Current federal funding for basic science is gravely inadequate, said former President Bill Clinton at the Arecibo Observatory's Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor and Education Center May 27, and keeping the radio telescope running in the face of budget cuts is a priority that deserves urgent attention.
In an event welcomed by Cornell and Arecibo leaders as a positive step in the facility's ongoing efforts to mitigate budget cuts, the would-be first gentleman and daughter Chelsea visited the observatory during a campaign swing for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the days leading up to Puerto Rico's Democratic presidential primary.
Cornell manages the observatory for the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.
The observatory's future has been in jeopardy since November 2006, when the Senior Review, an advisory panel to the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the NSF recommended that the facility's operating funds be reduced to $8 million from $10.5 million over three years and then halved to $4 million in 2011. If the observatory fails to raise funds from external sources to make up the difference, it will be forced to close.
"It is a terrific accomplishment that the federal government has become so cognizant of the Senior Review and its potential consequences for the Arecibo Observatory," said observatory director Robert Kerr in an e-mail after the event. "It is not common that a problem so relatively 'small' (a few million dollar budget gap) receives such attention within the federal budget landscape. That can only be positive for our funding challenge."
After a tour of the visitor center and a lesson in the telescope's history and accomplishments, Clinton emphasized his wife's support for reinvigorating federal funding for the sciences. He cited her presentation of Senate Bill 2862, which -- with Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño's H.R. 3737 -- seeks continued support for the Arecibo Observatory from the NSF and NASA, as an example of her commitment to scientific research and her recognition of the importance of Arecibo to the scientific mission of the country.
The Clinton delegation also included Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock and chairman of the Puerto Rico Democratic Party (and Cornell alumnus) Roberto Prats.