Last September, the University of California decided to cease providing funds to Lick Observatory, the university’s only fully-owned observatory, by 2018. Located east of San Jose, California, Lick currently serves as a haven for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars as the only observatory across the UC system where they can design and build their own research projects. This withdrawal of funding from an institution that holds high value for student research builds on a worrying precedent that the university may, in the future, make other such decisions to pull funding from valuable research facilities, jeopardizing students’ research and futures.
Fifteen months ago, the UC Observatory Board, a board set up to help the administration oversee UC Observatories, recommended the university pull all its funding from Lick. The UCO Board saw moving money to other, newer facilities such as the Thirty Meter Telescope — the effort of an international collaboration — currently being built in Hawaii and Keck Observatory in Hawaii as a higher priority than continuing funding Lick. The UC Office of the President stated that it does not currently have plans to close Lick, but is rather looking to shift Lick’s operations to alternative funds by developing and implementing a new funding model.
Despite its insistence that its plans do not include closing down the observatory, the Office of the President, by fully pulling its funding, has essentially declared that it does not see any value in Lick, affecting future investors’ decisions to provide funding to this facility. UCOP also sends a message that it would rather invest in big, prestigious projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope than invest in its own students’ projects and futures. Lick gives students the chance to tinker and test their own instruments, and taking away its funding deprives students and postdoctoral researchers from the ability to be principal investigators of their own projects. There is a fundamental problem in the university’s decision-making process when it decides against investing in its own students.
A poll was conducted in 2011 among UC faculty to establish priorities for UC investments in astronomy and astrophysics: Keck and the Thirty Meter Telescope were ranked as the top priority. The survey failed to include input from graduate students, Lick’s primary users, which reflects poorly on the university’s priorities. Being a research university, not simply a research institution, the University of California has an obligation to provide its students with research facilities. It should not actively deprive students who have chosen this university from the opportunities it prides itself on providing. Developing and implementing a funding model for Lick should not mean depending on private funding; the UC Office of the President should aim to meet fundraisers halfway instead of fully pulling its support from this institution.