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

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.

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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Astronomy is not like particle physics. Smaller telescopes have immense value because they under projects that are impossible for the largest telescopes to consider. These projects include programs to monitor changes over time, discover very rare objects, or discover new objects such as supernovae. A typical UC astronomer may expect to get at most 1-2 nights per year on the Thirty Meter telescope. In order to use those precious nights to greatest potential, astronomers will rely on smaller telescopes to sift through hundreds or thousands of interesting objects, of which may be a handful will be worthy of followup on the largest telescopes. Examples include searching for planets like Jupiter around nearby stars, or searching of quasars that are 12 billion light years distant. Lick observatory offers the opportunity for young researchers just entering the field to undertake more risky observing programs that may lead to discoveries that can be pursued at the TMT. If in our improving budget environment we must close Lick, it will not be cheap. All of the site is a historic resource (National Register eligible) and under the California Environmental Quality Act uses other than demolition must be considered. But many areas are also unsafe for the general public. By retaining Lick Observatory as a scientific reserve, it is protected from vandalism 24 hours per day, at undoubtedly the lowest possible cost. I can only think of a shutdown proposal as poorly considered and eminently satisfying the old proverb “penny wise, and pound foolish”.
Objections to UC’s proposed termination of funding for Lick Observatory have been raised not only by UC astronomers, researchers, and students from multiple campuses and laboratories of the UC system, but also by their counterparts at other universities and observatories in the U.S. In addition, on February 20, nine members of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19), released a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano encouraging her to reconsider that decision. A copy of that letter can be found here:
UCOP now declines to comment on Lick Observatory, but this was not the case as recently as late last month. In her mostly laudable story “Venerable Lick Observatory Faces Funding Cut” (“California Report,” Jan. 24), KQED’s Rachael Myrow quotes from an email sent by UCOP spokesman Steve Montiel. In it Mr. Montiel misrepresents Lick’s role within the UC system and betrays a lack of knowledge about astronomy funding in general. These regrettable mistakes have been addressed in detail by UCB Professor of Astronomy Alex Filppenko in the comments section, following the on-line print version of the story ( I urge anyone wishing to inform themselves about the observatory’s present dilemma to read Ms. Myrow’s piece and Dr. Filippenko’s comments.
I heard on TV the other day that the City of San Francisco budgeted $5.9m to maintain Candlestick Park next year—and we all know what its future is. Yet somehow the great State of California doesn’t have $1.5m/yr to operate a facility that conducts useful ongoing research valuable to the community? Let’s get our priorities in order.
Lick Observatory has long been associated with UC Santa Cruz, which also recently cut funding for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, one of the top-3 Shakespeare Festivals on the West Coast. It seems that the UC Regents have become just another corporate board, interested in only the bottom line, rather than the untold and un-countable benefits that science and the arts brings to students, communities, and culture itself. This once-great public university has been improperly managed. Administrators and Regents make ridiculous salaries while student tuition soars and services disappear. Disgraceful. And some people still wonder why the 99% are angry. What has happened to the dream of an affordable, high-class education?
Well, they need to find a Podunk consortia to take it over. Or, I’m sure that the admin will let them sell a 2 percent of TMT or 15 percent of Keck if their priority is Lick. They get one of the largest budgets for astronomy of any University in the World. This shouldn’t make them immune to priorities.