Hundreds of men, women and children from all walks of life, filled the auditorium and overflow area at the Green Bank Observatory last Wednesday afternoon and evening for the National Science Foundation’s public comment meetings.
Passionate outpourings of support were voiced by county residents, teachers, professors, government officials, international students as well former students from several states whose education and success in the fields of science and astronomy depended on and is, in part, a result of their access to the GBO.
Following a 2012 recommendation to divest the Green Bank Telescope from its portfolio, the NSF has slowly lowered the amount of funding it provides GBO and in mid-October the organization began its scoping process to decide the future of the facility.
Part of the process is to allow the public to voice its opinion and share concerns which will be considered by the NSF as it creates an Environmental Impact Statement [EIS].
It was reported prior to the meetings that in 2012, the NSF provided nearly 95 percent of the GBO’s funding. Now, in 2016, the funding is down to 60 percent and continuing to decrease.
NSF public affairs specialist Ivy Kupec contacted this newspaper and others stating that funding amounts had previously been incorrectly reported, and the NSF is increasing funding for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal year.
Although the NSF has appropriated $8.2 million in the President’s Request Budget, it has not been approved as yet and that funding is not guaranteed.
At Wednesday’s meeting, NSF astronomer in the division of astronomical sciences and program officer for GBO Edward Ajhar and NSF assistant general counsel Caroline Blanco explained the process which has led to the EIS and what the future holds for the GBO.
“Given the previous astronomical communities recommendations that I sum- marized very briefly for you today, combined with the current budget constraints, NSF has a need to reduce funding for a number of its astronomical telescopes and facilities,” Ajhar said. “That is why the NSF is now initiating the Environmental Impact Statement Section 106 consultation process which involves you, the public.”
Ajhar said the NSF has five options concerning the future of GBO and will take all comments and concerns into consideration when choosing which option is best. Those options are:
• Continued NSF investment for science-focused operations, no-action alter- native.
• Collaboration with interested parties for science and education-focused operations with reduced NSF-funded scope.
• Collaboration with interested parties for operation as a technology and education park.
• Mothballing of facilities – suspension of operations in a manner such that operations could resume efficiently at some future date.
• Deconstruction and site restoration.
Of the five options, public comment statements revealed a consensus that the NSF should only consider the first two, stating time and again that the last three are out of the question.
Blanco explained the timeline for the entire process, beginning with the public comment period which will end November 25. After the comment period closes, the NSF will review all the comments it has received and will create a draft of the EIS. The draft will be published sometime in the spring of 2017.
There will be a 45-day public comment period and two more public comment meetings after the draft is published. Then the final EIS will be prepared. The final publication date is roughly fall of 2017.
After the final publication is released, there is a required 30-day wait before a Record of Decision is issued. The Record of Decision is the final decision for the future of the GBO. Blanco estimated that the Record of Decision will be published in early 2018.
Along with creating the EIS and Record of Decision, the NSF will also work on National Historic Preservation Act Compliance and Endangered Species Act Com- pliance for the site.
There was no time limit on speakers at the beginning of the Wednesday afternoon meeting. But after a few speakers went long on their speeches, Blanco interrupted and asked them to keep their comments under four minutes. Each speaker who was interrupted was given the chance to finish their statement at the 6 to 8 p.m. meeting.
While the auditorium was full of familiar faces from Pocahontas County, there were also several individuals who traveled long distances to publicly share their statements.
Mark Devlin, an astronomer who teaches physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, shared his own comments, as well as written comments from colleagues in South Africa and Japan.
“I want to say over the course of ten years, I’ve met a lot of people here,” Devlin said. “I’ve become friends with the staff and the astronomers here. Even though I have an invested interest in what’s going on with research on the telescope, what would happen to me pales in comparison to what would happen to my friends and colleagues here if this observatory was to close. It also pales in comparison to how it would damage the international astronomical community, which I know I’m not supposed to talk about science, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because I can ignore them.”
Devlin said, despite what was said at the beginning of the presentation, the astronomical community has not “written off” the observatory and many people in the astronomical community disagree with the NSF’s consideration of options three, four and five.
“I have pages and pages of letters from astronomers, again, from all over the world,” Devlin said. “I want to read just a few of their comments on what’s going to go on. ‘A decision to drop any one of the current facilities, such as the GBT, would be a distressing and unfillable hole in the field of astronomy. The most impressive upgrades of the GBT have only recently been commissioned and are still undergoing commission, keeping the GBT poised for great discoveries and new capabilities.’”
As Devlin neared the end of his time, a man in the crowd said, “you can have my three [minutes].”
“Another person comments, ‘speaking to what we have planned for the observatory, the GBT has been an excellent observatory for hands-on student training, however, I would like to strongly discourage the usage of a world leading observatory as a purely educational site, let alone an amusement park,’” Devlin continued. “‘Science and it’s high technology facilities serve the public best when focusing on breaking the frontiers of our very understanding of how nature works. This can only be achieved by using facilities for research, not by making them silent monuments or tearing them down.’”
