Let’s Discuss the NSF Portfolio Review Report

In short, there’s not enough money allocated to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to do everything the US astronomical community wants to do so some things need to go. In order to figure out what to cut, the NSF commissioned a “Portfolio Review” committee to take a good hard look. Yesterday, the result of that review, with specific recommendations on what to keep and what to cut, was made public: Portfolio Review (PDF). Everyone interested in being involved in astronomy should at least take a skim of the report to see what future facilities and grant programs will likely look like. For young’ns, this report is high-level insider baseball and is very jargon heavy, but it’s worth your effort to try and parse it, especially if you are based in the US. The e-Astronomer has a nice intro post: NSF starts slicing. And Dynamics of Cats has an excellent summary: NSF AST: the bell tolls.

The first piece of info you need to be able to get anywhere with the report is to know that the document that describes “everything the US astronomical community wants to do” is the 2010 Decadal Survey which was released about a year ago. The name of that report is New Worlds, New Horizons and is referred to as NWNH throughout the Portfolio Review report. In conversation, most people I know call this document the “Decadal Survey” and it was also commonly referred to as “Astro2010” for short. For more info and commentary on NWNH, see this Decadal link roundup from almost exactly a year ago (scroll down, it’s at the bottom) and all of AstroBetter’s Astro2010 coverage.

Let’s discuss the Portfolio Review report, but constructively, and with non-experts and junior community members in mind. Share with us the back stories or pre-requisites that you think are necessary in order to be able to understand the full meaning and ramifications of the recommendations. If there are programs, telescopes, acronyms, etc. that you don’t quite get, please don’t hesitate to bring it up in the comments. (There is a handy acronym table at the end of the report which I think should be turned into a Wiki page!) In addition to the recommendation that you are most disappointed with, what are you “okay” with?

33 comments… add one
  • Tommy Grav Aug 17, 2012 @ 12:01

    Note that the Decadal Review, NWNH, is only one part of the puzzle, it is the *astrophyics” review.
    There is a separate Decedal Review, Visions and Voyages, that covers *solar system and planetary science”. I find it very interesting that NWNH is the primary guiding document for the portfolio review, and that only 2 of 17 committee members on the portfolio review were scientist with solar system as their primary focus.

    • John Aug 17, 2012 @ 14:48

      The committee report repeatedly states that it took into account V&V. Read the beginning again, or see why they support Arecibo (p. 107):

      “AST divestment from Arecibo might also cripple the radar characterization of small bodies in the Solar System, which was one of the most highly ranked V&V priorities for ground-­‐based observations for the next decade.”

      V&V also supported LSST.

    • Tommy Grav Aug 17, 2012 @ 15:59

      Yes, they did take into account V&V (it is mentioned 26 times in the report), but clearly the NWNH was the principal guiding document (mentioned more than 100 times in the report). Now it is of course a somewhat circular reasoning, as the V&V could have been more strong on ground based astronomy. I think it is a shame though that there is this artificial split between Astrophysical and Planetary Science leading to two decadal reviews. My point was mostly to point out that there are in fact two decadals (3 if you include the recent solar one), so using the term “the decadal review” is not an appropriate term.

    • Tom Berger Aug 20, 2012 @ 5:52

      The structure of the Decadal Review follows the divisional breakdown of the NASA science division into Astrophysics, Planetary, and “Heliophysics” divisions. Why NSF and NOAA are also forced into this, as you point out, strange DS categorization is a good question. I suppose it assumes, perhaps wrongly, that NSF and NASA astronomers are all the same people anyway so why not tailor the DSs to the agency with, by far, the largest budget (NASA).

  • Ryan T. Hamilton Aug 17, 2012 @ 12:35

    I know its early to talk about this, but does anyone know how likely it is for each of the telescopes on the chopping block to find a partner (or consortium) to fill the gap left by NSF divestment? I don’t have a handle on what percentage the NSF funds each and I didn’t pick that up on my skim through the document yesterday. Is it a pipe dream that these facilities could keep going without the NSF, or is it doable?

