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A Funding Battle is Tearing the Arecibo Observatory Apart

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After 52 years of groundbreaking science, the renowned Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico faces an uncertain future. According to a Nature News report, operations director Robert Kerr has resigned after a bitter dispute with the National Science Foundation over funding cuts.

The trouble began over the summer, when Arecibo was offered the opportunity to accept private SETI work from Russian billionaire Yurni Milner. Milner had recently announced Breakthrough Listen, a $100-million effort to search for radio and light signals that could indicate alien intelligence. Naturally, Milner wanted to enlist the most sensitive radio telescope on Earth. And he was willing to pay handsomely.


Arecibo has been cash-strapped for years thanks to a series of budget cuts from the NSF. So to Kerr, Milner’s offer felt like salvation—until it became clear that the NSF saw it as a way to jump ship. That is, to accept money from Breakthrough, Arecibo would have to forgo further funding from the NSF. The controversy first came to light in a July 29th Scientific American article, in which Kerr criticized the NSF for turning a promising research and funding opportunity into a “poison pill”:

Kerr rejects the NSF’s position as a catch-22 cleverly designed to further the agency’s budget-cutting goals. As appealing as the Breakthrough Listen observations at Arecibo might be, they would be taking place outside the realm of peer review, and would thus not contribute to that portion of the NSF’s mandate. The further cuts to NSF-mandated science observations that would likely be required to fulfill a Breakthrough Listen partnership could consequently provide the NSF with a convenient excuse to justify divestment. “This new situation waxes unscrupulous,” he says. “The NSF now insists that we do commercial, non–peer-reviewed science so they can divest—and show positively that Arecibo no longer does mainstream radio astronomy and is thus unworthy for NSF investment. Amazing.”


Following publication of that article, Kerr tells Nature News that his relationship with the NSF took a nose dive. The funding agency reportedly stopped returning his calls and emails. A month later, he received a notice that he was no longer Arecibo’s principal investigator. Shortly thereafter, he decided to resign from his post as operations director.

NSF’s take on the matter? Kerr is flat-out wrong about the “communication breakdown,” and he’s being overly sensitive about the funding thing. According to Nature News:

“It was expected that some offset would occur because this situation would divert telescope time” away from other science, says NSF astronomy division director Jim Ulvestad. But the NSF still has not decided whether Breakthrough funding would trigger a one-for-one cut or indeed any cut at all, he says. Kerr and SRI were both told so repeatedly, Ulvestad says.

The NSF says that communication with Kerr continued as usual, and he concedes that his regular biweekly phone calls with the agency did not end. The NSF referred other questions about Kerr’s tenure to his former employer, SRI, which says it does not discuss personnel matters.


Whoever is in the right here, it’s most certainly the case that with Kerr’s resignation, the famous observatory has lost one of its biggest advocates. And at a time when NSF seems eager to turn its attention and dollars to new projects, that doesn’t bode well for the future of radio astronomy.

[Nature News]

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Top: Aerial image of the Arecibo Observatory, via Wikimedia