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LSST Finds External Funding January 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) was given a 30 million dollar gift from a fund run by Charles Simonyi (20 million) and Bill Gates (10 million). The proposed telescope will scan the sky night-after-night providing time-lapse pictures at a scale and detail not previously available. It is a proven technique that has been used on a much smaller scale previously. This experiment looks to me, actually, a lot like a high energy physics detector, aimed at the sky (perhaps that is part of the reason I like it). And, perhaps, the fact that members of the UW physics department and astronomy department are involved in it.

This is old news, especially if you read other science blogs (I first saw mention of it on the 4th). But I wanted to post it for several reasons. First – this is great. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see private money like this flowing to science. I suppose it always has – especially for applied research. But the LSST is about as pure as it gets: there are no products coming out of this – this is a search for dark matter/dark energy. There are lots of ways to donate your private cash to research efforts. The one I’ve been aware of for the longest is to donate your computer time: Rosetta@Home, SETI@Home, LHC@Home, etc. But getting cash in isn’t easy – especially when you realize that $30 million is only part of the LSST’s budget (something around 170 million)!

And that brings me to the second reason I have been wanting to post to this. The LSST is marked as one of Astrophysics top priorities. Numerous reviews of the field since have all put LSST at or near the top of the list. This is one of the experiments that would likely have benefited in the doubling of the science budget that was supposed to start this year but is likely now put off (for who knows how long). The LSST is high priority enough that eventually it will be funded – though if science funding in America continues to remain very tight who knows what other smaller experiments will suffer – in a similar way that science at NASA has suffered at the hands of the Mars program. Though, for me personally, this is very different – I don’t think of a manned mission to Mars as having much scientific value and I definitely think of the LSST has having scientific value.

Finally, I used to think of large private donors as being perfect for funding things that government won’t for political reasons. Cheap drugs because they are beholden to big-pharma, for example. Disease prevention in Africa because a government doesn’t think the continent is important enough (though I note that is finally starting to change). I have always thought that funding of pure research was the duty of a good government – it isn’t something that a company should be expected to shoulder and it is obviously important for the future of the country. So I find this a bit galling as well.


1. Anonymous - January 18, 2008

Astronomy has used private fundraising as a significant source of funds for new observatories for a long time. For other recent examples, the TMT (thirty-meter telescope) and GMT (giant magellan telescope) have recieved large donations from, among others, the Kavli Foundation, George P. Mitchell (oil magnate), etc. In the old days, Palomar was built with (in large part) a donation from the Rockefeller Institute, as is the case with most other major observatories. It is, IMO, unfortunate that HEP has not (yet) gotten more involved in private fundraising efforts. They do not detract in the slightest from government-sponsored funding, in fact they tend to show the government that the public is interested and involved.

Private fundraising should be a part of what lab directors do, just like university presidents, and directors of just about every other major facility besides HEP & nuclear ones (at present).

There is absolutely no reason for private funds to be used for telescopic measurements, but not microscopic ones. We don’t understand the universe until we understand its fundamental building blocks. HEP lab directors need to take a crash course from their colleagues and from university presidents and devote some of their time to fundraising with donors.

2. gordonwatts - January 19, 2008

Well said. I agree with all of your points. My point is that these large projects should be funded by gov’t – but aren’t being. And that is a huge pity, I think. Well, more than a pity, actually.

3. Fermilab Gets $5 Million Donation « Life as a Physicist - June 2, 2008

[…] But I was thinking about it over the last several days. This has something in common with another donation that was recently made for the LSST. At the University of Washington I’m used to seeing […]

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