25 October 2011

NSF Budget Cuts

Title: Dire Budget Projections from NSF AST
Authors: NOAO

This morning, Julie brought to my attention a recent development in the NSF AST budget drama: Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) might be closed. Due to the enormous impact this would have on the astronomical community, it was decided that this needed to be discussed at today's Astro Lunch before we got to the planned paper. The closure of KPNO hits close to home for Dartmouth astronomers as MDM Observatory is located on Kitt Peak, though about 2 miles from KPNO. Currently, much of the infrastructure at MDM is sub-leased through KPNO, so one can imagine how much strain this would put on MDM. Just imagine, if you will, renting an apartment and having your landlord walk away from the mortgage, leaving you with very few options.

It would be selfish, however, to only analyze this situation in terms of the effects on MDM. The amount of science that would be lost with the closure of KPNO is unimaginable. Small telescopes are crucial on multiple levels, even if we have a few large survey telescopes (LSST, ALMA). I won't discuss the financial details here, as they are available online. I encourage everyone to head to the website linked in the title above. NOAO gives a solid overview of the current situation and just how dire it may be. There is also an NOAO discussion forum in which people can discuss and leave their thoughts and comments on the potential closure of KPNO. We must also be careful NOT to panic, this is not set in stone and hasn't been formally approved, but clearly people are talking about it and the idea has been raised.

Civil discourse is always ideal and there is no reason to overreact. Join the discussion, follow the debates, and stay informed. While we must not panic, we must also work to save KPNO if it is endangered. Let us know your thoughts, we're interested to hear all your perspectives.


  1. Just to throw my 2 cents in:

    I agree that it's not time to panic about this issue. I'm not sure anybody should panic even if Kitt Peak is closed. However, I found the most illuminating part of this whole discussion to be that it appears that everything is on the table for NSF AST budget discussions ---not just big projects like JWST. Maybe other people already knew this, but I was not so keenly aware until hearing about this.

    I had an interesting discussion this week around the KP dinner table about how "saving" Kitt Peak may require a method analogous to that which saved Hubble. Basically, get the American (not just Arizonan) public involved. One large difference (and hindrance) is that STSci was equipped with people whose sole job was to do PR for Hubble. Kitt Peak/NOAO Tucson does not have that kind of staffing. And no, Kitt Peak is not Hubble, but there is plenty of good, approachable science done at Kitt Peak to excite public support. Right?

  2. I think you raised two interesting points. The first being that everything is fair game in the current portfolio review. While bigger projects may seem to be the obvious places to cut, they are also usually supported by an international effort. If the US bails, then international relations may be strained. In that respect, smaller national programs might be a bit more attractive to diplomatically conscience reviewers.

    As for getting people on board - it is crucial! I am definitely of the opinion that the American public as a whole should be involved. If sites become only an interest to a small subset of people in the country politicians and bureaucrats might find more of a reason to cut funding. Scientifically, Kitt Peak has a lot to offer the public, it's just a matter of making the public aware. For instance, where would the public excitement for Kepler be without ground based follow up to actually confirm the presence of an exoplanet? It was interesting that during our discussion at Astro Lunch, a point was raised that ground based O/IR astronomy doesn't seem to be very good at PR and getting the public at large excited about the work being done.

  3. Re: PR for ground based O/IR astronomy:

    We don't do a good job with PR for ground based O/IR astronomy because we don't hire professionals to do the PR. For example, I think there were only 2 Education/Public Outreach people (and 1 graphics person) at NOAO Tucson when I did my REU there. Now, 1 of those people has been laid off (brought up at the discussion). As much as I think it's important for astronomers to communicate directly with the public, sometimes the field of astronomy is probably best served by letting professionals handle the PR.

  4. Hmm... but is it too late to rectify this issue? Are we to divert funding to generate PR positions now with the explicit hope that it will benefit O/IR astronomy in the future? Or, with current potentials for funding cuts, is it too late to expand PR by hiring professionals?

    I also wonder what role private institutions will play. They can purchase telescope time (not ideal, but possible) and they probably have a bit larger pockets for creating professional PR positions. Is it time that private institutions start funding these types of positions instead of the government in order to preserve the visibility of their research programs?

  5. Well, it would be nice to rectify the problem sooner rather that later although we may be too late for this round of cuts.

    I think private institutions are going to be key in this. A lot of the telescopes on Kitt Peak are at least partially owned by universities rather than NOAO itself. So maybe there a chance that people will cobble together something, but it seems that there are a lot of universities that are cutting back too.

    P.S. Does anybody else read this? haha.