Adopted 24 March 2014
As the nation works toward a hard-fought economic recovery, it is crucial that we strengthen investments in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research that will help drive our long-term prosperity in the global knowledge economy. The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is troubled by the reduction in basic science research funding proposed in the President’s Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request. We are particularly concerned by the budget allocations for NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. While we appreciate the limitations imposed by the statutory caps on discretionary spending, these vital basic science research programs warrant a higher priority within these spending caps.
The astronomical sciences play an important role in our nation’s science and technology enterprise as a discovery-focused field that captures the public’s imagination, drives technology development, contributes to our national security, and serves as a gateway science introducing students to the scientific method and other STEM fields. Our community has a long history of producing exciting and prioritized visions for the field via “decadal surveys” from the National Research Council. These broad community-based reports serve to maximize the scientific return on the public’s investment by guiding federal budget priorities in the astronomical sciences.
As with many other areas of basic science research, the astronomical sciences have never been more ripe for discovery. In just the past few weeks NASA’s Kepler mission has nearly doubled the number of confirmed planets outside our solar system (many of them in multiple-planet systems much like our own solar system). Shortly thereafter, a U.S.-led team of researchers using an NSF-funded telescope at the South Pole announced compelling evidence of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time itself. These waves originate in the explosive inflationary period just after the Big Bang and open a whole new window on our Universe’s first moments.
Dramatic research results such as these are now juxtaposed with a lackluster budget that cuts funding outright for NASA and provides only small, sub-inflationary increases for the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Within these top-line funding levels, our primary concern — an overarching priority of the decadal surveys — is achieving a balanced research program. Steadily declining proposal funding rates across competitively selected grant programs at NASA and NSF are a bellwether of imbalance.
NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD)
At a time when space science is one of nation’s brightest lights, delivering outstanding scientific discoveries and substantial public support, the President’s proposed 3.5-percent cut for NASA’s SMD is extremely worrying. We are particularly concerned by the 9 percent cut to the Astrophysics Division and the unanticipated decision to mothball a major mission outside the well-established senior review process. The AAS is also concerned about the imbalance within SMD given the inadequate funding for ongoing mission operations (including damaging cuts to major missions), flat or declining research and analysis grant funding, and the outlook for the Planetary New Frontiers and Heliophysics Explorer competed mission lines. Within this overall troubling budget outlook for SMD, there are positive elements of the request that deserve praise: support for high-priority flagship missions (James Webb Space Telescope, Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, Mars 2020 rover, Solar Probe Plus, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope) and the improved cadence of cost-capped, competed missions in the Astrophysics Explorer and Planetary Discovery lines.
The new proposal for mission-focused STEM education and public outreach (EPO) activities to be consolidated within SMD is also noteworthy since it is an improvement over the drastic and damaging restructuring proposed in the 2014 Budget. We are pleased the Administration has recognized that successful EPO programs need to deeply embed mission scientists and engineers in the program. However, we are concerned that the Budget reduces funding for these EPO activities by two-thirds. This drastically reduced funding level is inadequate for continuing the current high-quality EPO activities within SMD. The AAS shares the Administration’s goal of a more effective STEM education portfolio, and we welcome the opportunity for improved stakeholder input as the Administration pursues the strategic goals outlined in its recent interagency STEM education plan.
National Science Foundation
Given the importance of NSF’s core research programs to the nation, the AAS is concerned by the flat funding for NSF’s research account — including a one-percent cut for the Division on Astronomical Sciences — in the President’s Budget. The loss of buying power and outright reductions in funding for the astronomical sciences and other core research programs at NSF will continue to erode our nation’s leadership in many fields. There are, nevertheless, two relative bright spots in the NSF budget for which the AAS is appreciative. We welcome the significant increase for the second year of construction funding for the groundbreaking Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the number one priority for ground-based astronomy in the most recent astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. The Division for Astronomical Sciences and its parent Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate are to be commended for identifying more resources for a mid-scale instrumentation and facility program, also a top decadal survey priority. The AAS stands ready to work with the NSF as it tries to rebalance its astronomical sciences and space physics portfolios in the face of increasing facility operations costs and declining proposal success rates.
Department of Energy’s Office of Science
While the AAS laments the proposed cut to the High Energy Physics program at the Office of Science, we are pleased by the increase in the Cosmic Frontiers area. We enthusiastically welcome the planned increase in funding for the LSST camera fabrication, which would keep this NSF-DOE project on track to provide our first deep look at the violent, ever-changing universe at the beginning of the coming decade
As the budget process moves forward over the coming months, the AAS looks forward to working with the Congress and the Administration to strengthen the country’s investment in basic science research. Together we can forge a brighter future for the scientific research enterprise and our country as a whole.