GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Olivia Young knows exactly how she got where she is.
“Because I am a West Virginian, I am a scientist,” Young told a crowd of people gathered Thursday night at the Green Bank Observatory.
She was talking about the debt of gratitude she owes to Green Bank and its enormous telescope.
Like others who stood up to speak in an auditorium at the observatory, Young was pleading for federal government representatives to find a way to preserve the Green Bank telescope as a West Virginia icon, an inspiration for young scientists and as a practical tool to explore the cosmos.
The iconic West Virginia telescope’s future is in doubt as the National Science Foundation weighs its resources and priorities.
The foundation has been advised to divest itself of the Green Bank Observatory. It is weighing options that range from keeping its funding intact to reducing funding but aiming for more private partnerships to mothballing the facility to dismantling everything.
Young and dozens of others were speaking at a public hearing that is part of the National Science Foundation’s process to determine the environmental effects of its options. Those include not only effects to the actual environment but also effects to cultural and socioeconomic areas.
Young, a physics student at West Virginia University, credits up-close experiences with the Green Bank telescope when she was in the 10th grade with setting her on her current trajectory.
She grew up in Mineral County and had up-close experiences with the Green Bank telescope when she was a 10th grader attending the West Virginia Youth Science Camp.
“The Green Bank Telescope is actually fundamental to why I decided to go into physics. Here, I discovered the wonders of he universe present through radio astronomy.”
Now, at WVU, she is involved with pulsar research, where students use the Green Bank telescope to search for pulsar stars. “They’re all these amazing almost laboratories in the sky, where all these physical phenomenons are going on,” she said. “Really, really cool stuff.”
An auditorium that holds 220 people was almost completely full at the Green Bank Observatory. About 50 people signed up to speak, all of them in favor of keeping funding steady for the telescope, and were given three minutes each.
People may also send written comments through Jan. 8, 2018, to Elizabeth Pentecost, Division of Astronomical Sciences, National Science Foundation, 2415 Eisenhower Avenue.
This is part of the process likely to lead through 2020, when the National Science Foundation will make its decision.
The tough choices have happened because National Science Foundation is responsible for maintaining a balanced portfolio. It says the scientific community has indicated the scientific capabilities of the Green Bank telescope are lower than other scientific endeavors the agency funds.
In 2012, a review of the National Science Foundation’s portfolio recommended divesting from Green Bank.
Another 2015 report followed up by saying efforts by National Science Foundation to divest from Green Bank should continue as fast as practical. It recommended efforts to explore partnerships, interagency cooperation and private resources to mitigate the loss.
“NSF has said their agency-preferred alternative is to continue finding partners so they can continue finding their funding level, but we don’t know what that funding level is going to be,” said Michael Holstine, the business manager for operations of the Green Bank Observatory.
“So there has to be a cooperative effort between us and the National Science Foundation to determine at what level those funding options have to live at.”
Some of that transition has been happening already, Holstine said.
“When the report came out in 2012, we weren’t sure what was going to happen with this process or any of the processes, so we started looking for partners immediately. We had already been doing that a little bit since 2007. Different groups needed telescope time and were willing to pay for it,” he said.
“So we started expanding on that model out to the scientific community.”
The biggest partner brought in so far is the Breakthrough Listen project, which uses radio wave observations from Green Bank to attempt to discover signs of extraterrestrial civilizations. That amounts to $2 million a year for the next 10 years.
There are other partners at smaller levels, like a group searching for gravitational waves. West Virginia University is also a prominent partner.
The scientific component of the Green Bank telescope amounts to about $6 million a year. Other aspects such as additional telescopes and educational activities bring the cost of operations to $12 to $14 million, Holstine said.
Many of those who attended the public hearing not only advocated for the Green Bank telescope’s attributes but expressed concern over the uncertainty of the various options. Even an increased level of partnerships, many said, seemed to offer little certainty.
Sueann Heatherly, education officer at Green Bank, worried that the proposal could lead to a flawed plan to rely more heavily on tourism even as de-funded facilities fall into disrepair.
“It’s just not possible to have the alternative happen where we give tours of decaying facilities,” Heatherly said.
Sheena Murphy, associate vice president for research development at West Virginia University, said the current recommendations lack specifics. She described uncertainty as the result.
“What reduction is planned? There are no numbers in the report. Who are these collaborators? How hard are you searching for these collaborators?”
She said the report also lacks one crucial attribute.
“Nowhere in the report does the word ‘pride’ appear, and that is an oversight.”
John Taylor of the Central Appalachian Astronomy Club, described the Green Bank Observatory as a unique resource.
“Green Bank Observatory as an educational facility is unmatched,” said “Collaborations should be found to keep it working.”