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What's a AAAC?

Friday, January 31, 2014 - 17:09

In response to a question that passed through my Twitter feed the other day1,

and because this event is coming up early next week (3-4 February 2014), I thought I would put together an answer to the question that draws out a little about the broader "astronomy policy ecosystem" (as opposed to the "astronomy ecosystem," we discussed during our State of the Universe [SOTUniverse] briefing to Congress earlier in January). We’ve got a lovely page on this policy ecosystem, put together by our CEO, Kevin Marvel and Director of Public Policy, Joel Parriott, some time ago, where you can find more details and links.

In terms of the Federal Government, the lion's share of astronomical science funding comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE). We've seen in previous posts that while Congress has the "power of the purse," they largely appropriate funding in broad categories, with a handful of specific directions at lower levels when members of Congress want to ensure particular interests advance. So as the agencies determine how to allocate resources down at the division and then project levels, they rely on many different sources of outside advice.

Each of the agencies administratively supports its own set of advisory committees, along with some inter-agency committees like the AAAC. But they also get advice, both solicited and un-, from scientific associations like the AAS, boards and committees of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), lobbyists for corporations and federal contractors, and of course, you, the individual scientists and members of the public. This advice centers around the decadal surveys wherever they apply, as they are considered the consensus view of the communities they cover. These surveys, in turn, are developed by committees convened each decade by the Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy of the NAS. Generally speaking, the members of these committees and boards are members of the astronomical community themselves; the process for determining membership varies by the body, so check out the various sites or contact colleagues who have served to find out specific procedures for getting involved.

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) is what is known as a FACA, a type of advisory committee that is constituted under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA of 1972) . The AAAC was established in the NSF Authorization Act of 2002 (and subsequently modified by a DOE authorization law for high-performance computing in 2004) to advise the NSF, NASA and DOE on issues in astronomy and astrophysics that are of mutual concern for all three agencies. They are tasked with overseeing inter-agency coordination, providing recommendations regarding agency activities related to the decadal surveys, and reporting to the agency heads and relevant Congressional committees on their findings each year.

The committee has 13 volunteer members (as in unpaid, other than travel expenses), appointed by the NSF Director, NASA Administrator, Secretary of Energy, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); none of these members may be a Federal employee. It is not clear from the charter what the term of service is on the committee, but in practice (i.e., looking at the reports from past years), it appears that people serve for a few years at a time. The Chair is selected by the committee members, and the committee must meet at least 4 times per year (though meetings need not be in person). This committee has no set expiration date according to its founding charter, though the default position for FACAs is to require reauthorization every two years.

The agenda for Monday and Tuesday’s meeting can be found here, and focuses on updates from the relevant division directors and/or program officers at each agency, a joint “Open Skies” document laying out principles for international collaborations, and crafting the annual report required by current law. The committee’s meetings are, largely (see FACA section 10(d)), open to the public, and one can attend remotely via webex and/or teleconference (1-866-564-0410 code: 557855).

I'll be there for Day 1 and will do my best to keep people informed of any developments. Keep an eye out for some tweets via @AAS_Policy with the hashtag #AAAC.

1This is by no means meant to call out Kelle, who is someone I certainly often look to for answers, especially via AstroBetter. My guess is this is a question many people thought but did not decide to ask; I certainly would have less than a year ago!

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society
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