First of all, I want to note my past and present affiliations as this undoubtedly biases my analysis. I have worked with the NRAO since 2004 and did my astronomy dissertation with PAPER. And, obviously, since I now work for CosmoQuest, I love EPO and citizen science. Now, read on…
Today, a report was issued on the state of funding for U.S. astronomy through the National Science Foundation. An expert committee was selected to gather feedback from the professional astronomical community and report back with recommendations for funding the next decade of astronomy. The results, I am sad to report, are not pretty.
The report is titled “Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges” and can be found in all 170-page glory at the National Science Foundation’s website.
In 2010, the astronomical community released its decadal review (aka New Worlds, New Horizons, or NWNH below), reviewing on and recommending the most important science goals and facilities for the next decade of ground and space-based astronomy. However, what was supposed to be a realistic budgetary assessment turned out, in a few short years, to be not so realistic after all. The National Science Foundation (NSF) determined that astronomy (AST) funding levels will not nearly cover all of the stated goals of the decadal review, and thus charged the ground-based astronomical community to reassess its portfolio.
In this report, the optimistic scenario has funding at the end of the decade at only 65% of what was expected by the decadal review. The less optimistic scenario is only 50% of projected funding. So how are we to do all this ground breaking science with less money? Well, we can’t.
If U.S.-based astronomy is to be healthy, the committee determined, we need a number of things: solar telescopes, radio/millimeter/submillimeter (RMS) telescopes of various sizes and resolutions, optical-infrared (OIR) telescopes of various sizes, supercomputers for theoretical simulations, laboratory access, and strong development and instrumentation programs.
In addition, to maintain astronomy as a healthy profession, it needs project grants of all size for individual investigators and their teams, wide access to astronomical facilities, openly available software development, support for education and public outreach, and better career support for students, post-docs, “soft-money” scientists and those who find themselves on “non-traditional” career paths.
(Can I get a HELL YEAH from my fellow young astronomers reading this? Or a “DUH, WE’VE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR A WHILE!” Just saying…)
In order to keep the field alive and thriving with the current budget projections, some projects/ideas are going to thrive, but many others will suffer. In order to make this hard decisions, some recommendations were made. I will try and summarize many of them below with my own commentary:
Strong support of small and mid-scale projects: I believe this is a GOOD THING. It probably helps that the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER) on which I worked for several years was one example of a successful project in this regime. Small and mid-scale projects provide lots of opportunities to train students and post-docs in a situation where they won’t get lost in a huge management structure. Also, these projects tackle ambitious science goals and are forced to do so with limited resources and time. Caveats? Well, the data for such projects is often not widely available to astronomers outside the collaboration, though the report recommends that open-access become an important part of all such future project proposals. Also, with smaller budgets, there is a lot less funding for related education and outreach opportunities. Why haven’t you heard of how awesome PAPER is? Well, we didn’t the have time or money to tell you, frankly. We’ve been so busy building it. Also, grant programs for individual investigators should be funded, as they are important to maintaining scientific advancement and are already overwhelmingly oversubscribed as it is.
Undergraduate training and post-doc fellowships should continue: Funding early career advancement is important. If you are an undergraduate with an interest in astronomy and insane enough to jump into this funding climate, I highly, HIGHLY recommend the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. BUT the shiny, named post-docs only fund a small fraction of post-docs in astronomy, if my highly unscientific stalking of the job posting boards last year is any indication. Also, there’s the outstanding problem that far too many postdocs won’t find openings in a permanent position later on.
Continued support of some large astronomical facilities: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescopes (LSST) for ridiculously high marks from the decadal review and is again supported by this report. This wide-field of view survey optical telescopes will provide unprecedented access to the skies and will be open-access. The committee also wants to see continuation of US support for the Gemini telescopes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA or VLA or JVLA or whatever you choose to call it these days), and some other essential facilities. However,…
To maintain these commitments and have grant programs survive, they have recommended that the NSF “divest” from several facilities. Note that the FAQ says, “Divestment of Telescope X means that funding for operations of Telescope X would be removed from the AST budget. In implementing this type of recommendation, AST would first seek other sources of funding for that telescope before moving toward possible closure.” These facilities include, “the Mayall, WIYN, and 2.1meter telescopes at Kitt Peak, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, and the McMath Pierce solar telescope.”
I don’t even need to tell you how much this sucks.
Okay, I will anyway.
Without NSF funding after 2017, the facilities here, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank and Kitt Peak are in danger of closing down. We will lose these important telescopes AND jobs for scientists, engineers, software developers, education professionals, shop mechanics and more. The astronomy community, especially those at large and small universities that do not own their own telescopes, will lose access to the sky. The capabilities of these telescopes will be lost as other facilities can try and chip in, but they do not compare in sensitivity, resolution, and capability. Their associated education centers will be in danger and the brilliant projects done with high school and college students will GO AWAY.
So, this sucks. But the committee who authored this report has no choice but to recommend cutting funding somewhere in the current state of the budget. Which, may I add, sucks.
What Can We Do?
The situation is rather grim. Money for grants will hold steady under an optimistic scenario and decline in a pessimistic scenario. Major facilities will get their funding cut off either way. The U.S.’s much touted open-skies policy is not necessarily in place in many foreign observatories, so access to telescopes for many astronomers becomes even scarcer. So what do we do?
If you care about astronomy and space science, tell your elected government officials! If you are reading this blog, you probably realize that basic research is important. And that it costs you the price of a large coffee per month to support the NSF at current levels. For SCIENCE.
You may not know that if you DON’T say something to your Congresscritters now, things could get WORSE. Failure to reach a budget consensus at the federal level by the end of 2012 will lead to broad-sweeping automatic cuts to federal science programs that will devastate the field. Unless a balanced budget is agreed upon, mass layoffs and facility shutdowns will ensue, far beyond the NSF committee’s report. If you want to stop this, SAY SOMETHING to your elected representatives. Help us prevent the coming budget slashing and push to improve the situation in the long run. Even a one-liner email has to get counted by their staff, so make yourselves heard.
Update (8/17): See John’s comment below for a form letter you can use to contact your representatives!
Crowd-source alternatives: Maybe you want to really put your money where your mouth is. If you are a multi-billionaire, you may start a space company. If not, you can still contribute. Some scientists are getting the wild idea from crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter and IndiGoGo to get their money from the people who are interested in the science. One such example involving our project leader is Uwingu, which is a third of the way towards its goal of funding new space science research from donated funds from people like you!
Your time and expertise are valuable as well, and that’s why we’re working so hard to expand our citizen science portfolio here at CosmoQuest. If we can take that “open-access” policy one step further and make as much astronomical data available to whomever wants to help us look at it, then we are advancing science through your volunteer efforts. Of course, we still need funding to create these projects and keep them going, hence the need for money from somewhere in the first place.
So let’s get busy with the Congresscritter calling and the fundraising, okay? Let’s keep the universe open to exploration for all our sakes. And let’s give science and astronomy a chance to flourish as one of the great human endeavors and drivers of education and innovation in the U.S. and the world.
Update (8/17): Added definition of NWNH. Thanks for catching that, @peterdedmonds!