NSF Dear Colleague letter on Sondrestrom

The 26 DEC 2017 NSF “Dear Colleague” letter notes an effective shutdown of Sondrestrom ISR on 31 MAR 2018. This is generally following Recommendations 7.2, 7.3, and 9.11 of the 2015 NSF Geospace Section Portfolio Review, with final report issued 14 APR 2016.

We have been running instruments remotely at Sondrestrom since 2012. As soon as the NSF 2016 report was issued, I started to hear murmurs about the publication count from Sondrestrom. I homed in on Recommendation 7.36:

NSF GS should develop a common set of annual metrics from each facility which can be collected year-on-year to provide an underpinning of the next Senior Review. These metrics could include

  • science outputs both from facility staff and external users
  • annual expenditure (capital and resource)
  • data downloads and usage
  • key technical developments (hardware and software).

While noting that NSF GS may not have the informatics systems necessary at present, it seems likely that other NSF directorates or other funding agencies such as NIH may have developed such metrics and they should be employed.


One of the key issues acknowledged by many at CEDAR 2017 workshop “save Sondrestrom ISR” meeting was the relatively low publication count involving Sondrestrom. NSF questioned whether instruments had real-time streaming capability, for support of space weather nowcasting. The internet bandwidth to all of Greenland is limited, and the satellite link to Sondrestrom costs $45/GByte. The throughput of 50 kB/sec led to a number of difficulties and workarounds. Data is mostly transported by mailing/carrying USB hard drives in and out of Sondrestrom.

Given flat (effectively declining) budgets, any program manager looks at the low-hanging fruit to cut. Sondrestrom ISR is unique globally in being the only ISR to run at such a short wavelength (23cm, 1.29 GHz). The Sondrestrom vacuum-tube (Klystron) based transmitter technology presents longevity concerns. The mechanically steered dish limits the spatiotemporal resolution considerably vs. electronically steered ISRs. The ISR is powered by a 600 kW generator, and the station power is provided by two 180 kW generators that cycle periodically to even out wear.

NSF also planned to cut Arecibo’s budget by ~ 75%, so running large, expensive facilities is a pressure NSF Geospace directorate seems concerned with pushing down. I think we have to acknowledge, something had to change. However, as the assessment below states, it’s not clear that planned economies by accessing EISCAT-3D will come to fruition in the next few years.

Review of the Portfolio Review

An assessment of the Geospace Portfolio Review was conducted in 2016 by National Academy of Science. Their assessment report DOI: 10.17226/24666 made a few critical points. (Note, you can download the 1.1 MB PDF for free as “guest”). Per the report, the Portfolio Review used per-facility metrics like:

  • Hours of operation per annum
  • Publications for at least 5 years
  • Number of site users (instruments placed) and data users
  • Current state of maintenance
  • Future science and technology plans
  • sources of funding
  • International agreements
  • Present and future plans in support of the survey

The plan to shift some recovered funds to EISCAT-3D was questioned in Section 5.2.2, as EISCAT-3D is not yet fully funded (isn’t built).

My key takeaway from the two reports is you can’t understand what isn’t measured. Opaque budgets and arbitrary metrics are not a great starting point for any effort. European funding agencies under Horizon 2020 have a mandate for open data, open publication. They accept metadata from repositories like Zenodo to close the loop. While not trivial, the problems have been partially solved in other funding agencies.