18 August 2021

Remembering Past Decadal Surveys Before the Astro2020 Report Releases

Kelsie Krafton

Kelsie Krafton Space Studies Board of the NAS


This is the second post in a new series on how we as a community can and should advocate for our priorities with the policy makers who control the funds that make our science possible. The first post makes the case for community support for and involvement with advocacy around the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey (Astro2020) based on the AAS Public Policy staff's experience. Here we will look at the inner workings of the decadal survey process with the help of past survey leaders and staff.

Note that this post is not an official statement by or from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and was written without their knowledge or input. The Astro2020 committee co-chairs were given an advance copy of this article, but it does not include their input and was written without the rest of the Astro2020 committee’s knowledge or input. This article reflects the AAS Public Policy staff's understanding of Astro2020 and the decadal process, with quotes from previous NASEM staff and previous astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey chairs. 

The Astro2020 report is currently undergoing external review, and we've reached the homestretch leading to the release of the report in the coming months. The work to turn the survey’s consensus priorities into reality, however, is just getting started.

Now is a great time to start thinking about how we as a community can and should advocate for our priorities with the policy makers who control the funds that make our science possible, so we can hit the ground running when the report drops. Looking forward to those advocacy efforts, we’d like to offer the "insider" perspective with help from several past NASEM staff members and decadal survey chairs: 

  • Christopher McKee and Joseph Taylor (UC Berkeley and Princeton), Astro2000 Co-Chairs
  • Roger Blandford (Stanford), Astro2010 Chair  
  • Lynne Hillenbrand (Caltech), Executive Officer for the Astro2010 Committee 
  • Michael Moloney (CEO of the American Institute of Physics), Director of SSB & Study Director for Astro2010 

Their interviews are quoted throughout the text below.  

A summary of the decadal process and the role of NASEM staff and volunteers: 

The decadal survey process can seem opaque if you have never had the opportunity to be a part of it. A good place to start reading up on how the surveys work is to find the official statement of task, which is conveniently included in the reports for the last two surveys, Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium and New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, as well as the committees’ plans for addressing their charges. Many astronomers have the basic understanding of the decadal survey as a review of the state of the field and a plan for the next decade, with the work divided among panels that address different science topics and other aspects of the state of the profession. However, the details of how the surveys work beyond this cursory overview are not obvious to most of us.

The process of selecting the co-chairs and populating the committee and the panels with volunteers is done by NAS staff. As Chris McKee put it:  

“The National Academy oversees the creation of the survey committee and a number of panels, consisting of outstanding scientists who represent the full range of sub-disciplines in our field. With a total membership of over 100 people, there should be at least one committee/panel member at almost all of the major astronomy research centers in the country. These committees then solicit input from the entire astronomical community, and this input provides the raw material for the committee's recommendations.” 

The NAS staff work to make sure that not just the many sub-disciplines and top research institutes are represented, but a diversity of institutions and individuals of different demographics. Having a high-visibility presence in the field and being a co-author on white papers increases the likelihood that the NAS staff have heard your name before and think to call on you to volunteer. As Roger Blandford recommended,

“Pay attention and, if invited to participate, accept. It’s your future and you will learn a lot.”  

The co-chairs also help find volunteers to populate the committee and panels, which Chris McKee described as the most memorable challenge of the process, other than reaching a consensus. In Joe Taylor's experience, the co-chairs were mindful of distributing membership geographically, “so that most field practitioners would have a reasonably nearby colleague with some official part in the survey.” The importance of this recruiting task is not lost on the NAS staff, as Michael Moloney said the most memorable part of working on the survey was, “All of us staff, volunteers, everyone that contributed to the survey understood that we were engaged in a process that has been a core foundation of the tremendous success of astronomy and astrophysics done from the ground and from space since the 1960s.”

Chris McKee next raised several important points:  

“The goal of decadal process is to recommend a prioritized program to the federal funding agencies that maximizes the scientific return over the next decade and beyond within the resources available. A prerequisite for success is a healthy community, and this is addressed as well. Active involvement with the community is essential since the recommendations will be effective only if they are widely accepted.” 

