Read our COVID-19 research and news.

New Consortium to Run Arecibo Observatory

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

After 4 decades under the direction of Cornell University, the fabled Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico will have a new manager. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided to award a 5-year contract for the facility, home to the largest radio telescope in the world, to a consortium comprising SRI International, the Universities Space Research Association, Universidad Metropolitana, and other institutions.

The fate of the observatory was thrown into uncertainty in 2006 when a panel appointed by NSF recommended slashing the agency's contribution to Arecibo from $10.5 million to $4 million. With NSF supplying the major part of its budget, Arecibo would have been forced to close in 2011. But last year, NSF agreed to fund Arecibo at an annual level of $8.2 million from 2011 through 2016, with an additional $2-million-a-year commitment from NASA. In April 2010, the agency announced a competition to manage the facility at that funding level.

A Cornell-led consortium and the SRI-led partnership were the only two bidders. NSF officials are expected to announce the winner on 1 June, but this week astrophysicist Steinn Sigurðsson reported the news on his blog, Dynamics of Cats. A scientist at Arecibo, who spoke to Science Insider on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the impending announcement, adding that SRI had circulated a memo among Arecibo's staffers indicating that the new management would do its best to maintain current salaries and staffing.

"I think the main thing that people here are positive about is that the new administration will be located on site," the scientist said. Although Cornell had done an overall good job of managing the facility, he added, "the distance from Ithaca [New York] was sometimes a sore point. Having all of the upper management at Arecibo will be good."

The details of the transition are still being worked out. Although there is unlikely to be any immediate change in the scientific activities at the facility, the status of observatory employees on Cornell's campus is uncertain, as is the fate of some Arecibo-related technology development projects at Cornell.

According to the scientist who spoke to ScienceInsider, the facility's status will also change. Arecibo is now designated a federally funded research and development center, which curtails researchers at the facility from applying for grants across federal agencies. The new category will allow them to seek grants from a wide variety of funding sources. "It should be good for us scientifically," the source said.