The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) went into service in 2000 at a cost of $95 million. Just 14 years later, the fate of the telescope and research center in Green Bank remain unclear.
As part of a six-county tour to discuss the future of West Virginia’s economy, Senator Joe Manchin visited Green Bank last Tuesday to talk to GBT employees and discuss funding for the research facility.
The GBT is part of the federally-funded National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). NRAO is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950. In August 2012, an NSF portfolio review committee recommended cutting off funding to the GBT by 2017. NSF is still considering the recommendation and no final decision has been made.
To prevent the closure of the GBT, the NSF is seeking partnerships with universities to pay at least half of the facility’s $8 million annual operating cost. Senator Jay Rockefeller spearheaded an effort to get a two-year, million dollar investment from West Virginia University, but no permanent funding arrangement has been achieved.
Manchin said political discord had jeopardized funding for several worthwhile programs.
“The funding becomes quite complex at times,” he said. “Right now, with sequestration and all the different things that have happened, and our country getting itself into such a mess, and politics being so toxic, and on and on and on with what’s wrong with Washington – you really jeopardize good programs that we have, and really essential programs for our country. It’s no way to run a railroad and it’s sure no way to run a country. We’re almost in crisis management. We’re not planning anymore. It’s all about politics and not about the policy. It’s not setting priorities based on your values. When you try to crisis manage anything like the superpower of the world, and all we’re doing is patching holes when we get to a crisis, sooner or later, you’ve got a problem – a serious problem.”
In 2011, Congress passed a law, known as sequestration, which mandated across-the-board federal budget cuts. As a result, in 2013, the NSF budget was cut by $361 million. In 2014, Congress achieved limited compromise and the NSF budget was increased by $288 million to $7.2 billion.
Manchin said it’s important for his colleagues to understand the value of the GBT.
“I’m very interested and I want to go out and get the help,” he said. “I’ve been working with Senator Rockefeller. I’ll bring it to the attention of the appropriators – [Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman] Barbara Mikulski, and some of those people who can make a difference really quickly.”
Senator Jay Rockefeller staff member Suzanne Bentzel said time is of the essence to find GBT partners.
“West Virginia University invested a million dollars for two years, so that will continue until next fall,” she said. “The clock is really ticking. NSF is satisfied with that relationship, but it needs to grow.
NSF has backed off from saying, ‘we’re going to outright close,’ but they would like to see other partners put in additional dollars.”
Manchin asked Green Bank Site Director Karen O’Neil if the GBT receives philanthropic donations.
“No, we discussed that a number of times and we’re in the process of working with our parent organization of building what is called the Green Bank Observatory Foundation,” said O’Neil. “We’re in the paperwork right now to allow for that. But, to be honest, I’m an astronomer. I don’t know a lot of people in that caliber. So, the next step is making that connection.”
Manchin suggested O’Neil contact David Rubenstein, a Washington, D.C. philanthropist who paid for refurbishment of the Washington Monument.
“He’s such a patriot and he has the ability and the wherewithal to do something, if he has any interest at all, “ he said. “But we’ve got to start pulling in those type of people. He has a hedge fund. He has a big capital company. It would be wonderful to get something like that really bought into this.”
NRAO employees stressed the educational value of the GBT. Hundreds of college and secondary students study and conduct research at the facility every year. O’Neil said the GBT’s total value is being considered by NSF decision makers.
“I do think the NSF’s reaction is showing that they are listening,” she said. “That’s why we’re still here having this conversation, at the beginning of fiscal year 2015.”
One NRAO worker expressed frustration.
“One of the problems that I’ve heard from a lot of people is we’re living with this big cloud hanging over us, and nobody can tell us what’s going to happen,” he said. “Maybe the worst thing of all – you have this beautiful facility and all these very talented people, sitting here waiting to find out what’s going to happen. The first opportunity that somebody has to go somewhere else, that has just as exciting a job, they’re going to take it and you’re going to lose a lot of good people. You’re going to lose a lot of the skills and experience that make Green Bank what it is.”
Manchin praised the GBT staff for continuing to accomplish their missions under difficult circumstances. The Senator promised to continue working with Senator Rockefeller to obtain funding to keep the GBT open.
“We want to help and we’ve got people that have some connections,” he said. “Along with Senator Rockefeller and his staff, I think that we can get some answers very quickly and hopefully get some people interested, take another look at us, and get us long-term financing.”
“The main thing is to get some visits from some people who can be of great help,” Manchin added.
In a memorandum published last December, NSF Division Director James V. Ulvestad stated five potential outcomes for the GBT: deconstruction and restoration of the entire site; mothballing the GBT and any other operating telescopes, without restoring the site; turning the facility into a science and education park, perhaps keeping one relatively small telescope operating for education purposes; operating the facility under a different operations model with reduced scientific scope, in partnership with university and other partners; and the no-action alternative of continuing to operate the GBT with full federal funding.
The NRAO operates radio telescopes in several locations across the U.S. and research facilities in Green Bank, New Mexico and Chile. Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), a non-profit research management organization, operates the NRAO under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. AUI appoints observatory directors, approves appointments of tenured staff and senior managers; reviews ongoing programs and budget; and oversees long-range planning. The agreement between AUI and NSF expires in 2015. Science journal Nature reported that WVU is waiting to see which organization bids on a new agreement before deciding on further investment in the GBT.