Lick Gets Googled—But Is Cool Million Enough to Save the Endangered Observatory?

By Chelsea Leu

For everyone who cares about saving the University of California’s cash-strapped Lick Observatory, news that Google is donating $1 million is a boon in more ways than one. Not only will the contribution—a full third of Lick’s current barebones operating budget—support the observatory’s day-to-day activities, but it’s already inspiring other donors to chip in.

“The Google gift is a game-changer,” says Alex Filippenko, the UC Berkeley astrophysicist heading the Lick fundraising effort.

Even before the donation was publicly announced, he says, a stream of checks started flowing in from donors swayed by Google’s support.

“If Google says, ‘Hey, Lick is something we believe in,’ then others who are aware of the situation are much more likely to support it,” says Filippenko. “Things are on the upswing. But we’re not saved yet.”

The 127-year-old observatory perched on Mount Hamilton southeast of San Jose was in danger of being shuttered after the UC Office of the President announced in September 2013 that it would pull money from Lick in order to support more powerful telescopes, including the W.M. Keck Observatory and the under-construction Thirty Meter Telescope in Mauna Kea. The announcement sparked public outcry, and a coalition of outraged astronomers rallied to collect donations and letters of support for Lick from scientists, students and politicians. After months of public pressure, the Office of the President rescinded its decision last November, so UC now provides the observatory with $1.5 million a year.

Filippenko describes that amount as “spartan”—enough to keep the observatory’s doors open and the telescopes online, but not enough to expand its range of research and outreach programs. It’s $1 million shy of the $2.5 million the university provided before the recession that allowed Lick to operate comfortably. University administrators had suggested that Lick look to nearby Silicon Valley philanthropists for financial help, and Filippenko has taken that advice to heart. After he made several contacts at Google, the search-engine giant kicked in $500,000 for the next two years—money that will be used, in part, to hire another telescope operator for Lick’s Shane three-meter telescope, which is short-staffed and closes periodically.

Filippenko is still soliciting private donors, both in his role as president of the Lick Observatory Council and under his own steam. A 2006 National Professor of the Year, he is rather renowned on campus for his dramatic flair: On Halloween, he’s been known to dress up as a “black hole” and emit matter—such as Starbursts, Mars and Milky Way candy bars—in the direction of his students as a way to demonstrate the quantum-mechanical evaporation of black holes. What he is not, however, is a professional fundraiser.

But he hopes to hire one for the observatory in the next year, so he can concentrate on his research and teaching and leave the Lick campaign in the hands of a pro.

“I’m making time because I feel Lick is that important,” says Filippenko. “But I can’t be spending all my time doing this.”

Combined, Filippenko and the council have raised over $600,000* from contributors including the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Kast family. And although the Google gift is their biggest score by far, they’ll need more like it to make sure Lick’s future is secure.

In fact, astronomers hope to someday create a Lick endowment: The interest on, say, a $50 million endowment could ensure that the observatory remains on the cutting edge of astronomy research in perpetuity. So the Google gift is a promising start, but there’s still millions of dollars to drum up.

“People tell me, ‘Congratulations, you saved Lick!’ ” Filippenko says. “But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

* This corrects a previous version of the story.

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Perhaps if we lopped off 20% of the UC administrative upper level overhead and started paying Deans, Presidents etc like the civil servants that they are, we could afford to support the Lick Observatory, probably cut tuition too.
Google’s generous gift to Lick Observatory is gratifying as it and the multitude of other Silicon Valley (formerly Santa Clara valley) mega companies are, in part, indirectly responsible for the huge population surge in the last several decades that drastically increased light pollution and limits the astronomical usefulness of the Lick telescopes. At the same time, various Silicon Valley technologies (more sensitive detectors, Big Data processors, and so on) offset to some extent the decrease in performance of Lick’s telescopes. To consider closing this historic and iconic institution is short sighted and ill advised. The state of California and the Federal government should step in with additional funds and recognize Lick Observatory as a National Historic Site and preserve an essential chapter of astronomical history that will never be repeated.

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