Alex Filippenko feels betrayed.
The world-renowned astronomer and nine-time winner of UC Berkeley’s best professor award is sitting behind a plate of steaming hot food, but he’s too worked up to eat.
“I’ve been a loyal faculty member here for about three decades, despite many more lucrative offers from private institutions that I’ve rejected in part because of my great support in the principle of a great public university,” Filippenko said during an interview in May. “That’s what hurts — I feel betrayed. I feel betrayed by the University of California. I feel betrayed by the Office of the President.”
His sense of betrayal stems from the university’s abrupt decision last year to terminate all funding for the university’s only fully owned observatory — the only one where graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from across the UC system can design and execute their own research projects.
For Filippenko and others, Lick Observatory, perched just east of San Jose, California, on Mount Hamilton, represents the university’s fundamental contract with the people of California to cultivate the next generation of scientists and humanists. Yet, last September, to the outrage of many UC astronomers, students and lawmakers, the UC Office of the President announced it would be withdrawing all funds from the observatory by 2018 to shift these resources to newer facilities like the Thirty Meter Telescope, a $1.2 billion international collaboration currently under construction.
To Filippenko, who teaches the popular introductory astronomy course Astronomy C10, this is a travesty.
“I’ve achieved stuff in my research career where one could say it’s gonna be all downhill from here,” said Filippenko, whose research at Lick helped corroborate supernovae as “cosmic yardsticks,” culminating in the 2011 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. “I could just stop doing research — life would go on. I’m fighting in part for the next generation, and I’m not going to go away. (UCOP) thinks I’ve been a bit of a pain in their side already. Well, I’m willing to raise a bigger stink.”
The next generation
In the basement of Lick’s Shane telescope, Sona Hosseini — clad in UC Davis sweats that suggest she will be sleeping at the observatory again tonight — is crouched over a large instrument, tinkering with the manual guide camera she uses to mark comets.
It’s a challenge to stabilize the camera in the basement, a cold place where the walls shake slightly as the dome ceiling moves for the Shane telescope’s nightly debut. Hosseini, fortunately, is ready to deal with any mishaps, as the instrument mounted to the telescope is one that the UC Davis doctoral student has designed and built herself.
Today, as she navigates a frenzy of job offers, Hosseini credits much of her success to the independence and opportunities she was promised early on as a graduate student at the University of California.
“If (UCOP) doesn’t allow students to do this — to mess up and rebuild and mess up and rebuild — we are just going to continue doing what we already know how to do.” — Sona Hosseini, a UC Davis doctoral student of applied science
“When I came to the United States, I spent about a year traveling all over the country talking with professors in different universities, asking them if I can build my own instrument for my Ph.D., and the answer was no,” she said. “I went to UC Davis, found an advisor and he said, ‘Yes, you can do this, because we have the lab, and there’s Lick Observatory.’ As soon as he said that, I was sold.”
Now, as Lick faces the threat of closure, many worry Hosseini serves as an example of what the university is set to lose.
Under the plan devised by the UC Office of the President, students and postdoctoral researchers will lose the ability to be principal investigators of telescope proposals. In lieu of Lick, students will have to train at Keck Observatory, another facility partly owned by the university in Hawaii, or the Thirty Meter Telescope, also being built in Hawaii.
The twin telescopes at Keck Observatory, however, are some of the most powerful on the planet — a precious resource for the most accomplished researchers in the world and one too valuable for a graduate student’s tinkering. Students are prohibited from applying for time at Keck and will be similarly restricted from the Thirty Meter Telescope when it opens.
Lick, on the other hand, is fully owned and operated by the university, which allows graduate students to lead projects they independently design. This pushes students to think on their own and learn from their mistakes — to grow into leaders in their field, says Filippenko, who has 15 undergraduate students on his research team monitoring supernova explosions.
In Hosseini’s eyes, the funds saved by cutting the observatory are not worth the perhaps incalculable damages to the next generation.
“If (UCOP) doesn’t allow students to do this — to mess up and rebuild and mess up and rebuild — we are just going to continue doing what we already know how to do and never do anything new,” Hosseini said. “Being at Lick, I become an inventor — I’m a thinker. You can never teach instrumentation to a person — it’s expertise that comes with doing.”
As in a chicken-and-egg cycle, it is difficult to pinpoint the origin for the decision to cut Lick.
Filippenko and other researchers blame fellow astronomer Steven Beckwith, the former UC vice president of research and graduate studies, for inappropriately acting on personal biases against Lick Observatory. Beckwith, Filippenko pointed out, is a former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute and has publicly belittled the merits of ground-based telescopes, such as those at Lick, in comparison to space-based instruments, such as Hubble telescope.
