Decadal Survey Midterm Assessment Highlights Dilemmas of Game-Changing Astronomy

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Publication date: 
17 August 2016
Number: 
100

The National Academies has released its midterm assessment of the 2010 decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics. A key theme is that increasingly expensive top-priority projects are responsible for outstanding breakthroughs, but are also putting pressure on high-priority medium-scale projects.

On Aug. 15, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a midterm assessment report on the 2010 “New Worlds, New Horizons” (NWNH) decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics.

Conducted every 10 years by a committee of scientific leaders, decadal surveys cut across government agency activities to summarize the overarching state of a field and to provide science administrators and policymakers with authoritative project funding priorities. Midterm assessments, conducted by a separate review committee, evaluate how a survey’s recommendations have unfolded in practice. While the review committee cannot alter the priorities or recommendations of the decadal survey, it can provide guidance on how to move forward in light of new developments. Jacqueline Hewitt, professor of physics and director of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at MIT, is chair of the NWNH review committee.

Large projects making breakthroughs and straining budgets

In recent years, the field of astronomy and astrophysics has experienced rapid progress as new technological capabilities have enabled breakthrough observations. Media and the general public have paid particularly close attention to the discovery of large numbers of exoplanets and the long-awaited detection of gravitational waves last year by the National Science Foundation-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project. As reported in FYI #86, just last month members of the House Science Committee showed bipartisan enthusiasm for the accomplishments of the astronomy and astrophysics community, and expressed high respect for the decadal survey process.

The new midterm assessment likewise trumpets recent advances and places them in the context of broader developments in observation and instrumentation. However, one of the report’s key themes is that while large, top-priority projects have been, and will continue to be, essential to making such game-changing strides, those same projects can threaten to dominate resources. Even once the construction phase of the projects is complete, new facilities generally have higher operating costs than their predecessors. Such expenses can shortchange programs that the midterm assessment urges are essential to the long-term health of the field. Ongoing budgetary conditions have exacerbated the problem.

Concerning budget trends since 2010, the assessment reports that the Department of Energy’s Cosmic Frontier program budget increased by roughly 50 percent, in-line with NWNH expectations. The combined budgets for NASA’s Astrophysics Division and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have remained flat in inflation-adjusted dollars, roughly tracking NWNH assumptions, but delays in JWST have pushed back funding for other NASA initiatives. The budget of the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) has fallen far short of expectations, remaining flat in nominal dollars, where NWNH assumed it would double.

A figure from the midterm assessment report illustrating flat NSF funding for astronomy and astrophysics, and the squeeze that large-scale projects are putting on mid-scale projects.

NSF’s Mid-Scale Innovations Program—ranked second priority in NWNH among ground-based programs—has suffered in the current budgetary environment. The assessment explains:

Given the necessity of operating NSF-AST’s powerful new facilities and the importance of maintaining support at the individual investigator level, squeezing the mid-scale program was probably the best choice available within a flat budget scenario, but it is opposite to the augmentation of mid-scale research funding envisioned by NWNH. Furthermore, the diminished funding of mid-scale programs has the collateral effect of reducing the number of future instrument builders needed for the next generation of cutting-edge initiatives.

The assessment also warns about a similar situation with NASA’s Explorers Program, which fields small-to-medium-scale scientific investigations and which NWNH ranked second priority among space-based programs. NASA, it notes, has implemented fewer Explorers projects than recommended, and the program could be further squeezed by NASA’s larger astrophysics programs.

Rising costs leading to hard program choices

The review committee’s concerns about NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) exemplify its broader ambivalence concerning large projects. The midterm assessment notes in particular that, in the years since NWNH was published, it has become possible to include a coronagraph on WFIRST, enabling imaging and spectroscopy of exoplanets. While the assessment concurs that the capability is highly desirable, it also points out that incorporating such a new technology would increase the risk of delays and escalating costs. This is a concern not simply because delays and cost overruns are inherently undesirable, but because it could further “distort the NASA program balance” in favor of large projects. The assessment recommends descoping the mission if an independent cost assessment suggests it will have such a deleterious effect. A figure from the midterm assessment report illustrating the dominance of JWST and WFIRST in NASA’s astrophysics project budgets, and the effects of the delay in the JWST program.

Costs associated with large projects also inform the assessment’s approval of NSF’s divestment from some older facilities. It remarks:

Painful though they are, the divestments recommended by the Portfolio Review are essential to maintaining other key aspects of the NSF-AST program. However, the division’s new facilities—ALMA, DKIST, and (at the end of the decade) LSST—are more sophisticated and more complex than the facilities being divested, and they are correspondingly more expensive to operate. Divestment alone will not resolve the budget stresses imposed by rising facilities costs.

The assessment warns that cost pressures at NSF could become “far worse over the next 5–10 years,” and that “the vigorous, periodic senior [NSF portfolio] review advocated by NWNH may become necessary again in the future.”

The assessment also addresses the implications of decreasing or increasing U.S. participation in various international projects. As reported in further detail by Physics Today, in light of the LIGO results, the assessment highly recommends renewing American participation in the European Space Agency’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) projects and thereby expanding its capabilities to their original full scope. The assessment urges, “While Europe has now taken the lead, the opportunity exists for the United States to play a significant role in a gravitational wave mission if the community acts quickly and decisively in the next few years.”

Assessment recommends more attention to state of the profession

While the midterm assessment focuses mainly on pressures on medium-scale projects as a threat to the long-term health of astronomy and astrophysics, it also includes a short section on the current state of the astronomy profession. It notes an ongoing shortage of tenure-track jobs, and that NWNH recommended that the American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society (both AIP Member Societies) help introduce astronomy students to additional career options. The assessment also notes the effects that low grant proposal success rates (see figure in FYI #86) have on career tracks. It acknowledges limited progress in increasing the equality of underrepresented groups in the profession, and the problem represented by the instances of sexual harassment in the profession that came to light last year.

The assessment also suggests that “incorporating a detailed assessment of the health of the astronomy profession—its diversity, the effects of major funding issues, and pipeline issues, among other items—could be useful for the next survey and executed during the survey process or prior to it.”

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