The first point is that the federal funding agencies are the true customer of the decadal survey. Congress gives the agencies funding to pay the NAS to conduct a study to determine funding priorities for the next decade. The agencies then build their programs around these recommendations, and the recommendations are used by Congress to justify funding these programs. In this sense, the decadal surveys offer the “golden seal of approval” that comes as close to guaranteeing congressional funding as we can get. When it comes to funding the agencies, Congress wants to know “what does the decadal say?” Roger Blandford raised an addendum to the idea that the agencies are the target audience:  

“Although the reports are basically advisory to the funding agencies and other bodies, I see them as independent and community-based. […] I also see the reports as written for members of the public who, as taxpayers, ultimately support the enterprise.” 

The second important point from Chris McKee’s statement above is that the health of the community is essential to accomplishing our goals, so it is a given that we would dedicate at least one panel and section of the report to addressing this. Third, the biggest selling point of the decadal survey is that it is the best form of community consensus available to us, with over 100 people from across the nation agreeing to the recommendations. There may not be unanimous consent, but it is a consensus, as Chris described “seeing how the very disparate recommendations that came from the panels finally evolved into a coherent program after a lot of intense deliberation.” Joe Taylor spoke to the difficulty of reaching this consensus: 

“All scientific research is important to those who are doing it. Establishing relative priorities based on potential importance of discoveries yet to be made is a much harder and necessarily imprecise exercise. We put a lot of effort into reaching consensus views on relative priorities. We expected this process to be difficult, and it was.” 

Those 100+ people mentioned above are just the volunteers, never mind the hundreds of people submitting white papers and presenting to the panels as part of their deliberations. Roger Blandford said the most memorable part of his experience as chair for Astro2010 was “Working with some wonderful people — astronomers and National Research Council staff — and learning so much from them.” Having been one of those volunteers, Lynne Hillenbrand went into detail on the enormous amount of work that every participant puts into this process:  

“The process consists of lots of reading of materials, lots of listening to presentations, cumulative weeks of discussions with survey colleagues, and seemingly endless email chains, all to arrive at a scientifically exciting, technically executable, and fiscally responsible plan for the decade. And then there is the months of writing, re-writing, re-considering logic, re-packing of the recommendations, and contending with reviewer comments, eventually leading to the production of a final report. It was somewhat grueling, and I did not sleep very much for nearly two years.” 

Lynne went on to describe the memorable coming together of some many diverging viewpoints of the committee and panels: 

“We have culturally different communities, e.g., universities and national labs, observers and theorists, hardware and software groups, etc. […] working with the survey committee truly as a team, to figure out the best path forward. Sure, we had our different views and our different favorite projects or initiatives, but everyone really was trying to put together the best package to address the decade's most compelling scientific questions.” 

The NAS staff also put in an enormous amount of labor throughout the process. Michael Moloney described the decadal survey as “probably one of the most complex kinds of studies that the Academies does”. Michael, as the study director, needed to manage a large number of people: 

“A team of staff that were supporting the committee and the various panels, other volunteer groups that were supporting the survey, to manage the budget for survey to make sure we were delivering the whole project on time, on budget. We had three different sponsors: the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and NASA. And so, it was also engaging with the sponsors at those agencies, to walk the line of keeping them informed of what was going on and making sure they were included in the process, but then also being mindful and intentional about respecting the confidentiality of the survey panels and survey committee during operations, which is a key part of the Academies’ process.” 

There are also some odd quirks that vary from survey to survey. For example, the co-chairs might decide to divide the labor as Chris McKee and Joe Taylor did: “Chris McKee and I agreed that he would chair most meetings of the [committee] while I would be an observing participant at meetings and take a major role in strategic and background planning.” The chairs are at the top of the decision-making tree, along with the committee that has the final say in incorporating the individual panel reports into the final report. Lynne Hillenbrand describes her experience on the committee:  

“My role in Astro2010 was as the 'Executive Officer' of the survey. This had me participating in the highest-level group that planned the survey panel structure and the committee meeting agendas, managed the input from the various panels and subcommittees, and did the final writing — all while working closely with the NAS staff [...] It was a mix of jobs ranging from strategy sessions to keeping-the-trains-running organization, to picking the cover image for the final report.” 

Sometimes the quirks are external to the survey process, but still have an impact. For example, Joe Taylor described the circumstances of the Astro2000 survey:  

“[Astro2000] took place during a period of national budget surpluses sustained over several years. Astronomy and space science was popular with the general public, and prospects for national support of fundamental science seemed excellent for the coming decade. I do not think we could have imagined how much this rosy outlook might change within a few short years.” 

