Monday, January 3, 2011

University of Arizona to Become Solar Observatory or Lose 60 Jobs

The new year could bring a new center for the study of solar physics to the University of Arizona - or the loss of 60 high-paying scientific jobs in solar astronomy in Tucson.

The UA is competing with up to seven other universities to become headquarters for the National Solar Observatory and home to 60 of its scientists and staffers.

"We've got a lot to lose because those 60 people are already here," said Michael Drake, who heads the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. He is a co-investigator on the proposal, along with Peter Strittmatter, who heads Steward Observatory, and Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science.

The NSO is currently run from offices in Tucson and Sunspot, N.M., close by aging telescopes on Kitt Peak and Sacramento Peak that are soon to be eclipsed by a giant $298 million solar telescope to be built on Haleakala Peak on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

The principal investigator for the UA's proposal is Joe Giacalone, one of only two solar physicists at the UA. Some of the other contenders, such as the University of Colorado and Montana State University, have full-fledged departments in solar physics or solar astronomy.

The UA is attempting to cast its lack of a solar physics program as a selling point, calling its proposal an opportunity to create a new center for solar physics that the National Solar Observatory could help define.

The university may not have a lot of solar physicists but it has related expertise in astronomy and optical sciences, said Giacalone. "We are a perfect fit, simply because we are a national powerhouse in many areas germane to the mission of the National Solar Observatory," he said.

"The grand plan is to consolidate the physical sciences on the eastern end of campus, along with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the new center of excellence for solar physics," Giacalone said.

Drake said the UA is offering to hire four new faculty members in solar physics and two post-doctoral researchers, in addition to creating four graduate fellowships and a visiting scholar program. It would split the cost of new faculty with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which manages NSO on behalf of the National Science Foundation.

Drake said the UA is "uniquely positioned to develop a major center for the study of the sun that capitalizes on Steward Observatory, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the College of Optical Sciences. The UA is No. 1 in the nation in physical sciences research expenditures," he said.

"The amount of money you bring in is not necessarily a measure of scholarship, but it's not a bad measure of research productivity," Drake said.

The UA proposal also pitches itself as an affordable site, both because of a lower cost of living and because it can take advantage of the offices and machine-shop space now occupied by the astronomy programs of the NSO and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory on North Cherry Avenue.

Transition costs would be less and the NSO could avoid losing valuable employees who don't want to relocate, Drake said.

He said the UA's proposal does not offer to take over the solar facilities atop Kitt Peak, where the iconic McMath-Pierce Telescope was built in 1962 and was the world's largest solar telescope for decades.

That telescope, along with facilities on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico, will no longer be funded by the National Science Foundation after the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope goes into operation on Maui as early as 2016.

The request for proposals says that "NSF plans to decommission the two existing NSO sites and consolidate the observatory directorate in a single location."

About 40 of the National Solar Observatory staff will be transferred to Maui and the remaining 60 will be assigned to the new headquarters. The transition to a new headquarters could begin as early as 2014.

In addition to Colorado and Montana State, letters of intent were received earlier this year from USC, Stanford, New Mexico State University and a consortium headed by the University of Alabama at Huntsville. The names of two universities, the UA and an unknown applicant, were not listed on the website of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

The deadline for proposals is listed as Dec. 30 on the association's website, but AURA President William Smith said in an e-mail that Dec. 31 is the actual deadline. Smith said he will identify the applicants only if they agree to it.

Selection of the headquarters site will be made by the AURA board sometime in 2011, using the recommendations of an independent review panel as a guide.


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