    I’m disappointing by everything, and judging by the reactions I saw on twitter and elsewhere yesterday, so is everyone else.

  • Eilat Aug 17, 2012 @ 12:37

    I hesitate to get into any kind of “turf war” argument on solar system vs. astrophyics, because in general I think we should all root for each others’ scientific success, but considering that NASA supports solar system science at a level that dwarfs astrophysics, perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that NSF balance things out a little?

    • Tommy Grav Aug 17, 2012 @ 12:47

      Planetary’s 2013 budget is 1.45B, versus 0.63B for Astrophysics (plus 0.48B for JWST). I am not sure how that constitutes dwarfing, but I do see your point. I do think that NSF is a little to much geared towards astrophysics though.

  • Ann Onymous Aug 17, 2012 @ 12:49

    Looking at the e-astronomer report which does a great job to lay out the conclusions, I am scared by one thing. Not the ending of some instruments, the choice looks quite obvious to me even if some on the chopping block would be useful for my research. What really scares me is how little there is left for grant money. Two main reasons. First there are quite a few people living on grant money who will feel the pinch. It would not be a problem if research institutes were hiring massively but they are not by a very long shot and I fear it won’t get any better for a long while. Then, it is no secret that getting significant grants is a huge help to get tenure. Will universities adapt to the new reality (getting a grant is becoming more akin to lotto) and start to award tenure without these grants? I was at a panel recently to award research grants. The program manager informed us that the number of applications basically tripled over the last few years. If grant money decreases I do not even want to imagine what the pressure (already quite high) will be in a few years.

    • Betsy Mills Aug 17, 2012 @ 13:17

      The second plot shown on e-astronomer is somewhat misleading– that is NOT the grant money that will be available given the current recommendations. That is the grant money that would be available if NSF continued to support all facilities. Check out figure 10.2 in the report– in Scenario A, there are no grant cuts, in scenario B there will be grant cuts, but they will be on a smaller scale.

  • Betsy Mills Aug 17, 2012 @ 13:50

    If you are a young’n, you should pay special attention to this report, because all of the facilities under discussion have open skies policies– that is, all or substantial parts of the observing time can be applied for by anyone at any institution (including, I believe generally, graduate students). These may be the telescopes that you submit your first observing proposal to, or, as you contemplate postdoctoral positions, the only telescopes available for your research at some institutions. The results of this report are then somewhat dire, especially if you are in the optical-infrared community, and you are in a stage of your career when you might not have the travel funds to observe in Chile.

    I did all of my undergraduate research at Kitt Peak, and with the report recommending that funding cease for four telescopes on this mountain (the Mayall 4m, 2.1m, WIYN 3.5m, and the McMath Solar observatory) it seems like the future of this observatory is in jeopardy. It is sad that Kitt Peak may be a victim of the old saying ‘location, location, location’. In this case, the location is the southern hemisphere– the future site of LSST, the most highly-ranked item from the decadal survey. All of the Optical-IR telescopes deemed essential to the future NSF portfolio are in that hemisphere– the Blanco 4m and Gemini South, and it is no coincidence– their ability to prepare for LLST and follow up on its findings clearly made these telescopes more favorable, even in the case of the Gemini telescopes, where Gemini North would appear from the report to have the far superior suite of instruments. Even the southern hemisphere telescope SOAR is more likely to survive the next few years than the telescopes on Kitt Peak, because of current funding commitments, and its potential synergy with LSST. While I respect the rankings of the committee, I do worry about the impact of closing so many continental-US Optical-IR observatories. A substantial and important volume of undergraduate research is carried out on these telescopes– time on these telescopes is less competitive, and the travel costs are relatively small– and I am doubtful whether enabling remote observing from the continental US with the Gemini telescopes, either North or South, or telescopes in Chile, could really fill that void, as the report suggests.

  • Jessica Lu Aug 17, 2012 @ 14:10

    The comments have been very interesting here and elsewhere. I think it would be even more constructive for those that have negative reactions to attempt to offer an alternative scenario that still fits into the budget. If you want resource A to stay open, what are you willing to give up in return?

