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Nearly 50 argue for Green Bank Observatory future at NFS hearing

By MATT COMBS

The Register-Herald

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — As part of the process to consider changes to the Green Bank Observatory (GBO), the National Science Foundation (NSF) listened to comments from nearly 50 people on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) which was released in early November.

Nearly 50 people, as well as representatives of the state’s congressional delegation, addressed National Science Foundation Thursday evening on what they would like to see NFS do with the Green Bank Observatory. Among the telescopes that scan the heavens at the facility is the giant Robert C. Byrd telescope, the largest fully steerable telescope.
(Register-Herald photo by Rick Barbero)

That document outlines five possibilities for the facility in rural Pocahontas County: Action Alternative A, NSF would seek out collaboration with interested parties that would share costs; Action Alternative B, turning the facility into a technology and education park with little to no scientific research; Action Alternative C, mothballing the facility until a future date; Action Alternative D, demolition of the site, or no-action at all.

While NFS representatives named Alternative A as its preferred alternative, they said that all avenues must be explored.

 While the NSF is exploring all possible outcomes, for the nearly 50 people who spoke Thursday evening, there is only one feasible option — to continue operations as normal.

For nearly three and a half hours, high school and college students, professors, facility employees and everyday West Virginian citizens spent three minutes outlining their reasoning for why the West Virginia landmark should stay in operation as is.

First to speak were representatives from the state’s two U.S. Senators and U.S. Congressman Evan Jenkins.

Peggy Hawse, regional coordinator for Sen. Joe Manchin said he was scheduled to have a sit-down meeting with the NFS director earlier Thursday; however, because of the ongoing Senate tax debates, the meeting had to be moved to Dec. 5.

While Manchin’s statement highlighted the scientific accomplishments of GBO, the statement of Sen. Shelly Moore Capito highlighted the facility’s community impact.

According to Capito, GBO serves as an emergency Red Cross shelter, as well as the site of a water tower that is used by neighboring fire departments.

Following those statements, one by one, various speakers made their way to the podium to voice their opinions as NFS representatives listened silently.

“I’m a retired school teacher,” said John Taylor, vice-president of the Central Appalachian Astronomy Club. “Some 25 years ago, I participated in a two-week NSF teachers’ affair, a workshop basically, that we had a number of speakers in and learned a lot of astronomy. I went back to my high school and started an astronomy class based on that.”

That thread of education was continued by Sue Ann Heatherly, the observatory’s educational officer who shared her belief that simply having a science center at the location could not work.

“The impact of the observatory’s educational program, which really does depend on having a vibrant scientific operation here, it’s just not possible to have the alternative happen where we give tours of decaying facilities out there in the field,” Heatherly said.

She also highlighted that the facility wasn’t the only entity to benefit from operations at the site, naming West Virginia University’s Astronomy Department’s recent successes as evidence of that.

“They have garnered over $13 million in grants since 2012 when this whole nightmare began,” Heatherly said.

That emotion was seconded by Micky Holcomb, a professor who specializes in materials physics.

While GBO didn’t directly impact her own research, she added that the success of her department colleagues depends on their research at GBO.

“In my eight and a half years at WVU, I have seen the incredible impact that Green Bank Observatory has had on our department’s research program,” Holcomb said.

According to the professor, since 2006 the state’s flagship university’s astrophysics department has grown from one faculty member to six.

“That group brings in more research dollars per capita than any other department,” Holcomb added.

While many professors spoke, their sentiment was also shared by their students, both graduate and undergraduate.

Mayauresh Surmis, a post-doctoral student with that department, told the audience and NFS representatives of the impact of GBO on those who first visit there, especially the young students that visit the remote site for school trips and activities.

“I’ve seen how people’s faces light up where they see something which only scientists are supposed to see,” Surmis said.

One of those impacted was Olivia Young, who spoke about her first trip to the GBO in the 10th grade.

“During that time, the seeds were sown for this farm girl from a small roadside town in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia to one day realize that she wanted to be an astrophysicist.

Young is now an astronomy major at West Virginia University.

The impact of women in astronomy wasn’t lost on Anthony Menter who works at the site.

“The loss of STEM education here would be adverse to the county,” Menter read from DEIS, before finishing with. “This is really an understatement.”

Menter estimated that only one out of 200,000 Americans in astronomy is a woman, while adding that he knew of two woman off the top of his head from Pocahontas County that became astronomers.

With only 8,000 residents, Menter said that with a ratio of one out of 4,000, women were 50 times more likely to become astronomers if they were raised in Pocahontas County.

“That’s what the STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math) education is doing,” Menter said. “Amazing beyond anything that you can imagine in the national average in a state that historically been at the bottom.”

The NFS representatives collected Thursday’s verbal statements, as well as written statements.

The public statement period extends to Jan. 8 and statements can be submitted by email at [email protected], or through regular mail to. Elizabeth Pentecost, Division of Astronomical Sciences, National Science Foundation, 2415 Eisenhower Avenue, Alexandria, VA, 22314.

Those wishing to send comments to Sen. Manchin for presentation directly to the NSF director, can email those statements to [email protected].

After study of public comments is completed in January, the NSF will finalize its EIS by Fall 2018 with a decision expected by early 2019.

Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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