Green Bank is celebrating its 60th birthday by seceding from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
October 8th marked the dawn of a new era for the radio astronomy observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. What was once the flagship facility of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) is now an autonomous institution.
Green Bank’s new independence makes the best of a bad situation. For the last 60 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded the observatory as part of the NRAO network, which includes other facilities in the United States and Chile. But in 2012, the NSF — trying to balance its tightening budget — decided to let Green Bank go.
This came as no small shock to the folks at Green Bank, which is home to the world’s largest steerable, single-dish radio telescope. Deprived of its primary source of funding, the observatory was scheduled to shut down on October 1, 2016. But the Green Bank team wasn’t giving up that easily.
“We started looking into every possible alternative to keep the facility open,” says Mike Holstine, Green Bank Observatory’s business manager. Over the next few years, Green Bank staff and the NSF hammered out a plan to transform the former national observatory into an independent institution.
Instead of cutting Green Bank off completely in 2016, the NSF now plans to gradually wean the observatory off federal funds. In 2017, the NSF will grant Green Bank 60% of its previous annual budget, which amounts to about $8 million. In 2018, Green Bank can count on $4 million. After that, the NSF makes no promises of financial support. “We know that they want to continue funding us at some level, but we don’t know what that will be,” Holstine says.
To compensate for dwindling NSF funds, Green Bank has signed contracts with science initiatives that pay to make observations with the behemoth Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Green Bank’s major partners so far include the Breakthrough Listen project, the North American NanoHertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), and West Virginia University.
No other science institution has ever tried to replace federal funding with cash inflow from private partnerships the way Green Bank has. “There were a lot of legal issues to wrangle,” Holstine says. “We’re the first to paddle up this stream, but we’re hoping it’ll work out just fine.”
Under the new regime, day-to-day operations at the observatory will look basically the same. What will change is which research projects get first dibs on GBT observing time. Back when the NSF bankrolled the observatory, the GBT was completely dedicated to open-sky science — that is, any researcher in the world could propose a project using GBT, and the people with the best proposals got queued up for observing time. Now, the Green Bank Observatory has to prioritize its major partners. “And when you sell dedicated telescope time to individuals or specific projects, that data is theirs to do with what they would like,” Holstine says. “So there’s a little bit of a drop in the open-skies availability of data.”
Green Bank still has to find its footing in the private sector, but observatory morale is higher than it was in 2012. On October 8th, more than a hundred employees, friends, and fans of the Green Bank Observatory gathered in its science center for an inaugural ceremony. The festivities included speeches by radio astronomy icons like Frank Drake and an unveiling of the Green Bank Observatory’s new logo.
“It’s been a long four-year road, and our future is certainly not settled yet,” says O’Neil, “but I think recognizing that we have changed — and that we’ve done a lot of changes well — was a lot of fun.”