July 10, 2012

Statement on NRAO Budget Actions

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) announced today the elimination of twenty six staff positions. Affected employees work at the NRAO's headquarters, technology development, and telescope operation sites in Charlottesville, Virginia, Green Bank, West Virginia, Socorro, New Mexico, and near Magdalena, New Mexico.

The staffing cuts, which will be accompanied by other budget reductions, are necessary to ensure that the Observatory enters the Federal Fiscal Year 2013 (which begins in October, 2012) with a balanced budget. They reflect a $2 million funding cut to NRAO made at the decision of the National Science Foundation (NSF) following several years of flat or decreasing budgets for North American NRAO Operations, and they come just as NRAO is bringing new, state-of-the-art radio telescopes into operation after a decade or more of costly development and construction.

"We are delivering the best radio telescopes the world has ever seen on time and on budget, and making them available to astronomers all across the country and beyond," said Dr. Tony Beasley, NRAO director. "These cuts significantly impact our ability to support the many scientists who use our telescopes, and reduce our technology development programs that have helped maintain U.S. leadership in radio astronomy for many decades."

Astronomers use radio telescopes to observe phenomena invisible to optical telescopes. While optical telescopes see stars, and objects illuminated by stars, radio telescopes map the invisible ingredients of future galaxies, stars, and planets, and study the invisible aftermath of the death of stars, thus providing humankind with a more complete understanding of the workings of the Universe. The United States has long been a world leader in radio astronomy, with NRAO telescopes recognized as the best in the world.

In Green Bank, West Virginia, NRAO operates the world's largest fully steerable single-dish radio telescope, the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). The GBT has unmatched, and continually improving, capabilities for studying vast clouds of invisible gas, and the rapidly spinning remains of exploded stars that are proving to be invaluable tools for probing mysteries of fundamental physics.

In New Mexico, NRAO operates two state-of-the-art radio telescope arrays. The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), already the most scientifically productive ground-based telescope in history, recently completed a $94 million upgrade that has dramatically increased its capabilities. The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), whose dish antennas are distributed from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands, provides the sharpest images of any telescope in regular use. It has recently undergone technology upgrades making it up to five thousand times more powerful than when commissioned in 1993.

The sole NRAO project not formally affected by these cuts is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international collaboration to build a large millimeter-wavelength telescope array in Chile. NSF funding for ALMA is separate from the rest of NRAO funding. However, the institutional "brain drain" caused by the cuts reduces NRAO's ability to adequately plan for the future of all of its instruments and their successors.

"We're not here just to operate today's telescopes," commented Beasley. "We're the national repository of scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical expertise in this vital field. The people we're losing today are part of the team we have built to address tomorrow's scientific mysteries," he said.

Radio astronomy is conducted almost entirely from the ground. This makes it a relative bargain compared to other branches of the field, where telescopes operating in space are employed by choice or necessity. NRAO accounts for less than 6% of the total U.S. government astronomy budget, yet provides astronomers with access to about 25% of the wavelength 'octaves" of the spectrum of light.

To compensate for funding shortfalls, NRAO has been turning to national and international communities of astronomers. For the GBT, dozens of universities contribute to the design and building of powerful new scientific instruments, such as cameras, spectrographs, and bolometers. In Socorro, astronomers from universities are making extended visits, contributing "sweat equity" to the development of vital data processing software for the VLA in exchange for privileged early access to observing time. Likewise, astronomy institutions in Germany and Australia have come forward with funding to support the VLBA's operation, in exchange for access to observing time for their astronomers. The U.S. Naval Observatory is also purchasing VLBA observing hours to support its geodetic survey mission. These various forms of outside support are preventing a bad budgetary situation from being even worse.

"We are truly grateful for the way the world's astronomers have rallied to support the continued availability of our unique telescopes," said Beasley. "We hope to work closely with NSF to establish a new and reliable funding model from which we can further the quest to understand the cosmos."

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

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