US Ground-Based Astronomy Threatened

by Kelle on October 25, 2011

The latest NOAO Currents: October 2011 lays out the current dire landscape for ground-based facilities in the US. They have set up an online forum (just a blog post with a comments section) to facilitate a discussion amongst the community (that means us).

The signals from National Science Foundation Astronomy division (NSF AST)  imply that some existing facilities will be closed and some popular programs eliminated as a result of budget pressures, significantly altering the landscape of ground-based astronomy.

The possibility of drastic changes calls for careful planning and consultation with the community so that US ground-based OIR astronomy emerges stronger rather than crippled by this process.

Because of the budget pressures, significant changes may be made even before the AST Portfolio Review is completed in summer 2012 (slide 26).

The possibility that near term sacrifices may significantly alter the current landscape of ground-based OIR astronomy calls for careful planning and consultation with the community so that US ground-based OIR astronomy is not crippled by this process, and the emerging vision from the Portfolio Review has a strong base from which to build.

We have created an online community forum to enable such a discussion. Possible discussion topics include the following.

  1. One of the NSF AST’s principles for budget decisions is to “maintain a robust individual investigator program to enable a broad base of astronomical research across the country” (slide 26). NOAO’s open access policy enables such a program. How important are NOAO facilities and programs to your research and education programs?
  2. Protecting funding for existing international commitments within a flat or declining NSF/AST budget means fewer dollars for ground-based OIR astronomy. Since AST’s budget is declining in real terms, some of these dollars are leaving astronomy all together. What are your priorities for how the remaining dollars should be spent?

Description of the AST Portfolio Review and the committee members:

Based on the FY2011 budget appropriation and the FY2012 budget request, the optimistic budget assumed in the Astro2010 recommendations is unlikely to materialize. Therefore, NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) is commencing a Portfolio Review process. Unlike the 2006 Senior Review, which considered the future only of AST-supported facilities, this review will encompass the entire portfolio of AST-supported facilities, programs, and other activities. The goal of the review is to recommend to AST how support for existing facilities, programs, and activities should be prioritized and interleaved with new initiatives recommended by Astro2010, within the limitations of realistic future budgets.

Portfolio Review Committee

Daniel Eisenstein (Chair) Harvard University
Joe Miller (Vice-Chair) Lick Observatory
Marcel Agueros Columbia University
Gary Bernstein University of Pennsylvania
Geoff Blake California Institute of Technology
John Feldmeier Youngstown State University
Debra Fischer Yale University
Chris Impey University of Arizona
Cornelia Lang University of Iowa
Amy Lovell Agnes Scott College
Melissa McGrath NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Michael Norman University of California San Diego
Angela Olinto KICP, University of Chicago
Michael Skrutskie University of Virginia
Karel Schrijver Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center
Juri Toomre University of Colorado
Rene Walterbos New Mexico State University

The e-Astronomer has shared his UK perspective and some gossip: US Astronomy Crumbling.

Where are you on this? Are you going to go comment on the NOAO “discussion forum”? Share your questions in the comments about what’s happening and the possible consequences.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Kartik Sheth October 27, 2011 at 9:34 am

This is a more serious threat than any others but not just to NOAO but to all ground-based astronomy. I am really impressed that NOAO is taking the lead in informing the community and trying to get in front of this looming disaster by talking about it to astronomers. I am trying to get NRAO to do the same.. I just wanted to note that the facilities at NSF include the EVLA, GBT, VLBA and ALMA, not to mention – CARMA, LMT, CSO, SMT, (and SMA?) – which are all part of the University Research Observatories. Under NSF’s open skies policy these are all OUR observatories and we will have to make some tough calls in the next few months.

The other thing that concerns me is a poorly thought out 1995 senior review comment which said that the national facilities should remove any scientific or development work from them and just be service oriented. This would be a disaster to not have committed astronomers driving the building and development of the facilities — there is good precedence that without actual scientists, the VLA, GBT and other telescopes would never have gotten to the place they are now. I am sure the same is the case with NOAO facilities. Certainly this has been the case with STScI and SSC (the ones I am familiar with) So I implore everyone to speak out when someone says that our national facilities should simply be service oriented / no science and development labs.

-Kartik Sheth

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