    • Betsy Mills Aug 17, 2012 @ 14:35

      A very sensible approach that unfortunately does not seem to be taken by NRAO.


    • John Aug 17, 2012 @ 15:28

      That’s true for the committee, the head of NSF Astronomy, and us, but at the same time it’s not inappropriate to go to Congress and the Administration and argue for more funds. Shutting down productive facilities they’ve already paid tens of millions of dollars for is the consequence of their budget. So I think the NRAO response is a good one, even though I think the committee was needed and did a good job.

    • Betsy Mills Aug 17, 2012 @ 17:23

      However as a user of the GBT, I feel it is a bit disingenuous for NRAO to complain that NSF wants to shut down a facility that the NRAO itself has been giving short shrift and insufficient support. Unlike other NRAO facilities, the GBT has no functioning data archive, poor support for proposing, preparing observations, and for reducing data, and an observing system that is perhaps cost-effective, but not user-friendly, especially for those new to the field (you observe remotely, with less than two days notice, and submit your own scripts on the fly, fingers crossed that they work).

      It is not inappropriate to argue for more funds, but then again to expect additional funding to achieve NWNH levels also seems unrealistic. Cuts will likely still have to be made, and unfortunately those decisions will probably have to be made soon.

    • Tom Berger Aug 20, 2012 @ 6:00

      The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    • Philip Massey Aug 23, 2012 @ 20:09

      One of the things I find frustrating in this is the fact that Congress allocates money to both NASA and the NSF for astronomy, resulting in this weird dichotomy of “space-based” and “ground-based” astronomy. I don’t know about everyone else, but I just do astronomy, using both space-based (Spitzer, HST, and I hope some day JWST) and ground-based (NOAO, MMT, etc) as needed for a given a project. I am a huge fan of JWST, but it is going to cost (at least) 7 BILLION dollars, and yet the sort of money we’re talking about in the short-fall for the NSF is tiny compared to this–you could solve most of the problem with $50M/year. (For the cost of JWST, you could run NOAO for 230 years.) I’m not saying that you would get better science this way, just that the separation of funding space-based and ground-based astronomy just seems antiquated to me. If we’re prioritizing why keep the division between NSF/AST and NASA? Just to compare some numbers: the astronomical sciences in the NSF get about $230-240 million annually. NASA’s annual budget is about $17 billion annually, of which $4 billion ($1.3 billion on planetary science and $1.1 billion on astrophysics.): see http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/rdreport2011/11pch14.pdf for instance.

    • Neill Reid Aug 24, 2012 @ 14:47

      Have to follow up again on this with Phil.
      First, if you’re comparing, you should compare the entire NSF budget against the NASA budget – the Presidential request for FY 13 is $7.4 billion, $340 million above the FY12 request. See
      That compares with the $4.9 million within the NASA budget that’s allocated to the Science mission directorate (which includes astro, helio, JWST, planetary and earth sciences). Mathematical and Physical sciences get $1.3 billion of NSF funds, and AST gets $245 million in the FY13 request, $10 million more than the previous year.
      Andf those budgeting levels are set by NSF itself. NSF is asking for more money – and is even allocating more money to AST – but it’s not setting the AST budget at a level that’s sufficiently high to maintain support of all current facilities.

      Second, why the difference between NSF and NASA? Well, NASA and NSF have different missions – NASA’s purpose is to build things; NSF is to educate. The substantial majority of NSF’s funding is for research (close to $6 billion of the $7.4 billion budget); research is more of a by-product of NASA’s funding. Fortunately for astronomers and at least some planetary scientists, that by-product happens to exceed the total grant funding available through the NSF. Over 90% of the JWST budget is being devoted to building it – supporting jobs in industry. For the NSF AST projects, those costs don’t show up directly since they appear in the MREFC line, which is used for construction costs for all large projects, like LSST. [Once they’re constructed, they’re moved back to the appropriate division, which has to shoulder the running costs – which is the problem AST is facing.] Bottom line is that it’s not correct to equate the level of funding seen in NASA budgets as directly supporting research, even if most of it in SMD is directed towards supporting missions, so it’s a false comparison that’s being drawn.

