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NSF Review Puts Funding For Haystack in Jeopardy

By Ramy A. Arnaout
Associate News Editor

As astronomers at MIT's Haystack Observatory prepare grant proposals for submission next month, high among their concerns will be the effects of last summer's National Science Foundation review of academic radiotelescope observatories, which ranked Haystack last out of five.

The NSF ranking has jeopardized this year's grant award to the observatory and may reduce future operations, researchers said.

The ranking came despite a $1.5 million, NSF-funded telescope and antenna upgrade. The upgrade was in its final stages when the review took place.

While the review committee said that "there was some excellent science" going on at Haystack, faculty and students agree that the last ranking was because the telescope upgrade was still in progress.

"When the NSF panel arrived, we had had only one 3- or 4-month period of `real life' tests of the upgrade," said Joel Kastner, an astronomer who has been working with the new antenna.

"That's definitely not enough time to evaluate the impact of the upgrade on the astronomical community. There's no question in my mind that the timing of the NSF review could not have been worse for Haystack," Kastner said.

Ironically, because the upgrade was completed in January 1994, the NSF named Haystack the premier U.S. observatory at the three-millimeter wavelength.

"We are preparing to write our next grant proposal trying to make our best case based on the science we have," Salah said.

"We are trying to convince the NSF that after they spent all the money on the telescope we'd like to be able to [use it]. Everybody has to be able to do as much as possible with as little money as possible," Salah said.

Ranking has reduced grant award

The ranking has already had a serious economic impact on the Westford, Mass. observatory. Haystack's grant level for this year has been cut from last year's $1.3 million, according to Science.

The lost funding will require trimming operating costs, current and proposed programs, and future upgrades, according to Haystack astronomers.

The NSF will still allow Haystack to operate this telescope for the next three years under the current grant, but at a reduced budget, said Haystack Director Joseph E. Salah. "We'll try to preserve science, but we're going to have to reduce ... operational costs," he said.

"We will have to reduce operations personnel," he said. Operating the telescope on a night shift may also have to be cancelled, he added.

Future projects are also in jeopardy. "We will not have the funds to continue upgrading," Salah said. Plans for a focal-plane array and improvements in the antenna's efficiency -- an area in which the report faulted Haystack -- are on an uncertain schedule.

The financial effects of the ranking are "already being felt," according to Joel Kastner of the advanced X-ray astrophysics facility. To come to terms with the NSF cuts, "Haystack has already cancelled plans to move ahead with the next steps of [the telescope] upgrade," he said.

The limited budget for future improvements is unfortunate for MIT undergraduates because it pushes back plans to make Haystack's facilities available to students over the Internet, Salah said.

"As part of our cost reduction process, we'd like to connect to the World Wide Web and the Internet so that [students] can control the antenna remotely," Salah said. Students would have access to the observatory through the information superhighway, Salah said.

"We feel that we can make a better contribution to education, by getting students excited about science and astronomy," Salah said. "We can make a more valuable contribution in the long term."

Haystack employs on average ten students.

Ranking due to bad timing

"What we ran into were the budget problems in research," Salah said. Last year's federal budget mandated a 10 percent cut in NSF funding, which was passed on as a 10 percent decrease in funding for the NSF's astronomy division, Salah said.

"The committee came in, we described what the telescope's capabilities were, what our past research was, but we couldn't demonstrate," Salah said. "There was no way we could have any results in front of them" until the upgraded telescope was nearly fully operational, he said.

Sheperd S. Doeleman G, who works at Haystack, described the review as "somewhat unfair. A lot of what we were judged on was our three millimeter work; [we were] judged on something it had not yet come up to speed on," he said.

NSF did not wait until the upgrade completion because the NSF wanted to have its report completed by Sept. 30, the beginning of the fiscal term, Salah said.

"We've gone [to Washington] and said that we agreed with the report," he said. Three experts have given their opinion. There's really no appeal per se. All we can do is do good science submit good proposals [in the future], and be sensitive to budget constraints, and go from there," he said.

Assessment of the ranking

While the committee's report ranked Haystack's telescope last, it gave a very positive review on Haystack's Very Long Baseline Interferometry research .

"We have no doubts whatsoever that that the VLBI group at Haystack is a unique national resource," the committee said. It also recommended funding for at least five years for this research. Haystack's future programs will put an increased emphasis on VLBI research, Salah said.

In addition to VLBI research, Haystack continues investigation of space-debris in orbit, Salah said. "There are objects the size of nuts and bolts up there, and nobody knows where they are or how many there are," Salah said. The debris can attain very high speeds in orbit, and can damage satellites or shuttles on impact, he said.