McDonald Observatory could be affected by Senate budget cuts

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UT’s McDonald Observatory, which is home to one of the largest telescopes in the world, is at risk of losing a large portion of its funding.

As an astronomy hub educating students and training future astronomers, the McDonald Observatory in West Texas has been a part of UT since 1932 and attracts about 90,000 visitors a year, said observatory director Taft Armandroff. However, the observatory could potentially be one of the several institutions connected with Texas public universities and colleges to lose a significant amount of funding if the Senate’s proposed budget is approved. 

“If there’s no (state) money, there’s going to be traumatically less activity,” Armandroff said. “We’d try to keep doing as much as we can, but obviously it would have serious impacts on the research and the education that happens in astronomy for the University.”

The Senate Finance Committee recently proposed a budget for 2018-19 that would decrease funding for “special items” by around $1 billion. The Legislative Budget Board defines these items as higher education initiatives “that are not supported through formula funding and support the special mission of the institution.” 

Committee chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said the current budget is a starting point and has the potential to change as the legislative session unfolds.

While the observatory receives funding from multiple outside sources, such as the National Science Foundation, Armandroff said the money received from the state is crucial to sustaining the entity.

Last week during one of several finance committee meetings, Nelson appointed Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to lead a work group with the mission of designating a more specific financial plan for special items.

“Some of the programs are really worthwhile and have had value,” Seliger said during a committee meeting. “Some of them should’ve expired in the biennium in which they were granted and yet have kept going for years, even generations. I would argue that some of them aren’t really special or exceptional at all.”

The UT System included 13 special items on their Legislative Appropriations Request for 2018-19, including the Texas Natural Science Center, the Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Institute for Geophysics. 

Nelson said she wants to ensure each special item is benefiting the public and fulfilling the core mission of higher education.

Armandroff said he believes the observatory is one of the University’s main priorities. He said the president and legislative liaisons are currently working to educate the Senate about the observatory’s mission and resources, but a major cut in funding would still curtail activities.

The observatory offers a unique opportunity for students to work with advanced telescopes and other equipment, Armandroff said.

“As cities grow, there’s fewer and fewer places where there’s dark skies where you can have a world-class observatory,” Armandroff said. “It’s a distinction that we have here that we’re very pleased to put in the hands of students.”