NSF Dear Colleague on the Senior Review: Arecibo


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AAS Informational Email 2007-17

NSF Dear Colleague on the Senior Review

The following Dear Colleague letter from Wayne Van Citters, Director of the Division for Astronomical Sciences of the National Science Foundation, is available at www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=nsf07052

Title: Providing Progress Update on Senior Review Recommendations
Date: 9/20/07

20 September 2007

Dear Colleagues,

The success and momentum of research in astronomy has presented us with an exciting, but challenging and expensive, future. In order to make progress towards that future in a time of constrained budget growth, we convened the Senior Review and charged them with examining the balance within our program and recommending places where we could free up funds to invest in new activities.

Since the report of the Senior Review committee was released in November 2006, the Astronomy Division (AST), the observatories and their management, and the community have been active in considering the impact of the recommendations, looking at implementation plans, and exploring partnerships that would build on the strengths of our observing system to expand its capabilities beyond the period considered by the Senior Review. In this letter we would like to update you on this progress and tell you about our future plans.

As promised, we held a series of town meetings across the country after the release of the report. Starting with the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle in January 2007 and ending with a meeting in Tucson in April, we held a total of 7 town halls, and together heard from many hundreds of community members both at these meetings and through email and letters. We found widespread support for the process of the Senior Review, appreciation of the quality and thoughtfulness of the committee's report, and understanding and acceptance of its basic recommendations and findings, as difficult as those might be and with recognition of the serious impact they would have on some members of our community. Of course, not everyone was happy with specific recommendations, but there was general acceptance that such prioritization was necessary and the overall conclusions of the report were valid.

Our FY 2007 appropriation and FY 2008 Budget Request are very good news, providing healthy increases to the Division's budget. Your research accomplishments speak eloquently to the enduring opportunities in astronomy on an almost daily basis and continue to fascinate the general public. Certainly the community is highly regarded within NSF, at the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget and in Congress for its willingness to undertake the Senior Review. However, the bottom line remains that even under the most optimistic budget projection, and all historical experience tells us that we should be more cautious, the premise of the Senior Review remains valid and we will need to find savings from existing programs to build for the future. As a result, we have proceeded to act on each of the recommendations, while gathering the necessary additional information that will inform our later decisions.

Let me describe for each facility, the actions that we and the managing organizations have taken, the budget implications and the immediate plans for the future.

* National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC)/Arecibo - Cornell acted quickly to implement the first of the Senior Review's recommendations to reduce the base operating budget to $8M over the next three years, by modifying the operating mode for astronomy observations, increasing the fraction of time for survey work, and limiting the number of receivers supported and the number of hours for astronomy observations. They also eliminated 30 FTEs, or 25% of their staff. Not all of these savings are realizable immediately, since personnel termination costs must be covered and the observatory requires basic maintenance to ensure safety of operations. By FY 2010, the full $2.5 million savings identified by the Senior Review will be recovered into the AST base budget and available for other uses.

Cornell has said that it will cease operations of the planetary radar in October 2007 to meet these budget reductions. We have recently learned that, in fact, they are maintaining the capability to operate the planetary radar, although on a less frequent schedule. In conversations with NASA management, it has been made clear that NASA has no intention of resuming support of the planetary radar, which they terminated in FY 2006.

With NSF's encouragement and support, Cornell and Arecibo staff are actively pursuing partnerships with the Puerto Rican government, local businesses, and academic institutions to provide additional operations support by 2011. We recently visited Puerto Rico, held a town hall for the Arecibo community, and met with commonwealth officials, business leaders, representatives from the universities and concerned citizens. We clarified the Senior Review recommendations and NSF's role in supporting the observatory and helped foster discussions among the many parties interested in maintaining the observatory as a viable operating facility for scientific research, education, and public outreach. The meetings were very positive with many expressions of a desire to work together to identify creative solutions to obtaining additional support. Many challenges face Cornell in preparing a plan for sustained long-term support from non-AST sources. I am optimistic that such a plan can be put together. NSF has informed Cornell that a concrete plan for operations in 2011 and beyond must be in place by spring of 2009. It is at that point that NSF must set the FY 2011 budget and so make a decision about the long-term future of Arecibo.

Nonetheless, in order to plan responsibly, and weigh the various options, we have to understand the cost of closure to be weighed against other options. As recommended by the Senior Review, NSF is also engaging an engineering firm to carry out a study of the cost of decommissioning the observatory facility. The study will explore a variety of possible endpoints, ranging from complete deconstruction and restoration of the site to its natural state to securely 'mothballing' the facility. The results of this study will be available in December 2007 and will serve as critical input to our planning for the long-term future of the observatory. This is part of responsible lifecycle costing, and should not be regarded as indicating that any final decisions have been made.

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