The budget was in a significantly different (practically the opposite) place for the Astro2010 survey, and that was a significant challenge for that committee to deal with. Roger Blandford recalled the most challenging part of the process was, “Narrowing down a field of over a hundred mostly excellent and exciting proposals to a proposed program that fit into a shrinking budget envelope.” And when asked if he wished anything could have gone differently, he elaborated: 

“That our budget guidelines had not forced us to make so many painful choices. That NASA had not had to announce a major increase in the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) immediately after the report was released. (Having said that, I am highly excited about its upcoming launch and eager for the many wonderful discoveries it will make.) That a mechanism could not be found to release publicly the findings of the six Independent Study Groups which could have had a positive effect on the culture of the field as it did on the survey.”  

Lynne Hillenbrand had this to say about the challenges Astro2010 faced: 

“Contending with the budget realities. Our field is full of dreamers, and we tend to dream big. But we can't have all the near-term progress that we want, in all of the fields that we want, at the same time. That is the whole point of prioritization. But it isn't easy, especially when there are so many attractive opportunities. I would also say that the endgame was pretty difficult, just the stress of putting it all together, on time, for the report reviewers and then the world to see. Late-night and early-morning text editing was my life for many months.” 

This raises another point many of us may not realize: the survey report deadlines are motivated by the agency budget deadlines. The government operates on an annual fiscal cycle and every year around September (give or take a month), the agency budgets are due to the administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. If the report is not in on time, the agencies cannot incorporate it into their report to OMB and then lose a whole year of planning and funding for that decade. Advocates like the AAS Public Policy staff can work to ask Congress for the money after the budget is due to the administration, but we cannot solve the issue of all the agency planning that is required to accommodate the new recommendations.  

The NAS staff have a different set of challenges, as they are not a party of the consensus reaching process, but instead facilitate the forum for those discussions to be had. Michael Moloney summarized the greatest challenge for the NAS staff in one word: “complexity”. His statement really drove home the scale of running such a large study: 

“When we did it 10–12 years ago, we had not just the survey committee report, but we had to shepherd the nine panels and their reports, each of which was subject to the same Academies’ process which is pretty robust and intense. Every single report was reviewed independently and written up and produced […] Essentially it was shepherding nine Academies’ studies through the process involving five or so program staff with other support staff and well over 100 volunteers. Each panel met in person, which is the way we used to do it, three times, and the panels did their work over about a year […] Never mind reaching out to the community, which is a core element of the survey too, and soliciting and then receiving, consuming, and distributing all 700+ White Papers from the community. Every single one was read and considered and added into the process. I still look back on it and say, “Wow, how did we manage to do that?” And then to deliver the report early because some of the agencies asked us to do that for their internal planning processes […] we all knew we were doing something so important; it would have impact not just for a decade but for 30–40 years or more, and programmatically and scientifically there is no end date on the extension of our scientific knowledge.” 

Everyone who works on these surveys understands the gravity of their actions and has positive intentions to improve the field of astronomy. Lynne Hillenbrand stressed the lack of simple solutions and everyone’s desire to do their best, “There are many factors at play […] The survey committee members delve deep into these and are doing their best to make a viable plan.” One not-so-simple solution that arose with Astro2010 was the NAS staff and committee worked with the Aerospace Corporation to design a whole new assessment process that since has been used in similar forms by all the space science sponsored decadals, as Roger Blandford explained: 

“One of our innovations, of which I am most proud, was the independent risk assessment of cost, schedule, and technology readiness for proposed large initiatives. This was led by Marcia Rieke and has been built on by subsequent surveys.” 

Also in the same vein as Lynne Hillenbrand's comments, Michael Moloney emphasized the desire of everyone involved to do their best: 

“The real sense of serving the community that I saw amongst every single volunteer, everyone we interacted with, everybody who spoke to our committee and panels, all the folks at the sponsoring agencies, staff. The one thing not visible because deliberations, by the Academies’ process, are behind a wall. The reason for that is important, people don’t know about this. […] It is to ensure the Academies’ process. Everyone can be assured that the deliberations of the survey committee and the outcomes of those deliberations are due to the consideration of that committee. There isn’t somebody who happened to be in the room from outside at that moment that could influence it. That’s why the deliberations are held in private, to ensure the integrity of the very serious deliberative process that Academies’ committees, including the survey committee, goes through. […] There is this overwhelming sense of community service amongst the survey committee. They are doing this for future of the field. That was always the baseline in the discussions. Whether it was about who should be serving on the panels, how should we engage with the community, how should we organize town hall meetings from coast to coast, the foundational principal for all the volunteers and staff was how do we ensure we are serving the best interests of the science. It’s certainly recognized by the consumers of the survey: the policy makers, the programmatic decision makers. They understand that the process is driven by that sense of community service in pursuit of the best science possible.” 

