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The Lick Observatory

The Lick Observatory

Hilary Lebow/University of California

Campaign saves famed Lick Observatory, but challenges remain

The historic Lick Observatory in California has gained a new lease on life. University of California (UC) administrators have scrapped a plan to cut funding for the facility. But the observatory’s financial future remains as tricky as the road that twists to its perch on a mountaintop above San Jose.

The reprieve came as a relief to astronomers who rallied to save the observatory from the budget ax. “This really changes everything,” said Claire Max, interim director of the University of California Observatories (UCO), which manages the observatory program for the university system. “It’s very frugal, but we’ve got a base budget to keep the doors open and keep the telescopes operating.”

The first permanent mountaintop observatory in the world when it opened in 1888, Lick has been involved in a string of important discoveries, from proof of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to confirmation of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Today, the observatory is used primarily to search for supernovae and planets in other solar systems. It also serves as a testing ground for astronomy students and new technology.

In 2013, UC leaders, faced with shrinking funding, opted to jettison it. The observatory would have had to find money elsewhere or close by 2018. The UC system planned to focus instead on the larger W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), also in Hawaii. When completed, the TMT will be among the world’s largest land-based telescopes.

UC Provost Aimée Dorr and Executive Vice President Nathan Brostrom announced the about-face in a 29 October letter. They said the change came after UCO convinced administrators it could pay for a slimmed-down Lick program without sacrificing other priorities. “We have also seen that there is substantial interest among UC astronomers and other communities for continued operation of Lick by UC,” they wrote.

The prospect of the observatory going dark had prompted a “Save Lick” campaign, headed by UC astronomers and amateur stargazers from the corporate halls of nearby Silicon Valley. They argued that Lick was still equipped to contribute important research and that it offered students freedom to pursue projects that couldn’t compete for scarce time at bigger telescopes. Even members of Congress weighed in, with 35 members of California’s delegation sending a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano urging her to reconsider.

That pressure, combined with a change in several of the main players, helped reverse the program’s fate, said several observers. Steven Beckwith, a UC Berkeley astronomer who convened a board that recommended cutting Lick’s funding, stepped down in July from his post as UC’s vice president of research and graduate studies. And in early October, Max, a UC Santa Cruz astronomer who helped design and build instruments used at Lick, took the helm at UCO.

“Right from the start the provost and I established a very good working relationship and there was lots of mutual respect,” Max said. “I think everyone is looking forward instead of back.”

Dorr was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman with the UC Office of the President (UCOP).

The observatory still faces a difficult future. The $1.5-million-a-year budget is considered spartan. There’s pressure to find other sources of money. Its staff has fallen from 24 in 2011 to 14 today. And a number of scientists have left amid the uncertainty. Several astronomy professors retired earlier than they might have otherwise, Max said. A highly regarded instrument designer, Rebecca Bernstein, took a job with the rival Giant Magellan Telescope.

UC Santa Cruz astronomer Garth Illingworth welcomed the restoration of Lick’s funding, but said its woes are symptomatic of a broader funding crisis for the UC observatory program. An advisory committee recently concluded that the system needed approximately $7.7 million in 2016 from UCOP; this year, it is receiving just $5 million.

"The thing that is really a problem now is having the budget to do justice to the excellence of TMT, Keck, and Lick. You don’t do that with $5 million. It just doesn’t compute,” Illingworth said.

It’s also not clear what other projects might have benefited from the $1.5 million now being used to keep Lick operating. Max said other areas ripe for more funding include new equipment for Keck, as well as more engineers and upgrades at technical shops that help design and build instruments.

Meanwhile, the campaign to rescue Lick could now morph into a push to boost its fortunes in a region synonymous with high-tech wizardry. Donors are more likely to reach into their pockets now that the university system is backing the observatory, said Jim Katzman, a co-founder of Tandem Computers, who helped pay for a supernova-hunting telescope at the observatory. A marketing firm founded by Andy Cunningham, a vaunted Silicon Valley marketing expert, has been hired to help devise a road map for Lick’s future and to build its prominence in the community, Katzman said.

"Lick is not in the forefront of people’s brains around the valley, and I think it could be, and it should be,” he said.