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Clinton turns attention to observatory in Puerto Rico

The financially strapped Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico has a new patron in New York senator and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton -- just weeks before the island's Democratic primary.

The Cornell University-operated observatory in the northwestern part of the island risks being shut down if it doesn't find new sources of funding. The National Science Foundation, which has supported the facility until now, announced last year that it would cut most of its budget for the facility by 2011.

A bill filed by Clinton last week seeks to reverse that decision by requiring the NSF to reinstate the funds.

Foundation officials said that, although the observatory does "good and unique science," the foundation can fund less than a third of all of the proposals it gets.

But supporters of the observatory point out that a funding initiative by the Bush administration may double the NSF's budget during the next 10 years.

Clinton's action was welcomed in Puerto Rico, but island supporters of Barack Obama questioned the timing. The commonwealth will hold one of the nation's final Democratic primaries June 1. It has 55 pledged delegates that both candidates are going after vigorously.

"Arecibo has been in peril for a while now," said Andr�s L�pez, an attorney and a co-director of the local Obama campaign. "That she, by chance, finds about it now is an example of the type of old politics that Obama wants to change. The timing is more than suspect."

Nevertheless, L�pez said it is good that Clinton "finally pays attention to an issue that pertains to us."

In a release issued by her Senate office, Clinton highlighted that Cornell University is a New York institution. She stressed the "historic relationship" between that state and Puerto Rico.

"Cornell University scientists have used the remarkable tools available at Arecibo Observatory to greatly expand our understanding of the universe," Clinton said in the release. "I am proud to support the path-blazing accomplishments of these New Yorkers."

The Arecibo observatory houses the only radio telescope in the world that can detect with enough precision where and when an asteroid would hit Earth. Research performed here also led to the discovery of planets outside our solar system, and to at least one Nobel Prize in astronomy. Its yearly budget is $12.5 million a year.

Whether or not Clinton's motives are politically motivated, observatory Director Robert Kerr said he was hopeful the senator's involvement will make a difference.

"We are very grateful she's taken an interest in this," Kerr said. "I'm quite convinced that the excellence of the Arecibo observatory will prevail."




Jeannette Rivera-Lyles can be reached at jrivera@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5471.

Related topic galleries: Colleges and Universities, Political Candidates, Hillary Clinton, Elections, Barack Obama, Puerto Rico, Cornell University

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