Devlin added that another colleague wrote about the impression it would make on children if they saw a facility like the GBO mothballed or dismantled, stating, “what better way to reveal the US is letting its lead in science slowly slip away.”
GBO engineer Carla Beaudet shared her frustration with the process which goes into the EIS study, citing the draft of the EIS for Arecibo Observatory in Puetro Rico, which is another facility the NSF is considering closing.
“I have read the socioeconomic section of the draft EIS for the defunding of Arecibo Observatory and a number of things concern me,” Beaudet said. “Under housing, it reads, ‘an indirect effect of alternatives three, four and five, could be an increase in housing vacancies as the workforce potentially relocates over time in search of comparable employment.’ ‘Could be.’ ‘Potentially relocates.’ I do not want to see this kind of language in the EIS for Green Bank. A little research will assure you that anyone employed at the professional level and not prepared to retire will have to move to find comparable employment.”
Beaudet went on to cite the Arecibo EIS, saying there are too many estimations and not enough hard facts which are easily found by doing research.
“In the same section, under population, the Arecibo EIS reads, ‘it is difficult to predict when and how many workforce personnel will relocate, therefore the potential loss of population is addressed quantitatively in this section,’” Beaudet said. “Again, there is no excuse for not estimating and quantifying this loss.”
Beaudet estimated, of the 108 full-time employees and 40 season employees, approximately 106 people would leave.
“That’s a loss of one hundred six people from the Green Bank/Arbovale area, whose combined population in 2014 was three hundred three,” Beaudet said. “A loss of thirty-four percent of the total population. This number is probably inflated because we don’t all live in Green Bank or Arbovale, but it’s easy to find out where one hundred six people live and adjust these numbers.”
Beaudet ended by saying the community would suffer from the loss of these employees because they volunteer as coaches, firefighters, EMTs, fitness instructors, lighting and sound engineers and much more.
Mixed in among the adults were several students who left school early in order to attend the meeting. Savannah Horton, a 17-year-old from Broadway, Virginia, drove two hours to attend the meeting and share her statement.
“I live in a rural area in Broadway, Virginia, and it is so imperative that Green Bank remains open and operative for women in STEM,” Horton said. “The Green Bank Observatory has profoundly impacted me as a scientist. My research partner, Dana Jones, is here today. We attend Massanutten Regional Governor’s School for Integrated Science and Technology, and Green Bank Observatory was our first view into the world of astronomy. Green Bank Observatory is what led us to go this summer to work at Cal Tech and study active galactic nuclei at the age of seventeen.”
As a female in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], Horton spoke passionately about how it is important to have facilities like the GBO for young women to succeed among their male counterparts.
“I advocate for continued investment and the no action alternative for Green Bank,” Horton said. “Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a Cambridge student and a young woman in the 1960s who discovered pulsars, but was wrongfully robbed of her Nobel Prize. It would be an embarrassment for a facility like GBO to be shut down as it provides women in STEM an opportunity to succeed in a field that was once dominated by men.
“Restricted funding harms cultural resources and socioeconomic resources for students like Dana and I who would have never had the abilities because of where we come from to be able to study astronomy,” she continued. “Funding is imperative to preserve science in rural areas and it is so important that option one is considered here today.”
As a father of two boys who may consider entering the science and research field, GBO software engineer Paul Marganian said he is concerned about the future of education in the U.S.
“My father was an immigrant,” Marganian said. “He came to this country, in part, because at the time, in the 1950s, this was where you went to get a cutting edge education. This was the center of science and research. I’m proud to say we still are, in my lifetime.”
Marganian traveled to China last year for a work-related trip and noticed that China is investing large sums in science and research.
“One day I was sitting in the astronomy building and there was this huge construction site next to us,” he said. “I said, ‘what’s going on there?,’ and they said, ‘oh, that’s our new lab.’ I come back here and options four and five are staring us in the face. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I’d like to ask why we’re abdicating our leadership role in the world as leaders in science and technology?
“If my own children want to go into science and research, are they going to have to go to China to receive that best education?” he continued. “I certainly hope not. I just want to say, there’s been a lot of talk about making America great again. Options four and five are obviously steps in the wrong direction.”
Countless others, including U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins, West Virginia State Senator Greg Boso as well as representatives from Senator Shelley Moore Capito’s and Senator Joe Manchin’s offices shared their concerns and statements with the NSF and crowd.
To allow all those who signed up to speak, the first meeting went longer than planned, as did the evening meeting, which wrapped up at 8:30 p.m.
Those who didn’t speak or were unable to attend the meetings are encouraged to send letters to the NSF to show their support for continued funding for the GBO.
The deadline for comments is November 25.
By U.S. mail to:
RE: Green Bank Observatory
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22230.
With a copy to:
Green Bank Observatory
PO Box 2
Green Bank, WV 24944
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org