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Starry, Starry Fight: University of California Says it Will Keep Funding Lick Observatory

November 6, 2014
by Glen Martin

Lick Observatory has received a reprieve after all. The University of California has reversed its plan to pull funding from the world’s first mountain-summit observatory.

Instead the UC system will provide continued funding (next year, that amounts to $1.5 million), an amount that astronomers characterized as sufficient but frugal. To achieve its full potential, the university’s only fully-owned observatory will still need outside donations.

Last year, a tempest ensued when UC officials said budget constraints were forcing them to close Lick, a 126-year-old observatory located atop Mount Hamilton near San Jose. At that time, they said the UC system didn’t have the $1.8 million needed to keep it open, averring that the funds would be better spent on the 30-meter telescope planned for Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (UC is contributing $50 million to that $1.2 billion instrument, which will be the most powerful telescope in the world when completed.) As for Lick, UC officials suggested its devotees seek private funding elsewhere, particularly from Silicon Valley philanthropists.

Many UC astronomers were not just stunned but outraged. UC Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, the 2006 National Professor of the Year and the 2004 recipient of the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, called the observatory a fantastic bang for the buck and quickly marshalled a legion of like-minded Lick buffs. They have emphasized Lick’s importance to international astronomy, including its discovery of almost a hundred exoplanets and various supernovae. The observatory, they further argue, is indispensable in providing UC system graduate students with hands-on experience with large telescopes, and it serves as a test-bed for new astronomical devices.

“Lick is a sacrificial lamb,” Filippenko told us at the time. “$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?”

In short order, the dispute over Lick grew into a real battle between Filippenko’s crowd and a pro-closure cadre led by Steven Beckwith, a UC Berkeley astronomy professor and then, but no longer, vice president for research and graduate studies at the UC President’s Office. Despite the protests, the university seemed committed to reducing funding in 2016 and stopping it entirely by 2018. The dispute receded from public view, but it remained at a low boil.

Now the heat is off. UC Provost Aimee Dorr sent a letter announcing, “It is no longer UCOP’s intention to require that Lick Observatory be self supporting (and) begin a glide path to self-supporting status no later than FY 2016-17” or be managed by another entity.

“You are free to share this letter as you choose,” the letter continued. “We expect to share it widely in order to reaffirm our support for the major functions the UC astronomy community wants for Lick, and also to inform others that the Lick funding and management stipulations that may account for their considerable distress no longer apply. We know that there remains substantial work to do for Lick and that it is likely to include greater external fundraising. Where feasible and appropriate, we are ready to help.”

Astronomers said they were relieved, but not completely satisfied by what some see as barebones support.

“The donors really needed to see that UC was willing to support Lick,” Garth Illingworth, astronomy professor at UC Santa Cruz and co-manager of the university’s telescopes, told the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s one thing to say ‘You can continue to operate,’ and another thing to have the money to do it. UC has not addressed that part of the problem.”

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