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Not Licked Yet: The Fight to Keep an Iconic UC Observatory Open

February 18, 2014
by Glen Martin

A move to pare a modest $1.8 million from UC’s operations budget has blown up into a public relations storm, with the fury directed at the Office of the President. That’s because the savings would result from halting funding for Mount Hamilton’s Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanent mountain summit observatory and a facility still responsible for major cosmological findings—most recently the discovery of scads of earth-like exoplanets.

When the idea was originally proposed last year, representatives of the UC Office of the President explained that the university was stretched to pony up its $50 million share of the $1.2 billion needed to build the Thirty Meter Telescope near the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. When completed, that will be the most powerful telescope on the face of the planet and will be used for everything from sussing out the characteristics of dark matter and dark energy to identifying individual stars up to 10 million parsecs away. (Other partners in the project include Caltech, Canada, China, India and Japan).

The reasoning for pulling funding for Lick seems to be that you should only throw a certain amount of money at star-gazing—and that anything Lick could do, the TMT will do better.

But that’s not necessarily true and not the point in any case, counters Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, the 2006 National Professor of the Year and the 2004 recipient of the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization. The TMT will be a fantastic adjunct for astrophysical research, Filippenko said, but UC scientists are going to have to queue up with every other astronomer in the world for a date with the telescope.

“You’ll get a night here or there, but it’s not as though (Cal faculty and staff) are going to be able to conduct all their research on the Thirty Meter Telescope,” Filippenko said. “Lick remains indispensible— and not just for Berkeley. It’s used by researchers throughout the entire UC system.”

Filippenko ticked off several compelling reasons for keeping Lick open: major research breakthroughs still occur at the 126-year-old facility east of San Jose, including the recent discovery of almost 100 exoplanets and (relatively) nearby supernovae; the observatory is a critical test bed for new instruments, most notably laser-guide-star adaptive optics; and Lick is an essential training facility for upcoming generations of astronomers, allowing undergraduates direct hands-on experience with the telescopes, and graduate students and postdoctoral  scholars the opportunity to design and execute their own projects.

Finally, said Filippenko, “Lick is historically significant to both the Bay Area and the nation, but it’s not just another landmark. (The Office of the President) has talked of turning it into a museum, and it deserves better than that. Yes, it has a rich scientific legacy, but it still has a lot to contribute. We understand that there are financial pressures on the university, and that we need to adopt a new funding model. But we can keep Lick open with a spartan budget of $1.5 million annually. We really owe it to our students and the people of California to find that money.”

Expanding on this theme in an email, Filippenko continued:  “Lick is a sacrificial lamb. $1.5 million is not a lot to pay for all (Lick does), and is a drop in the bucket of UC’s $23 billion annual operating budget.  Just about every ‘Podunk U’ has at least one relatively small telescope for student use, training and research. Is the great UC really going to stoop lower than Podunk U?”

Filippenko’s is no lone, plaintive voice crying out to the cold, black void. His activism has generated a groundswell of support for Lick —and against the UC system’s plan to taper off funding beginning in 2016 and cease it entirely by 2018.

An op-ed calling for continued funding and co-authored by Filippenko, UC Irvine professor of physics and astronomy Aaron Barth and UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy and astrophysics Claire Max recently ran in the San Jose Mercury News. Supporters of the campaign to save Lick also have created a web site with letters of support from U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, physicist David Erskine of Lawrence National Laboratory, Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer, and astronomers including R. Michael Rich from UCLA and Bob Goodrich, Hien Tran and Gregory Wirth from the Keck Observatory. The campaign is seeking additional letters of support, and welcomes donations.

Steven Beckwith, a professor of astronomy and the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at the Office of the President, has been designated the point person to explain why Lick should be closed. Except that he isn’t talking. Beckwith previously has stated that closure was recommended by an ad hoc board convened by the UCOP to consider the matter. More recently, queries directed to him receive similar versions of this response:

The University is starting a process to secure support (for) Lick without using UC general funds; we have not decided to close the observatory. Because this is an internal university matter with many stakeholders, we are not granting interviews at this time. I do hope you understand.You can be sure that when we have a better handle on the way we want to proceed with Lick, we will be happy to speak with you and other reporters.

Best regards,

Steve Beckwith

It’s a response that fails to satisfy defenders of the Lick Observatory.

“The UCOP board to which Beckwith refers consists mostly of people who have either never been to Lick—or haven’t been recently—don’t use it for their research or have competing interests,” Filippenko said in an email.

UC Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko

Nor was he happy with Beckwith’s allusions to “support” for Lick without specifying the sources for such support. Lick, the professor observed, is a Multicampus Research Unit (MRU). Typically, the chancellors of individual UC campuses and their respective deans of physical sciences don’t consider MRUs funding priorities; they argue the UCOP should raise the bucks for such initiatives.

So, Filippenko asks, “Does he expect faculty and students to start soliciting funds? We’re happy to do whatever we can do, but our proper work is in the classrooms, labs and the observatory.”

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