UC-Owned Observatory Will Maintain Funding

The UC Office of the President announced that it has rescinded its plan to cut funding for California’s Lick Observatory in a letter to UC Observatories Interim Director Claire Max on Oct. 29. UCOP will no longer require that Lick become self-sustaining by 2018 and find an entity other than UCO to manage it.

Though UCOP will continue funding it, Science Magazine reported on Nov. 7 that the observatory still faces pressure to find other sources of funding as its $1.5 million annual budget is not nearly enough. Additionally, their staff has decreased from 24 in 2011 down to 14 currently, including those leaving amid the uncertainty and others retiring earlier than they might have otherwise.

UC Santa Cruz astronomer Garth Illingworth argues that Lick’s financial woes are indicative of a broader funding crisis for the UC observatory program. An advisory committee recently concluded that the program needs approximately $7.7 million from UCOP in 2016. This year, it is receiving $5 million.

Lick Observatory, opened in 1888, is located atop Mt. Hamilton overlooking the city of San Jose and is the first permanent mountaintop observatory. The observatory has helped to prove and confirm some of science’s most historic theories, including Einstein’s theory of relativity and confirming the accelerating expansion of the universe. Today, Lick’s primary use is to search for supernovae and planets in other solar systems. It also serves as a testing ground for astronomy students and new technology.

The aforementioned stipulations were stated in a budget letter from UCOP to then UCO Interim Director Sandra Faber on Sept. 16, 2013. UCOP indicated then that knowledgeable groups had recommended these stipulations and that other observatories had multiple, diverse funding streams.

UCO leaders at the time had also indicated to UCOP that they could not operate Lick viably without a very significant increase in its funding from UCOP. In addition, UC astronomers clearly indicated that if funding was limited — which it was — then Lick would be fourth on their priority list.

In an attempt to prevent Lick from closing, UC astronomers and corporate entities from the nearby Silicon Valley started a “Save Lick” campaign, arguing that Lick was still equipped to contribute important research and that it allowed students to pursue projects that couldn’t compete for the scarce time available at bigger telescopes. Thirty-five members of California’s congressional delegation supported the campaign by sending a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano urging her to reconsider.

Additionally, UC Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Steven Beckwith, who convened a board that recommended cutting Lick’s funding, stepped down from this position in July, and Claire Max, an astronomer who helped design and build instruments used at Lick, became UCO’s Interim Director in early October.

The pressure and the administrative changes all aided the fight to keep Lick from closing. In their letter to Max, UCOP indicated that they decided to rescind their stipulations when UCO proposed a new budget for Lick to operate with a tighter budget without sacrificing other priorities.