“The guy has openly expressed in rather contemptuous ways his lack of interest in ground-based telescopes,” said Garth Illingworth, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy. “He views himself as a person to choose the direction of UC astronomy like a CEO in a company. But that’s not his job.”
Beckwith, however, in an interview with The Daily Californian in July just after he stepped down from his position, said it was not his decision to cut Lick and instead pointed to the UC Observatories, or UCO, Board: an advisory board he convened in 2012 to guide the separate entity that oversees Lick Observatory.
“It’s not my opinion you have to look at…It’s the opinion of a much larger body of astronomers.” — Steven Beckwith, a former UC vice president of research and graduate studies
In June 2013, the UCO Board recommended the university terminate all funding for Lick. Following suit, UCOP will implement a “glide path” for Lick in 2016, phasing out all funding from $1.3 million to zero by 2018.
“It’s not my opinion you have to look at,” Beckwith said. “It’s the opinion of a much larger body of astronomers.”
Thus begins an administrative game of hot potato.
While administrators refer to the UCO Board, the basis for the board’s recommendation seems to boomerang back to UC President Janet Napolitano’s administration.
“You will have to ask the systemwide provost about this,” said UCO Board member Sam Traina in an email. “I will not comment.”
All 13 UCO Board members either declined to comment on the board’s recommendation or did not respond to requests to do so for this article.
Systemwide provost and executive vice president Aimee Dorr, like Beckwith, passed the baton back to the board.
“We didn’t make a decision a priori that no matter what, Lick has to go,” Dorr said in an interview with the Daily Cal. “It was based on all of these constraints and all this advice.”
The validity of that advice and its original inspiration, however, has sparked controversy and discontent among UC astronomers who condemn the board’s lack of astronomy expertise and see the board as an extension of Beckwith’s agenda.
Of the 13 members on the UCO Board, only six have experience in astronomy or astrophysics. Members, moreover, were each appointed by Beckwith — “procedures which undermine the independence and authority of the board,” according to a 2012 letter signed by more than 50 UC astronomers. The letter criticized the board’s inappropriate constitution and marginal representation of the UC astronomy community.
“The way the board has been set up, it’s really been a tool for the president’s office — it’s just a bunch of ‘yes’ people,” said Illingworth, a UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor. “It’s not an independent group, and it is not very interested in Lick or UC astronomy.”
Still, Beckwith asserts the board needed a significant supply of budget-minded administrators who fully understand the realities of unforgiving budget cuts.
According to Beckwith, the budget for the UC research office has decreased by 40 percent over the last six years. While other programs in his former office have suffered multimillion-dollar cuts throughout the years, UC Observatories’ budget had remained unscathed by these cuts until last year. Only now, he says, is UC Observatories experiencing the pains felt across the university system.
“We do the best we can to secure money, but that money is decreasing,” Beckwith said, adding that it is, in fact, fields such as engineering and the humanities that have borne the brunt of research budget cuts. “It’s very common and very painful when research funding declines overall. We have to make choices.”
Yet former UC Observatories interim director Sandra Faber emphasized that there is money available for Lick. In its 2014 report, the Portfolio Review Group, charged with evaluating the University of California’s systemwide research portfolio, recommended eliminating several programs it deemed unworthy of UC funds. According to Faber, cutting these programs would release $11 million from the budget, some of which could be used to support Lick.
“They know there’s more money going to some other things, and they think, ‘Well, they should get it’ — but so do other people,” Dorr said. “It’s all over the place — the legitimate needs, the recognition that there’s money available to some degree and the desire that that money be used to whatever is closest to wherever your heart is.”
In addition, Beckwith said such assessments are irrelevant in light of the UCO Board’s “very clear” decision to scrap Lick in favor of the new Thirty Meter Telescope and Keck Observatory.
“As I understand, regardless of the amount of money we have for astronomy, (the UCO Board) feels the priority is not to put the money into Lick but to put the money into other facilities,” Beckwith said. “And if they had more money, they’d put more money into those facilities … They believe the time has come to transition Lick, so their belief is astronomy will do better if we put our money into the newer facilities.”
But astronomers across the system, who argue Lick is in fact a crucial part of UC astronomy research, would strongly disagree.
Pillars of research
In 2021, the Thirty Meter Telescope will open on the summit of Mauna Kea, offering unprecedented glimpses into the beginning of the universe. The telescope will eventually be the most powerful in the world, and ensuring its success is the number-one priority among UC astronomers.
