GREEN BANK, W.Va. — There’s little doubt where West Virginia University stands on the future of the Green Bank Observatory.
One by one, faculty, staff and students spoke up in support of continued funding for the radio telescope during a public hearing last week.
Many had traveled together — about three hours, on a bus adorned with the Flying WV — to publicly discuss how the telescope affected their interest in science.
Green Bank is a resource that should be preserved said, Micky Holcomb, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Holcomb, whose specialty is materials physics, said Green Bank inspires young students through up-close opportunities to try science.
“It’s very unusual for undergraduate and high school students to get their hands dirty with actual science,” Holcomb said.
“That’s just an amazing capability you have here. And it’s why we’ve inspired so many youth, and so many of those youth want to stay in West Virginia. I’d be very sad to lose that.”
Holcomb said the telescope is a learning tool for students in Morgantown.
“The telescope here has times when the students at West Virginia University get to actually move it and come up with hypotheses and learn things about what the heck dark matter is and come up with things they can test,” she said.
“That’s not normally something one can do with most national facilities. It’s an amazing resource.”
The role of West Virginia telescope’s future is in the spotlight as the National Science Foundation weighs its resources and priorities.
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.
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 its funding while transitioning to more private partnerships to mothballing the facility to dismantling everything.
The National Science Foundation’s public hearing was to provide an opportunity for the public to discuss the environmental, cultural and socioeconomic outcomes of each of the possibilities.
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.
Many questions remain about the options that have been presented, said Sheena Murphy, associate vice president for research development at West Virginia University.
In particular, she had questions about the possibility of reducing federal funding while pursuing more private partnerships.
“Preferred Option A specifies continued funding of the center but at a reduced level. The absence of any numbers of how big that number is causes us to be quite concerned,” Murphy said.
She also questioned the reliance on older 2006, 2010 and 2012 reports by National Science Foundation to reach its conclusions.
“They don’t factor in all of the new developments we’ve had here in regards to a very successful physics frontier center that is one of the premiere science institutions worldwide for gravity wave research,” Murphy said.
Murphy, like others, extolled the hands-on and inspirational effects of Green Bank.
“People come down here, they come over the hill, they see the telescopes and they break out in a grin,” she said. “The students who participate in that research, whether or not they ever become astronomers, that’s something that stays with them so they value science later on.
“For some select students, they actually have a career change as a result of that exposure. So it’s incredibly important and value to West Virginia in terms of motivating STEM disciplines.”
More representatives from WVU also spoke up for Green Bank.
Brent Shapiro-Albert, a graduate student at WVU and president of the physics and astronomy student organization, described working with pulsars. He said his research is possible because of the Green Bank Observatory.
Olivia Young, a physics student, said benefits of keeping Green Bank outweigh the costs.
“A very fundamental part of being human is to discover something new, and if we stop discovering we stop, in a way, being human,” she said. “There’s always more to discover — learning new things every day.”
Kathryn Williamson, an astronomy professor at WVU, used to work as an education specialist at Green Bank. She credited the experience with helping her develop practical skills.
“I believe West Virginia has so much potential and the Green Bank Observatory has so much potential,” Williamson said.