Public opinion vital to Green Bank Observatory

An editorial from The Herald-Dispatch 

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The future of a facility that has been at the heart of dozens of important discoveries about space and also is the economic foundation of a sparsely populated West Virginia region is at risk.

If we West Virginians care about the future of the Green Bank Observatory, now is the time to speak up. The National Science Foundation is weighing how much support, if any, it should give the observatory in the years ahead, and a public comment period ends on Nov. 25. If the foundation decides to continue down a path of reduced funding, the result would be a tenuous future for the radio astronomy center, which is the largest employer in Pocahontas County and has a significant economic impact on the state as a whole.

The observatory’s roots go back to the mid-1950s when the scientific community and the government recognized that the nation needed more powerful research equipment to keep abreast of developments in radio astronomy. In October 1957, ground was broken on the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, which would become the first national astronomy observatory and the first national laboratory open to all scientists from around the world. Various telescopes were constructed on the site, including the iconic Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable telescope in the world. Seven other telescopes are on the site.

The facility has been instrumental in the study of gravitational waves, black holes and star formations throughout the galaxy, and it continues that important work today. It also recently revitalized its 1960s project that searched for extraterrestrial intelligence. The observatory attracts about 40,000 visitors a year, as well as serving about 3,500 students a year through its educational programs. Officials estimate that its presence means about $17 million annually to the local economy and about $30 million annually for the state’s economy.

Funding for its science-focused operations came from the National Science Foundation. But four years ago as government money for scientific endeavors became stagnant, the foundation signaled that it would begin reducing allocations to the observatory starting this year and next. What funding may be forthcoming from the foundation after that is currently up in the air. That question is the impetus for an environmental impact statement which is now being put together and the reason for a public comment period. The alternatives that study is considering include continuing full National Science Foundation investment, collaborate with other parties, cease operations by creating a technology and education park, suspend operations with the possibility of resuming in the future or deconstructing the facility.

In the meantime, the observatory has declared its independence and is preparing to try to go it alone if the foundation money goes away in the future. But that means a much less certain future for the facility if it is unable to collaborate on projects that yield sufficient revenues.

At a public hearing two weeks ago in Green Bank, it was clear that local residents and the state’s congressional delegation want the foundation to continue its investment in the facility.

That is the most desirable outcome by far. The harms associated with the observatory potentially shutting down are too great in multiple respects, including the scientific work, the educational component and the economic impact.

We urge the state’s congressional delegation to continue fighting for the necessary funding and for West Virginians to weigh in with a unified voice about the facility’s importance.

Voice your opinion

If you wish to comment on the future of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, the National Science Foundation is accepting comments until Friday, Nov. 25.

By email: Send an email to [email protected].

By regular mail: Mail to Elizabeth Pentecost, RE: Green Bank Observatory, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1045, Arlington, VA 22230.

See more from The Herald-Dispatch. 

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