Earlier this month, President Biden announced $60 million in funding to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery after hurricane Fiona. This is in addition to the already billions of dollars that were approved by the Trump administration to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure after hurricane Maria.
Maintaining and rebuilding a country’s electrical grid and roads is essential for its people to survive. But it is not enough for its population to thrive. A key part that is missing in these aid packages is funding to re-build scientific infrastructure in the island.
The iconic Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico was destroyed almost two years ago, not by the hurricane but by the progressive degradation of cables due to a combination of factors including design flaws and other extreme environmental events.
A new, powerful radio facility in the island is one science infrastructure project that would help grow a robust scientific, engineering, and research community in Puerto Rico, thereby boosting its economy. Unfortunately, it appears that the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency responsible for the Arecibo Observatory, has decided this facility will not be the site of future cutting-edge astronomical and atmospheric research, but rather just a center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. While there will be laboratory space, the research will be an afterthought.
For nearly 60 years, the Arecibo observatory made significant scientific contributions to the fields of astronomical, planetary, and atmospheric sciences. The first planets outside our Solar System were detected at Arecibo. Observations made with this telescope helped map the large-scale structure of the universe. As host to the world most powerful and sensitive planetary radar system, it’s been essential in NASA’s efforts to identify all big pieces of rock that could potentially be hazardous to our planet. Research done at Arecibo has directly resulted in some of the highest honors in science, including the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.
But Arecibo was about more than just discoveries and awards. It also served as a training ground for young students and scientists, and was at the heart of extensive research and education programs that have inspired thousands of students from Puerto Rico, the U.S. and the world—including myself!—to pursue careers in science and engineering.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and when I was growing up (and until recently) the Arecibo telescope was the biggest in the world. The impressive site was just a two-hour drive from where I lived. Great science was being done in my island, and I wanted to be part of that endeavor. This is one of the reasons why I chose to do my undergraduate studies in astrophysics at Cornell University, which back then was the institution that managed the Arecibo Observatory, and why I concentrated in radio astronomy for my graduate studies at Harvard University. Today, I’m a professor at Yale where I study the physical and chemical processes that take place in the interstellar medium, where stars are formed and planets are born. The careers of many scientists from Puerto Rico were similarly influenced by this major research facility.
Since 1997, the observatory has also been home to the Angel Ramos Foundation Science & Visitor Center, which welcomes nearly 100,000 visitors a year and supports STEM education at all levels throughout Puerto Rico and beyond. The observatory and its research and education programs gave hands-on experience and training to many underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. It is hard for many of us in the science community to envision that a stand-alone STEM education center without a major research facility would influence the large number of people that the Arecibo Observatory inspired to seek degrees in science-related fields. Working side-by-side with scientists and operating powerful instruments that allow us to explore the world around us are the kind of meaningful research experiences that will make a student choose a career in STEM.
There is no question that the Arecibo Observatory has been a source of pride to the people of Puerto Rico and to the general U.S. scientific community. Proof of the importance and influence of the Arecibo Observatory, even to those that do not work in the fields of astronomy and atmospheric science, was seen when thousands of students, scientists, engineers and the general public from Puerto Rico and around the world took to Twitter towards the end of 2020 to express #WhatAreciboMeansToMe. Moreover, a petition to the White House to rebuild the telescope, that was created by Puerto Rican college students soon after the telescope’s destruction in December 2020, gathered more than 100,000 signatures in less than a month.
Earlier this year the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution which recognized the immense scientific, educational and economic value of the telescope to Puerto Rico, the U.S and the world, and encouraged federal agencies “to study means of replacing the scientific capabilities that were lost.” In addition, a report by the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine recommended that federal agencies “should support studies to develop a plan for ground-based planetary radar capabilities comparable to or exceeding those of the Arecibo Observatory necessary for achieving planetary defense objectives.”
But even though the need for a new Arecibo telescope has been made clear, the federal government has not made any commitment to build it and no funding has been assigned for it. It will be a waste of decades of labor, expertise, and millions of dollars of investment in equipment and technology if cutting-edge research is abandoned form the site. Many of us in the community are clearly upset with the recent decision by the NSF regarding the facility. We still have hope that the decision will be reversed.
Some might be concerned about building a new facility in a place where hurricanes can cause extensive damage. However, the previous telescope withstood hurricanes for nearly six decades, and its collapse was not due to winds from hurricane Maria. Chile experiences earthquakes relatively often, yet telescopes and high-rise buildings are built there. A new Arecibo telescope could easily be designed to withstand powerful hurricane winds.
Others might think that there is no need for the U.S. to spend money on a new facility and instead should rely on international partnerships to recover the science capabilities that were lost. However, many of these were unique to the Arecibo telescope. Moreover, having U.S. scientists depend on international facilities, especially when these are in not-so friendly nations, is not always a good idea.
It is time that government and private funding agencies support building a new, enhanced Arecibo radar/radio telescope—a facility that will help better understand our universe, protect our planet, serve as a training ground for young scientists, and inspire thousands of students to pursue careers in STEM. Puerto Rico deserves it.