Astronomy in us Faces Severe Cutbacks and Observatory Closures

The USA’s budget crunch is about to impact another science, this time the venerable study of the cosmos.

Professional stargazers across America were abruptly brought down to earth by the not so stellar news that the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) federal budget earmarked for astronomers will be significantly cut.

Several major and—according to the tight-knit astronomical community—important facilities face imminent closure. When they will reopen, if ever, is a matter of conjecture.

The stunning news hit astronomers with the force of a cometary impact. Many were caught off-guard, completely unprepared for the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences’ report [“Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges”] that revealed actual funding for planned astronomy projects could see a shortfall of as much as 50 percent.

Shocked astronomers poured over the report that states: “Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community. We must, however, consider the science trade-off between divesting existing facilities and the risk of devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-­scale projects, and new initiatives.”

Some of the scientists and their projects may feel the effects of the funding shortfall almost immediately as the cut and dried report bluntly recommends that major facilities like the famous Green Bank Radio Telescope complex and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) projects be shuttered. Four major telescope facilities serving astronomers around the world located at Kitt Peak are also targeted for closure by 2017.  

The gap between planned projects and the money available to pay for them has been growing year-by-year. According to the website Universe Today “…money available through the NSF for astronomy is much less than hoped for. Experts say that the Fiscal Year 2012 astronomy budget is already $45 million below the New Worlds, New Horizons model, and predictions say the gap may grow to $75 million to $100 million by 2014.”

In response to the shocking NSF report disclosing the dire straits of funding for the astronomical community, Dr. Debra Elmegreen of Vassar College in New York, a member of the 2010 Decadal Review Committee analyzing the ramifications of the document, told Universe Today, “The federal budget looks nothing like it did when NWNH was underway and I really hope non-defense discretionary spending will not be slashed beyond repair. Congress needs to understand that the nation’s leadership in science is at risk if science funding is not maintained at an adequate level.”

While some astronomers are trying to put the best face on the report and agree that the field may need to think out of the box more often and can do with a little belt-tightening, most the community is shocked, many upset, ans some scared.

Overall the consensus is the future of advanced stargazing projects looks cloudy.