Black Hole Hunters at Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory Turn to Crowdfunding After Budget Cuts

Science Society

Faced with budget cuts, scientists studying black holes at a Japanese observatory have turned to crowdfunding to help fund their research.

Funding Cutting-Edge Research

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Mizusawa VLBI Observatory in Ōshū, Iwate Prefecture, is an important center in the effort to unlock the mysteries of black holes. Honma Mareki, the observatory’s director, was a member of the Event Horizon Telescope, an array of synched radio observatories spanning the globe, that published the groundbreaking photo of a black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy in 2019.

In recent years, though, the observatory has seen its funding from the government shrink, raising concerns for the Japanese study of black holes. The Mizusawa observatory decided to take matters into its own hands and set up a crowdfunding page with the goal of bringing in ¥10 million. The campaign is the first time for an NAOJ facility to turn to alternative financing to raise money.

Stars swirl in the sky over the radio telescopes at the Mizusawa VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) Observatory, in this time-lapse photo. (© Iijima Yutaka/Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)
Stars swirl in the sky over the radio telescopes at the Mizusawa VLBI (very long baseline interferometry) Observatory, in this time-lapse photo. (© Iijima Yutaka/Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

According to Honma, Mizusawa’s funding woes are part of a broader trend of the Japanese government scaling back its support for scientific research in the face of a slowing economy and poor outlook for future growth as Japan’s population shrinks. The observatory saw its fiscal 2020 budget halved from the previous year, which was particularly shocking to Honma coming on the heels of his 2019 triumph with the Event Horizon Telescope team.

The historic photo of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)
The historic photo of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)

Founded in 1988, the NAOJ is an inter-university research institute that plays a vital role in promoting astronomy research through the open use of its facilities. However, Honma notes that since maintenance of observatories and other facilities take budgetary priority, recent cuts have impacted employment and government-funded research projects at NAOJ sites.

Looking for alternative sources of revenue, researchers at the Mizusawa Observatory launched their crowdfunding page on April 20. They opted for an all-or-nothing campaign, with all the money raised to be returned to donors unless they hit their funding goal by the deadline of June 17. The response has been overwhelming, with donations easily topping the initial goal. Honma says the money will be used to help bring up the next generation of astronomers who will further unravel the secrets of black holes.

The M87 black hole and jet of subatomic particles. (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/EAVN Collaboration)
The M87 black hole and jet of subatomic particles. (© Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/EAVN Collaboration)

Investing in Astronomy’s Future

The 2019 Event Horizon Collaboration photo proved the existence of black holes. Researchers at the Mizusawa Observatory and elsewhere are now focused on learning more about the behavior of these mysterious celestial objects, including exploring the theory that they emit fast-moving jets of particles as they rotate.

The public is fascinated by each new discovery into the workings of the universe, but Honma warns that the current budgetary situation puts Japanese research into black holes at risk. NAOJ facilities receive nearly all their funding from the Japanese government, and Honma notes that cuts have made it necessary to curtail important programs.

After the first round of budget cuts in 2020, Honma says that staff at Mizusawa realized that there was a real risk that the radio telescope array might shut down unless they took action. This came as a shock to researchers as well as the local community, which strongly supports the observatory.

Although such an outcome was averted, cuts deprived the facility of the ability to offer research positions to young astronomers. Rather than accept their plight, the team started looking into alternative forms of funding, and on the advice of different individuals, decided in 2021 to give crowdfunding a try.

Researchers check equipment at the Mizusawa observatory. (© NAOJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)
Researchers check equipment at the Mizusawa observatory. (© NAOJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

Honma says that with government funding covering the costs of running the observatory, money from the crowdfunding campaign will support a post-doctoral research position. “Most of the post-doc spots in astronomy in Japan have disappeared,” he explains. “We don’t have one at all at Mizusawa. This is a concern as there is no one to pass on the skills needed for studying black holes.” He stresses that it will be a tall order to support just one post-doctoral position with even ¥10 million in donations, but he remains hopeful that with additional funds the observatory can bring aboard a young researcher. “We want to make the most of the money, of course. It’s vital we invest in future generations to keep research in black holes and other fields of astronomy going.”

Looking at the possibility that the government will cut funding even further, Honma says such a scenario would have dire consequences. “It would seriously hobble the study of astronomy in Japan, dulling its appeal for aspiring scientists and putting the field on a downward spiral,” he warns. “Without young researchers turning their eyes to the heavens, the future of Japanese astronomy is bleak.”

Discoveries like the M87 black hole make headlines, but Honma stresses that such advances are the product of steady research and that scientists need to collect and sift through a mountain of data before hitting on new findings. “The data we collect is used in many different scientific approaches,” he declares. “Observations that at first appear inconsequential, after closer study lead to breakthroughs. That’s what makes the field so fascinating.” He cautions, though, that further funding cuts would cast a long shadow over Japan’s ability to contribute to this process.

The Next Frontier of Black Hole Research

Honma sees efforts like the Event Horizon Telescope as vital to increasing the public’s understanding of black holes and bolstering interest in the field. He predicts that as scientists gradually get to the bottom of questions like why the objects spin and the way jets of subatomic particles are emitted, these findings will be worthy of a Nobel Prize, such as was awarded to three black-hole researchers in 2020. “It’s a popular topic at the observatory, and something I encourage our young researchers to shoot for as they work.”

The response to the Mizusawa observatory’s crowdfunding campaign gives Honma and his colleagues hope. “It means we can turn to the public for support from time to time with other projects,” he says. Mizusawa’s pioneering effort provides a new, promising model for funding basic scientific research in Japan and for fostering future generations of scientists.

Honma Mareki (center) and his colleagues at the Mizusawa Observatory. (© NAOJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)
Honma Mareki (center) and his colleagues at the Mizusawa Observatory. (© NAOJ Mizusawa VLBI Observatory)

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’ s Prime Online on May 6, 2022. Translated and edited by Nippon.com. Banner photo: Radio telescopes at the Mizusawa VLBI Observatory. ©Mizusawa VLBI Observatory.)

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