Saving Lick Observatory for the next generation

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I congratulate Virgie Hoban on her thoughtful and thorough Sept. 2 article about the University of California’s Lick Observatory, “Facing a waning future: Researchers reel from defunding of only UC-owned observatory,” as well as The Daily Californian’s Senior Editorial Board for its follow-up comments in “Student research comes first,” published Sept. 4.

I am pouring my heart and soul into saving Lick largely because of my deep commitment to UC students and postdoctoral scholars who would be disproportionately affected by its defunding. Costing only $1.3 million per year for core operations, Lick delivers a fantastic bang for the buck and is also the public face of UC astronomy in California, annually serving more than 35,000 visitors.

In her Sept. 9 response, “UC does not plan to shut down Lick Observatory,” Provost and Executive Vice President Aimee Dorr states that “the University of California never planned to close Lick Observatory.” But this assertion is disingenuous. Most readers conclude that if UCOP systemwide funding for Lick vanishes by 2018 and other funding isn’t found, Lick will shut down, especially because UCOP has not articulated any specific alternative sources of funding.

We are grateful that Provost Dorr is now publicly supportive of Lick and recently agreed to provide some UCOP funding to help pay for an expert positioning and marketing plan commissioned by the Lick Observatory Council, of which I am president. These are positive signs of progress. But though I favor this long-term strategy, the current situation is critical: concrete fundraising must commence immediately, because the UCOP ramp-down will begin in 2016, and we risk losing our best employees by mid 2015. Time is ticking — we need to take action now.

UCOP, ideally, would provide funds — $1.3 million per year — for core operations of Lick. Additional private donations could then be used for improvements that would keep Lick at the forefront of research and education. But at a minimum, UCOP should provide $650,000 annually to match funds we obtain from private donors. I have discussed Lick with many potential donors, and they frequently request a financial commitment from UCOP. Otherwise, Lick appears unimportant to the UC top brass, so they may likewise lose interest.

I have informed UCOP of prospective donors’ desires. And in the May 12 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, an article about the Lick funding situation stated, “…(Dorr) said (Lick’s) supporters will need to meet the university ‘halfway there, or even a quarter-way there.’ ” To many, including myself, this sounds like UCOP is indeed willing to provide matching funds — but before making promises to potential donors, I have repeatedly sought clarification from Provost Dorr, to no avail. Please, Provost Dorr, give me the ammunition needed to help us succeed in Lick fundraising.

I believe, out of an annual UC budget exceeding $23 billion, funds for at least partial support exist. For example, starting in 2018, the university’s share of the operating costs of the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii drops to 50 percent: a savings of about $6.5 million per year. Indeed, with an endowment of only $30 million — not much larger than the probable Lick-closing costs — the university could fund core Lick operations in perpetuity.

But is Lick really a priority worthy of UCOP funding? Yes, it is, when you consider all of the relevant factors: Lick’s low cost, which is only 6 percent of the UCOP astronomy budget; important projects requiring huge numbers of nights on modest-size Lick telescopes, which is not doable with the giant Keck telescopes; new cutting-edge instruments efficiently developed and tested at Lick; public outreach and, especially, Lick’s accessibility for UC students and postdocs.

The UC Observatories Board, unfortunately, recommends that UCOP funding for Lick be phased out. But committees sometimes make mistakes. Several astronomers on this board don’t use Lick for their personal research, and a significant fraction of the members have never even visited Lick. The opinions of students and postdocs were not solicited.

Many UC astronomy faculty do not conduct projects suitable for undergraduates, but they should still support those of us who do — for example, roughly a dozen undergraduates in my group use Lick — just as I favor the building of a specific new instrument for Keck that might cost $10-15 million, despite not personally planning to use it. I’m also disappointed that some faculty seem to place little value on the training and independence gained by graduate students and postdocs who lead their own research projects at Lick — or on the building and testing of new instruments, an activity so passionately described by UC Davis graduate student Sona Hosseini in the Sept. 2 article.

UC President Janet Napolitano easily could do the right thing. The decision to ramp down and terminate funding for Lick was made before she took office. Thus, she could reverse it, diplomatically citing a reassessment of the relative costs and benefits, especially for UC students: the very people the university is designed to serve. In so doing, she would end this controversy and add credibility to her assertions that she really does value the students of the university.

Students and others, meanwhile, can make a difference. Find out more about Lick at, and click on the “Save Lick Observatory” tab to learn about writing letters to UCOP, donating funds, becoming a friend of Lick Observatory and raising public awareness. Together, we can save Lick!

Alex Filippenko is an astronomy professor at UC Berkeley.

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