But Ian McLean, founder and director of the UCLA Infrared lab, where many of the instruments for Keck are developed, noted Lick is integral to that very effort. The smaller telescopes at Lick, he said, are where the instruments and technologies for larger telescopes such as the Thirty Meter are first tested and perfected.
McLean — whose lab competes with Lick for funds — explained that though telescopes collect light, it is the instrumentation at the focus of a telescope that creates the science output and will keep telescopes state-of-the-art in perpetuity. Moving forward, the UC Office of the President plans to divert much of Lick’s money to instrumentation efforts for Keck and TMT.
For many, this plan seems both clumsy and contradictory.
“UCOP does not understand technology development for astronomy very well,” said Faber, who is an astronomy professor at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s a process, a continuum … The actions they are taking, first by closing — or threatening to close — Lick and cutting the budget drastically, are a grave threat to this entire system we have so carefully assembled.”
According to Faber, Lick is currently developing a next-generation adaptive optics system ultimately intended for implementation at the Thirty Meter Telescope.
“If anyone posits that Lick Observatory is outdated, they’re just wrong,” said Lick support scientist Elinor Gates.
In 2011, Beckwith organized the UC Astronomy Task Force that conducted a poll among UC faculty to establish priorities for UC astronomy and astrophysics investments. Keck and the Thirty Meter were ranked top priority. In third place was instrumentation and adaptive optics labs, and significantly below that was Lick.
Filippenko called the ranking biased because of the survey’s exclusion of graduate students: Lick’s primary users. Still, as a lower priority for UC faculty, the Astronomy Task Force suggested exploring alternate funding models to reduce operating costs at Lick.
“Any such cost savings should go toward funding instruments for Keck and TMT so vitally needed,” wrote the Astronomy Task Force.
From here, the controversy engulfing Lick seems to be rooted in opposing interpretations of that recommendation.
The UCO Board cites the Astronomy Task Force report as one of the main qualifiers behind their recommendation to cut all funds for Lick.
“Accordingly, all cost savings resulting from the repurposing of Lick should be used to support the development of instruments for Keck and TMT,” the board wrote.
But Illingworth argues the lower ranking was not meant to preclude Lick from receiving university funds but to establish its lessened portion of the budget.
“The priorities mean that’s where you place your emphasis, but you don’t kill things — that’s another decision altogether.” — Garth Illingworth, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy
The budget for UC astronomy is about $21 million a year — about $13 million of which funds the UC’s share in Keck. Lick’s operating budget, roughly $1.3 million, accounts for about 6 percent of the total astronomy budget.
“It’s an absolute bargain,” said Illingworth, who hasn’t used Lick for 15 years because of his particular field of astronomy but supports it because of what he calls a systemwide responsibility. “The priorities mean that’s where you place your emphasis, but you don’t kill things — that’s another decision altogether.”
According to Dorr, the only way Lick could continue receiving university funds after 2018 would be if astronomers provide for it within UCO’s budget by reducing support for Keck.
Dorr doesn’t believe that will happen, and the astronomers know it won’t.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
The Office of the President has reiterated that it “does not plan to close Lick at this time.” Rather, it is looking to “develop and implement a funding model that will shift Lick’s operations to alternative fund sources.”
To determine a final transition path for the observatory, the UC Office of the President has embarked on a “Lick Transition Study Project,” collaborating loosely with the Lick Observatory Council, which oversees the philanthropic group Friends of Lick Observatory.
But Robert Kibrick, a member of the council, says members remain in the dark on the transition study’s progress, and administrators have taken no concrete steps to secure outside funds.
Intrinsic to astronomers’ various grievances is what they perceive as a lack of transparency or earnestness on the part of Napolitano’s administration as a potential crisis awaits Lick Observatory.
“They say despite this very clear intent to terminate systemwide funding by 2018, UC has no plan to close Lick,” said Kibrick. “What happens if we get to July 2018, systemwide funds drop to zero, and there are not adequate alternate funds? What happens then? What do we do?”
What will happen if alternative funding can’t be found?
“I don’t think we know that,” Beckwith said. “That’s five years ahead.”
This month, though, five turns to four. And as the 2016 ramp-down looms, Faber says a chilling effect has already taken hold: Faculty members have already gone on to greener pastures.
“What happens if we get to July 2018, systemwide funds drop to zero, and there are not adequate alternate funds?” — Robert Kibrick, a member of the Lick Observatory Council
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, she says.
“You say Lick is not important, we’re going to close it — it becomes unimportant because people think it’s going to be closed,” Faber said.
Filippenko, president of the Lick Observatory Council, said the university’s actions have in fact undermined astronomers’ fundraising efforts, as potential business partners hesitate to invest in an observatory that risks closure and has been deemed unimportant by the university.