      My own feeling is that there needs to be a much more radical change in the structure of the way the US supports ground-based astronomy. The private/public pairing worked well in the 70s-90s, when there was sufficient funding to keep both well supported. That’s not the case now, and plugging a lot of money into new MSIP instruments isn’t going to help either public or private observatories maintain operating costs (which are always underestimated). I think that the time has come to discuss more of a real partnership in running a subset of the existing ground-based facilties.

  • Eric Perlman Aug 17, 2012 @ 15:44

    I think the committee was needed, but I think that what it did NOT do was enough “out-of-the-box” thinking. A third way is clearly needed. It is simply not acceptable to cut off the community’s access to mid-size optical telescopes, as well as the GBT and VLBA. This is why the National Observatories were created, and the reasoning is just as valid today as it was 50 years ago. When left with the choice they present it was the committee’s duty to our community to say “how can we be creative” and preserve community access to vital resources while at the same time start construction on LSST, GSMT et al.

    • Tommy Grav Aug 17, 2012 @ 16:04

      What I am wondering is when do we look at future projects and simple accept that we do not have the funds to start them. It is like we have decided to move to a new million dollar home, as income was up and the future was rosy. Then the business stagnated, but we are still dead set on moving to this wonderful home, even if it means selling all our furniture. I just can’t see how it is sustainable.

  • Kevin Hardegree-Ullman Aug 17, 2012 @ 16:49

    It seems like the review committee is stuck in a trap that I’ve seen all too often in science. It’s like the little kid who has everything and always needs the newest and biggest and shiniest toy, when they don’t realize that the old toys are still functional, and have many more years of life in them. There are also so many possibilities for the old toys that haven’t even been realized yet, or tapped into yet. It’s also a lot cheaper to maintain and improve existing facilities at the moment than it is to invest in brand new ones. A kid with fewer/lesser resources at hand is usually more creative with what they have; that is where new ideas and innovation come from.

    The committee also didn’t really address that students at all levels in the field are a good resource to maintain and use these existing facilities. It’s always nice to know a lot more about the facilities I am using, since it gives me a greater appreciation for what I am doing. Students are also cheaper than staff in general… Not to say that staff aren’t necessary at all, but if students are trained by a set of skilled mentors to perform certain tasks or maintain certain instruments, it could be much more cost effective than hiring specialized staff all the time.

    It’s our job as scientists to better communicate the need to support these threatened facilities. The review stated that “Many astronomers at all career levels devote a significant portion of their time to EPO activities,” which I haven’t ever personally seen. I’ve only ever seen a handful of astronomers that dedicate a significant portion of their time to EPO. I suggest that more astronomers spend more of their time teaching, or educating the public about what they are doing and why it is important. The facilities under threat for slashed funding could be opened up to the public more often, with invitations directly issued to those in control of funding decisions. Especially target leaders in the states in which these facilities exist.

    I have a bunch more I could say, but those are just some thoughts from a naïve starting grad student…

    • Johanna Aug 18, 2012 @ 14:08


  • Ian Crossfield Aug 17, 2012 @ 17:09

    I agree with John that U.S. astronomers should begin organizing and agitating for increased funding levels, but I’m inclined to agree with the Portfolio Review: AST needs to move *now* to fix the budget problems coming in the years ahead. The budget forecasts shown in Fig. 3.3 make case for me, and makes the forecast used in the Decadal Review seem, at best, aberrant.

    Since I think we should prepare for the worst, although I’m an OIR observer specializing in exoplanets I would start by zeroing out the AST funding for a giant segmented-mirror telescope. The GMT consortium, at least, says that they don’t need federal money in any case. Unless somehow here can convince me otherwise, I’d turn to CCAT next: I’m struck by the >2:1 RMS:OIR funding ratio proposed in Table 10.1. I still support de-funding some of the lesser NOAO facilities… but of course these are all Scenario A options.

