The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Astronomy Senior Review Committee report (pdf file), released today, made major recommendations for restructuring the NSF’s ground-based astronomy efforts, including significant changes for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).
The committee’s report urged that leadership in radio astronomy, including millimeter- and submillimeter-wave observatories, “remain centered at NRAO as it is, by far, the largest radio astronomy organization in the world.” The report praised the record of management of NRAO and the scientific capabilities of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA), the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA).
However, the report also recommended that some reductions and changes occur at the NRAO by 2011. Specifically, the report recommended that: (a) VLBA operations make a transition to a significant reliance on international funding or risk closure; (b) GBT operations costs be reduced; and (c) NRAO scientific staff costs be reduced.
“The Senior Review Committee had the very difficult task of reconciling the needs of current facilities and funding new facilities for the future of astronomy. We appreciate their efforts and look forward to working with the NSF to ensure that the valuable and unique research capabilities of our NRAO telescopes continue to serve the astronomical community,” said Dr. Fred K.Y. Lo, NRAO Director.
The VLBA provides the greatest angular resolution, or ability to see fine detail, of any telescope in the world, greatly exceeding the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope and the future Square Kilometre Array. The committee recognized that, “if the VLBA is closed, a unique capability would likely be lost for decades.”
“The VLBA is used by scientists from around the world because of its unique capabilities. It has produced landmark research milestones and the committee recognized in its report that the VLBA now is poised to become even more scientifically productive. We will aggressively pursue international assistance in keeping this world-class research tool operational, and are optimistic that we will succeed,” Lo said.
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, termed by the committee a “new and highly promising telescope,” already has taken the lead in some important research fields. While the committee recommended reductions in the operational costs of the GBT, the NRAO already has been taking steps to make the operations as efficient as possible, commensurate with adequate support for productive science operations.
“We look forward to an independent cost analysis by specialists in telescope operations and business administration,” Lo said, adding that, “In the meantime, we will redouble efforts to explore alternative modes of operation while continuing to enhance scientific capabilities.”
The scientific staff of NRAO, composed of Ph.D astronomers, provides scientific guidance for the development and operations of the telescopes, assistance and mentoring to scientists using the telescopes and to students, and serves in key management and operational roles. The expertise embodied in NRAO’s staff is a unique resource for planning the next generation of radio astronomy facilities.
“As astronomy becomes more reliant on multi-wavelength investigations and NRAO telescopes are used more by researchers unfamiliar with radio observational techniques, the support provided by an excellent scientific staff will become even more important,” Lo said.
“Throughout this whole process, the NRAO will continue to carry out its mission of enabling cutting-edge research, attracting and training future scientists and engineers, and stimulating public interest in science,” Lo said.
The NRAO will work closely with the NSF in the coming months as the NSF considers the Senior Review recommendations.
“The future of the NRAO is extremely bright,” Lo said. “Our scientific focus is on some of the most important and challenging questions of 21st-Century astronomy. With the GBT and VLBA, EVLA and ALMA coming on line, we will remain a flagship observatory for the astronomical research community of the U.S. and the world,” he said.