Tuesday, October 17

Editorial: Lick Observatory still vital to students, researchers

The University of California’s Lick Observatory will face some serious financial hardships in coming years if the University does not re-evaluate its priorities.

Built near San Jose in 1888, the observatory is the only one entirely owned by the University. But as the University invests in new technology elsewhere, the Lick Observatory has seen its budget plateau at about $1.3 million annually. By 2018, the UC Office of the President will cut off financial support for the observatory entirely.

There will be a time when the 126-year-old facility has exhausted its utility for researchers, faculty and students. But that death knell has not yet sounded.

The UC Observatories Board, an umbrella body that manages systemwide research and funds for astronomy, suggested that the UC would stand to gain by funneling its money into facilities more advanced that those at Lick. Namely, these funds would underwrite the planned $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project and the W. M. Keck Observatory, both in Hawaii.

Nonetheless, the University should not shutter its only in-state, fully UC-operated observatory, as doing so would strike a serious blow to the University’s research and educational missions.

First, the UC only owns a small fraction of the recently approved Thirty Meter Telescope and is also only a part-owner of the established Keck Observatory.

This means UC researchers must share the telescopes with other groups, limiting their availability for students and researchers across the 10-campus UC system.

In particular, graduate students and postdoctoral students, who make up about 60 percent of Lick’s principal investigators, would be heavily impacted. While they can easily access and do research at the Lick Observatory – whose telescopes are used remotely at eight campuses and two national laboratories – graduate students can only use other telescopes by tagging along with their advisors.

Closing the Lick Observatory would risk creating a bottleneck for members of the UC community eager to log nights on the telescope and pursue research across the system.

Second, the notion that the Lick Observatory is underused or outdated is simply incorrect.

The observatory attracts 35,000 visitors every year and more than 1,000 nights of observation are logged on its telescopes every year. Further, Lick offers important hands-on training for UC students who may one day operate Lick’s larger, newer counterparts.

In a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano, 15 graduate students from six UC campuses said they rely on Lick to help learn about operating large telescopes and that they “feel confident that Lick Observatory will continue its effectiveness in preparing future generations as quality researchers.” This board agrees.

No one can argue that the UC should refrain from pursuing cutting-edge research and investing in the facilities and tools that will keep the University at the fore of fields such as astronomy.

But in the case of the Lick Observatory, it is clear that research and education are both well served by the site’s continued existence. The UC Office of the President should listen to the concerns of students and researchers and find the middle road, one that will allow for the introduction of the new and the perpetuity of what remains a vital resource for students and researchers across the state.

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