Big funding trouble for NOAO

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, December 01, 2011

The current issue of NOAO Currents, the online newsletter of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, contains a dire budget projection for the organization’s future. NOAO operates three major observatory complexes that are at the heart of a vast portion of major astronomy research — Kitt Peak National Observatory, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, and the NOAO Gemini Science Center. NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in cooperation with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF
Here’s a portion of a previous issue of Currents, outlining the problem:

“The signals from NSF AST imply that some existing facilities will be closed and some popular programs eliminated as a result of budget pressures, significantly altering the landscape of ground-based astronomy.
The possibility of drastic changes calls for careful planning and consultation with the community so that U.S. ground-based OIR astronomy emerges stronger rather than crippled by this process.

NSF AST funding is likely to decline by 4% or more in fiscal year 2012 and by substantially more (5 to 10% or more) in 2013. [The legislation funds NSF at $7 billion, which is $173 million above last year’s level and $734 million below the president’s request. Within this funding, NSF’s core research program is increased by $155 million to enhance basic research critical to innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness.]

With NSF AST’s current emphasis on protecting funding for facilities with interagency and international commitments (Gemini, ALMA) and the scheduled ramp up in ALMA operations costs (from approximately $18M/yr currently to approximately $30M in 2012 and $34M/yr in 2013), the decline in the NSF AST budget would have a much greater impact on the non-protected programs. For example, the NOAO budget may decline by 10 to 20% in each year under these conditions.

As the NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) budget is expected to remain flat at best, no funds are currently available for the construction of new facilities such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Thus LSST will require “bridge funding” of the order of $5 to 10M/yr starting in 2013 to keep the LSST Project going while it waits for NSF construction funding to become available, possibly in 2014 or later.

We can infer the very real possibility that NSF AST may choose to close KPNO and possibly other NOAO facilities or sites as open access resources in response to the above budget pressures, negating years of community planning, as well as the real progress that NOAO has made in responding to the needs of our community.

In short, in response to community input to the 2006 NSF Senior Review, NOAO rebalanced its program to rejuvenate the smaller aperture facilities (4-m and smaller). Based on the guidance of the community (via the ReSTAR and other committees), new instruments are being built and commissioned for these facilities (e.g., COSMOS, KOSMOS, TripleSpec, etc). We have initiated partnerships with the community to bring powerful cameras and spectrographs to the Blanco (DECam) and Mayall (BigBOSS) telescopes. These instruments will carry out cost efficient frontier science programs that were highly ranked by the 2010 Decadal Survey, as well as enable a host of other discovery science programs. The science gains from these investments will be lost if the facilities are closed.”

Just as it was with the James Webb Space Telescope budget crisis, it’s important for you to step in and let your voice be heard. Please contact NOAO and let them know your thoughts at the online community forum, here:

You can also contact NOAO with thoughts about the crisis at


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