from 1985 to 1993, says that such cuts are painful but necessary. "The report should be accepted," Williams told his colleagues on the advisory committee. "I say that as someone whose ox got gored."

Van Citters says that his staff will begin detailed cost analysis to determine how much money the cuts would save. Bement says that information may be ready in time for a meeting later this month of the National Science Board, NSF's oversight body, which must sign off on any decision.

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