  • Randall Smith Aug 18, 2012 @ 20:44

    It’s worth note, for US researchers, that anytime you find yourself in Washington DC, or when your Representative or Senator is “back home”, arranging a meeting with them is really quite simple and over the long term, productive (don’t expect immediate action, of course). During the AAS-organized “Congressional Visits Day” this year one theme that was reiterated by the Congressional Staffers was that scientists hardly EVER come to talk with them — perhaps only one per year! We have a very positive message that just isn’t heard enough. I am certain, for example, that the West Virginian members of congress will fight to keep Green Bank open, possibly sending new money to the NSF to do so. But will a representative from, say, Ohio, care at all about this? They might if one of their constituents came by and told a staffer why it’s important, or at the least wrote a letter. Even an email, if it’s short but personalized, is listened — especially near election time.

    Upshot: If you don’t think something the US Government is doing is wise, TELL YOUR REPRESENTATIVE!

    (Note: My personal opinion, not that of the Smithsonian.)

  • Craig Levin Aug 19, 2012 @ 9:34

    One of the arguments which we may want to bring up is the economic impact that closing these observatories will have on their neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that Green Bank would be doing all that well without the observatory there. You don’t need a degree to work at the Family Dollar there, but if it wasn’t for the observatory, the store wouldn’t be there. Jobs in WV are hard to come by, & this has got to be a terrible threat for them.

    • Ian Crossfield Aug 20, 2012 @ 11:12

      Craig: In my mind national astronomical centers should not be funded merely to reduce unemployement, but rather because they produce sufficient scientific results.

  • Jens Kauffmann Aug 21, 2012 @ 0:25

    Once more about the GBT, but also about the expertise of the committee… What I found outright scary is that this very effective telescope is compared to a facility like Effelsberg. Where you have to speak German to communicate with the operator; need an internal collaborator to understand how to use the facility; and must be present at the site with little chance of getting exactly the weather you need.

    In brief, I can understand if the committee decides that GBT has a low priority (though I do not support that conclusion). But it is scary to base this decision on a seemingly uninformed comparison with an outdated facility that is not run very well.

    Did this committee really have the expertise needed to make these decisions? Or do political considerations guide the decisions, and then one searches for justifications that sound meaningful?

  • Kelle Aug 27, 2012 @ 14:09

    I’ve heard a couple people say that they wish the recommendations would have been more creative, that something fundamental needs to change, and that new partnerships need to be made. Can we explore this more? What do you envision as possible new frameworks? What new partnerships need be forged? What is a creative solution that you think should have been used that was not recommended. Brainstorms and “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” type ideas are welcome and encouraged.

  • Alan Smithee Aug 28, 2012 @ 13:31

    (1) As mentioned somewhere else above, this may really be a time where one may want to rather upgrade existing facilities, instead of building new ones. In my field, we will be swimming in data produced by Spitzer, WISE, and Herschel for a long time, while ALMA is just starting and JWST (perhaps) comes online in a few years. Yet the next facility proposed by Astro2010 will only yield an incremental improvement to all of this. Might be better to improve current instruments. And to invest in people instead of hardware: what is the use of all the data if we cannot spend time analyzing it? I admit, however, that this is a dangerous path that might on the long term lead to having no cutting-edge facilities around. Also dangerous because it takes of order a decade to build a new facility from scratch.

    (2) The long-term planning for astronomy has to include a stronger international component. It makes sense that the current planning also aims to preserve “US leadership”, but this may work against the efficient allocation of international resources. Ideally, Astro2020 would be an international exercise, and every country/region would focus on its fields of expertise. This may well be a too idealistic perspective, given all the international interests.

  • H Miller Aug 29, 2012 @ 22:56

    The National Solar Observatory ./ ATST project is planning to move it’s headquarters to Boulder. The PR committee forgot to look at that, which would seem to be a huge expenditure. I wonder how much this will cost and is it worth sacrificing other productive telescopes to pay for it?

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