Former UCO director and UC Santa Cruz astronomy professor Michael Bolte says if Napolitano could just meet fundraisers halfway, kicking in something like $750,000, astronomers would be better equipped to find matching funds.
Dorr and Beckwith, however, say this is not likely.
“What they want is (that) we provide them with more money,” said Dorr. “They don’t want it that they handle it themselves. The Office of the President is very unlikely to just say, ‘OK, you want it, and it costs a million more dollars, so here’s a million more dollars.’ That’s very unlikely to happen.”
In the national spotlight
The crusade for Lick has caught national attention. Earlier this year, nine members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Napolitano urging her to reconsider, saying it was “short-sighted to pinch pennies by shutting down this exemplary facility.”
But Napolitano’s response, ghostwritten by Beckwith, displays numerous errors of fact that Filippenko says glaringly misrepresent the observatory.
Faber contends that use of Lick has not “steadily decreased,” nor is it limited to “a small number of individuals at just a few of our 10 campuses.” There are 60 ongoing research projects at Lick, she said, and 10 doctoral theses.
“To justify their termination of funding, the Office of the President has made various dismissive and denigrating statements about Lick, I think, to make it seem to the public they are doing the right thing,” Filippenko said.
Perhaps the astronomers’ greatest criticism is not of the Office of the President’s unwillingness to commit financially to Lick as such but of the inconsistency and insincerity displayed since its announcement last year.
In the letter to Congress, Napolitano said Lick can be sustained by direct funding from individual campuses. But even Dorr noted this is not very plausible, and she “couldn’t imagine” the university offering this proposal.
“There’s no evidence that the campuses will be willing to contribute at all — there’s no established plan to actually make that happen,” said Aaron Barth, chair of the UCO Advisory Committee, which advises the director and reports to the UCO Board.
In response to Napolitano’s letter, 35 members of Congress rebuttled with a detailed letter questioning UCOP’s grasp of the situation.
“Unfortunately we are concerned that your information is not entirely accurate and perhaps you don’t fully appreciate the importance of Lick,” the congress members wrote.
They cautioned that cutting support for Lick would raise doubt about the university’s future ability to honor commitments and maintain its research investments.
“In this process, there’s an element of what I see as disrespect.” — Garth Illingworth, a UC Santa Cruz professor of astronomy
The federal government, they say, has invested millions of dollars in research at Lick — including $8.2 million in the recently commissioned Automated Planet Finder, which hunts for new planets that could potentially harbor life. Though some suggest the telescope can remain open should Lick close, Faber said this is impossible without Lick’s infrastructure.
“One of the disturbing problems about discussing Lick is that many people have gone on the record floating proposals that have never been backed up by any concrete fact,” Faber said.
Given the infeasibility of many administrators’ suggestions, the greatest hurdle for astronomers may be ascertaining the UC Office of the President’s fundamental vision for Lick.
In their report, the UCO Board suggests “repurposing” Lick’s mission, and “transitioning from a research observatory to an outreach facility that accommodates educational programs,” much like a museum.
Dorr said this is a possibility, but one of many on the table.
In her response to Congress’ second letter, though, Dorr wrote that the university “agrees Lick Observatory is a valuable research facility and a resource for astronomy education,” and reiterated Lick will not close. In fact, the letter gives no implication Lick’s scientific operations will change in any way.
“In this process, there’s an element of what I see as disrespect,” Illingworth said. “We’re watching this with some astonishment, but they are doing what they will do, and we will watch.”
A shared future
In 1875, the UC Regents promised James Lick that the facility created in his name would be “made perpetually useful in promoting science.”
On a summery night in May, a crowd of students wait their turn to look through the lens of the Great Lick Refractor, now in its 126th year of operation. An undergraduate student lingers at the lens, taking in the glowing bulb of Mars.
It is people like this, and future researchers, that Faber worries the UC Office of the President has forgotten in light of its decision.
“Astronomers are acutely aware, that the information they produce is a little unlike other sciences — We don’t cure diseases, we don’t help people live longer or drive better cars,” said Faber. “What we’re producing is more philosophical, it’s intangible. Astronomers deeply believe that if they learn things about the universe and all they find out sits in books and the average person doesn’t hear about it, it will be a total waste for mankind. We have to share — this is in our DNA. Lick belongs to the citizens of California.”
Virgie Hoban is a senior staff writer. Contact her at [email protected].
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A previous version of this article quoted Alex Filippenko as saying he had been a faculty member for over three decades. In fact, he has been a faculty member for about three decades.