Sunday, 18 August

Armenia’s Byurakan Observatory: A Formula for Success

Part 1

Armenia – A regional center of astrophysics

In 2015, the International Astronomy Union recognized Armenia’s Byurakan Astrophysics Observatory (BAO) as a regional astronomical center for Southwestern and Central Asia.

BAO Director Areg Mickaelian says this is a unique international prize for Armenia and not achieved by any other sector in the country.

Mickaelian proudly points out that, from the region, Georgia, Iran, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkey have written to the IAU, recognizing Armenia as a regional center. This is an IAU requirement to be granted such status.

When asked what the BOA and Armenia get from being a regional center, Mickaelian offers a one-word reply –a headache.

“It wasn’t enough that we were responsible for advancing astronomy in Armenia. Now we must think about doing the same for the region. This is a matter of top authority for Armenia. But for me, it just adds to my workload,” Mickaelian says.

Byurakan: Only 3 of the 7 Telescopes Work

Like the other units of Armenia’s National Academy of Sciences, the BAO lacks sufficient funding, which leads to personnel and equipment challenges.

The BAO has seven telescopes, but only two are used for research purposes. We talked about one of them before; the Schmidt-class 1m telescope. There’s also the ZTA-2.6 telescope, the largest observational instrument of the BAO, and one of the largest in the world.

The telescope was constructed at the LOMO (Leningrad Optical-Mechanical Association, Sent-Petersburg, Russia) and was installed at the BAO in 1975.

Mechanical engineer Henrik Sargsyan is from the village of Byurakan and has been working at the BAO for sixty years. He’s responsible for the Schmidt telescope.

Sargsyan’s eyes light up when he talks about his work and his acquaintanceship with Viktor Ambartsumian. He says the BAO’s first building was constructed near his house. “You can say we were neighbors. When I graduated high school, I asked comrade Ambartsumian if he would hire me. I started working here on September 22,1958. I remember as if it was yesterday.”

We enter the dome housing the Schmidt telescope. Sargsyan partially opens the roof to show us how it’s done. The dome’s second floor, where the telescope is housed, can rotate 360 degrees.

“The observatory is like my second home,” Sargsyan tells us. “I’ve spent all my conscious life here. The work really satisfies me. I’m lucky to have worked at the observatory in its heyday. Some 250-260 people worked here. The pace was frenetic.”

The BAO also has five smaller one-meter telescopes, of which only one works. It’s used for visiting tourists who want a taste of what it’s like to explore the heavens.

The telescope for tourists is inside

BAO Director Mickaelian says the non-working telescopes really can’t contribute nothing much in the way of serious scientific work due to their size. They also lack any digital equipment. Nevertheless, Mickaelian plans to “resurrect” them. “I’ve set a new policy to operate all the telescopes, either for scientific or teaching purposes, or just for the tourists.”

The BAO also supervises the telescopes belonging to the St. Petersburg State University’s observatory, which were installed here during the Soviet era.

The dome housing one of the Russian telescopes

Armenia: Decreasing number of astronomers

Mickaelian says that when the BAO opened in 1946 it had eight scientists on staff. That number jumped to 150 during the observatory’s heyday. At the time, the BAO employed 300 in total.

Today, the BAO has a staff of 40 scientists and 63 technical workers. Mickaelian says that forty is a small number only in relative terms. “If we look at the world, for a small country like this to have forty is fantastic. Ireland, which is bigger than Armenia, only has ten astronomers. Many countries don’t even have one astronomer, an observatory, or a school of astronomy.”

BAO’s Challenges: Personnel Exodus, Change in Outlook, Salaries

Most of BAO’s scientists come from Yerevan State University. Mickaelian, however, isn’t all that pleased with the quality of the students, and some years he doesn’t hire any of the graduates.

“The educational quality level has gone down. There’s also been a change in mentality. Young people want to see immediate results and compensation. When we came here, we’d work for next to nothing for years. But, due to our dedication, we grew and became scientists. They would have been fired had they acted like this during the observatory’s prime years,” says Mickaelian, adding that he tries to encourage students by sending them off to international projects and conventions.

Mickaelian says that despite the Iron Curtain, Viktor Ambartsumian managed to foster international collaboration, and that such ties continue today. Last year, the BAO organized 53 academic junkets and that young scientists went on at least half of them.

Artur Hakobyan, a physical math PhD candidate whose been working at the BAO since 2006, says that there’s a natural turnover of staff at scientific institutions in developed European countries. Some go overseas to pursue an education, some find permanent work, but, as a rule, they all return in the end. There’s always substitutes for those graduating.

Hakobyan points out that scientific institutions in Armenia always experience an outflow of personnel.

“They graduate university, defend their dissertations, and then go to work or pursue their education at places where the conditions, salary, social amenities, are better. Such behavior in countries where conditions are tough is understandable,” Hakobyan says.

Regarding his decision to stay in Armenia, Hakobyan says: “I’ve managed to create favorable conditions for my team to work in Armenia. Naturally, those conditions aren’t permanent. Who knows what will happen a few years from now. We working to secure a minimum of financing.”

Mickaelian adds that when it comes to scientific pursuits, one never loses, no matter what. “Your work and articles always serve you. You can lose in business, but whatever you do in science multiples. Science is the one sector that ensure constant growth,” he says, adding that this outlook is slowly coming to the fore. “People must think long-term about their career, and not run after that which is visible today.”

