Physicist Robert Kerr uses irony to describe the first hint of trouble: “Radio quiet,” he calls it. After four years as director of the Arecibo Observatory, home to the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, he says, he was suddenly out of the loop: contacts at both the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the Arecibo Observatory, and SRI International, the contractor that runs it, stopped returning his e-mails and phone calls. After a month of silence, Kerr was stripped of his role as the observatory’s principal investigator. Shortly afterward he resigned from his other post, as operations director.
Kerr traces his departure to a disagreement over a possible windfall for the Puerto Rico observatory. In late July, he publicly criticized the NSF for planning to cut its contribution to Arecibo if the facility began taking payments for helping in a private survey for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. NSF officials say that his assertions were inaccurate and that its communication with Kerr never lapsed. Whatever the facts, some Arecibo observers see Kerr’s exit as an ill-timed loss for a storied, but financially threatened, scientific facility that faces a murky future.
“Somebody’s going to have to be the person actively trying to figure this out,” says Michael Nolan, a former Arecibo director now at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Bob was that person. Without him, I don’t know what their plan is.”
The drama surrounding Kerr's departure is in keeping with the scale of Arecibo, which has a bowl-shaped reflector that measures 305 metres across and is the world's most sensitive radio telescope. At Arecibo, researchers made the first discovery of a binary pulsar—the 1974 find won a Nobel prize in 1993—and of the first planets outside our Solar System. Today, 52 years after it began operations, Arecibo is still one of the world’s go-to telescopes for getting a close look at potentially hazardous asteroids, and the facility remains a key tool for studying pulsars and Earth's upper atmosphere.
But past glories and present capabilities may not ensure its survival. The NSF, which provides two-thirds of the observatory’s US$12-million annual budget, is strapped for cash to build and operate new telescopes that are high priorities for the astronomy community, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope now under construction in Chile. In 2006, an expert panel recommended that the agency close Arecibo unless someone else could be found to foot the bill. NASA began kicking in money five years ago and now contributes $3.7 million annually, but so far no one has materialized to pay the rest.
Meanwhile, the NSF faces pressure to keep grant money flowing while it funds new telescopes. A 2012 expert report warned that unless the NSF slashes the amount it spends on large facilities such as Arecibo, research grants to astronomers could be "decimated."
An avowed Arecibo champion, Kerr was the observatory’s onsite director from 2007 to 2008 and returned in 2011, taking up the roles of both operations director and principal investigator. During his tenure, proposals for the use of Arecibo rose, he says, and a system for studying the ionosphere with high-frequency radio waves was rebuilt. Even so, budget cuts forced a lay-off of some 20% of the staff a decade ago. The facility is afflicted with “stagnation,” says radio astronomer Alex Wolszczan at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who in 1991 used Arecibo to make the first detection of extrasolar planets.
Kerr, an upper-atmosphere physicist, made the best of a difficult and frustrating job, colleagues and users say. “Bob really cared about the observatory, and he really wanted to find a way to make it work,” says University of Arizona planetary scientist Ellen Howell. She and her husband Michael Nolan were researchers at Arecibo until this summer.
About that time, a potential Arecibo saviour appeared in the form of Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Milner’s Breakthrough Listen project is funding a $100-million effort to search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, and wanted to enlist Arecibo.
In Kerr’s telling, NSF officials told him that if Arecibo got funding from Breakthrough, its own funding would fall by the same amount. In a July 29 article, an angry Kerr told Scientific Americanthat the NSF had placed Arecibo in an “unscrupulous” bind: walk away from the Breakthrough money or accept it and lose NSF dollars.
But NSF officials say it was not like that. “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.
It was after the Scientific American article appeared, Kerr says, that communication with his superiors at SRI and with NSF officials ceased almost entirely. He got an e-mail notice a month later that he was no longer Arecibo’s principal investigator and, feeling hamstrung, decided to step down from the operations director’s job as well. He doesn’t regret speaking out, but “I certainly regret that I’m no longer a primary advocate for the observatory.”
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.
Just after Kerr cleared his desk, the NSF appealed in a ‘Dear colleague’ letter for proposals to run the observatory, calling especially for ideas that “involve a substantially reduced funding commitment from NSF.” The agency says that it is now reviewing whether it will continue to support the facility. Kerr, who worked to find private parties to manage and fund the observatory, says he remains hopeful that a coalition of universities and foundations will emerge to rescue Arecibo.
But others are less optimistic. Efforts to find an outside donor have been ongoing for some time, to no avail, Nolan says. Users can be expected to pay for telescope time, but “someone has to pay for the base operations—keeping the grass cut, keeping the big steel structure from falling out of the sky,” he says. “And that’s the part everyone’s finding too expensive.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 9, 2015.