Talking about the challenges Armenia faces today regarding the sciences, Hakobyan says they are multilayered and lists the following: the tensions between the senior and younger generations, the low level of salary and social benefits, which in turn, create a dead-end for young researchers, the low level of university education, and personnel policy.

Comparing today’s situation to that of the past, Mickaelian says that much has improved, noting that international sources of additional finances didn’t exist, and that one had to work for years to earn the title of senior scientific researcher and thus earn more money.

The Observatory’s Revenue Base is Quite Varied

The minimum base monthly net salary for “scientific workers” at the BAO is AMD 60,920 (US$ 127). Technical workers (cleaning attendants and guards) receive a minimum of AMD 59,480. The highest net salary, AMD 157,000, goes to Director Mickaelian. The deputy director gets 133,800 drams, followed by the “scientific secretary” – 120,400 drams.

Besides their base salaries, some scientists also receive “thematic financing” when involved in domestic or international grant programs. Those included in the State Committee of Science’s Top 100 Productive Scientists receive an additional 100,000 drams per year. The director says that these scientists, some 10-15, receive a minimum monthly salary of 250,000 drams or more - their base salary, plus grants and other extra-budgetary amounts.

The BAO also received, on a contractual basis, the following amounts from Roscosmos for collaborative work.

2015 – 31.9 million drams
2016 – 48 million drams
2017 – 63 million drams

But, the financing doesn’t end here. For 2015-2017, the BAO received grants from various donors; the primary ones being the Armenian National Science and Education Fund, Armenia’s State Science Committee, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The annual grant breakdown, not including those received from the State Science Committee and the Gulbenkian Foundation is as follows.

2015 – US$ 11,500, € 20,000
2016 – US$ 11,500, € 6,000, AMD 9 million
2017 – US$ 51,500, AMD 6 million

The BAO Doesn’t Dismiss Retirement-Aged Staffers

The oldest scientist at the BAO is 88-year-old Professor Elma Parsamian, a Corresponding Member of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Parsamyan attained prominence for her research at Metsamor and Sisian.

The BAO also has workers aged 77 and 71. Director Mickaelian says that workers in the 60-70 age group dominate. He doesn’t discharge them for one simple reason – they need the money.

“Scientists reaching retirement age overseas prefer to leave their jobs and receive a pension because their pensions comprise two-thirds of their salary. Here, you couldn’t survive on such an amount,” Mickaelian says.

The BAO’s Potential as a Major Tourist Site

The observatory has living quarters for scientists and their family members. That’s how it was planned from the beginning, so that scientists didn’t have to constantly go back and forth to Yerevan or elsewhere.

Some scientists continue to live at the observatory, while others daily commute to their homes in Yerevan. Others only stay at Byurakan for the summer.

The bus back to Yerevan after work

“Some of those staying at the observatory are the descendants of former employees. We have to gradually let them go. It’s not right to let them live here permanently. We need the space for the new scientists,” Mickaelian says.

The BAO also operates a nearby hotel. It’s not a deluxe affair but is convenient for tourists and visiting guests attending various events.

Byurakan Observatory’s Main Entrance: The Starry Gates

The BAO has a restaurant and conference hall that has welcomed Nobel Prize winners. Numerous international symposia have been held here, including the first international conference on extraterrestrial civilization, organized by Ambartsumian and prominent American astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1971.

The BAO’s “Flying Saucer”

There can be no doubt that the BAO has left its mark on international science and that it remains one of the leading centers of astrophysics. These attributes should make it a prime destination for scientific tourism aficionados.

The surrounding natural landscape, coupled with the chance to observe the heavens, the Viktor Ambartsumian House-Museum, and the inexpensive prices, afford the BAO great potential for tourism. But all this must be combined into a comprehensive package and correctly marketed.

“Tourist agencies don’t include the observatory in their itineraries. They circle around the observatory, but don’t come here,” says Director Mickaelian. “We are at fault because we don’t market what we have correctly.”

The director says that steps will be taken to address this shortcoming.

Guaranteeing Success for the Observatory

When asked how many discoveries have been made at the BAO over the years, Mickaelian says, “Discovery is a relative concept. There is no delineation as to whether this is a discovery and that isn’t. Great results and achievements are discoveries in themselves.”

Nevertheless, Mickaelian tried to point out the observatory’s top one hundred achievements. 

“Even discovering new celestial objects isn’t enough. I use much more strict criteria. I have discovered 5,500 new objects in the universe. But the question remains, which of them are important or significant for astrophysics.”

Monument dedicated to Viktor Ambartsumian

Director Mickaelian confesses that the observatory made the greatest number of discoveries during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. It goes without saying that tiny Armenia, given its internal resources, can’t compete with the astrophysics giants of this world.

“There are such discoveries being made in the world that we cannot even dream of making a tiny fraction of them given our technical resources. The size of the equipment now being installed in the world is such that we can’t compete in terms of scope, but we can participate in the process. We try to compete by tackling specific issues,” Mickaelian says.

He cites the example of a program the BAO wrote that is now being used by an American telescope.

“They spent $1.5 billion to build the telescope. It was sent into space attached to a satellite to take photos. We spent nothing on the project. But we came up with a clever program and jointly presented it with Cornell University. We were allowed the opportunity to make observations of our own. It resulted in a fantastic discovery, the existence of a record number of objects exhibiting infrared radiation.”

So, what’s the guarantee of success for Armenian astronomers and scientists in general?

“We have to participate in as many international projects as possible. We have to compete, in our own way, on the world stage regardless the amount of global technical investment," says Mickaelian.

Photos: Narek Aleksanyan

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