If you look at various scientific fields by the number of scientists versus the amount of money spent on their facilities, astronomy is in the extreme. Michael Moloney explained: 

“Stay focused on the power of consensus of the community. […] We have those highly complex, very expensive facilities for a relatively small community, in the scientific community, because of decadal survey process. It’s not always clear even when the recommendations play out, what the scientific potential is of some of those tremendous facilities. If you think back to the original recommendations for the orbiting space telescope that we now call Hubble, it’s doing so much more than we ever could have imagined when they survey committee first considered it. Even JWST, it’s taken a long time to be on the verge of being launched, but the science case has only grown. We’re now thinking about doing dark energy measurements and exoplanets, stuff we weren’t even talking about when the survey committee 20+ years ago was talking. […] The drive, the sense of mission for the volunteers on the committee and survey panels, they are 120 percent focused on building that community consensus and trying to reflect that in their deliberations. The constant theme amongst the discussions of the panels on the survey, really trying to ensure “okay I’ve got to put my own hat to one side and think about how to build a consensus that drive the community science forward.” […] Clearly that means that some folks are going to be maybe disappointed, would have liked some of the priorities to be different, but I hope that we can all stay focused as a community on the intrinsic value of the survey process.” 

We are a small field with multiple billion-dollar facilities. We are also the first field to conduct a decadal survey. These facts are not independent of each other. As Chris McKee put it, “History has shown that decadal surveys have been a remarkably effective means for the community to obtain the support of the federal government to build and operate the facilities that have led to the revolution in our knowledge over the past almost six decades since the Whitford report in 1964.” 

After the survey and the advocacy work that follows: 

While an enormous amount of work goes into reaching the final recommendations of the survey report, that is just the beginning of the decade-long fight to secure the funding for those goals. Often, the survey volunteers are asked to help with the initial sales pitch to policy makers, and then the professional advocates keep the momentum going until the projects are finished. When the Astro2000 survey was finished, Joe Taylor took the lead in advocacy for the report recommendations through his membership in the NASEM’s Board on Physics and Astronomy, while Chris McKee had a more limited role. For Astro2010, Lynne Hillenbrand participated in the DC roll-out of the survey results. She described the process as: 

“Trudging around to the different stakeholders in order to inform them about the top level findings and recommendations from the survey. Although I had interacted previously with many of the people from the agencies, visiting the other executive branch and legislative branch offices was new to me. It is an impressive set of people there in DC, behind the scenes.” 

So once the hard work is over, there is still more hard work to be done. As chair of Astro2010, Roger Blandford had to give many of these presentations, “About forty in my case, some of these in other countries.” While the NASEM itself does not engage in advocacy/lobbying for their report findings, they do put resources into publishing and distributing the results. Michael Moloney described this process: 

“The survey leadership continued to be supported by staff, ensuring that decision makers and the community knew what was in the report, understood the science behind the priorities and the process by which prioritization took place. It’s about ensuring the message of the survey is delivered accurately and appropriately. Then it’s the role of community organizations such as the AAS or other community-based organizations to go out and advocate for the outcomes.” 

The AAS stands ready to fill that role, and we hope that these informative posts encourage more members of the community to engage with the advocacy process once the report is released. Roger Blandford offered the AAS and our members some advice on advocacy for Astro2020: 

“Keep it simple and stay on message. I think the AAS should be playing a prominent role working with the chairs and the agencies communicating the excitement of the field and what, I am confident, will be a coherent package of hard choices for the future program.” 

Looking to the future: 

One of the most important things we can take away from past decadal surveys are the lessons learned. It wouldn’t have been possible for panel and committee members to know then what we know now, so the question is whether we can learn anything from their experience to improve the results this time around. Joe Taylor and Chris McKee raised the issues that come with flagship facilities: 

“We were suspicious at the time that NASA’s cost estimate for the Next Generation Space Telescope was too low. It’s hard to know whether we could have handled this better and more effectively.” 

“For ground-based astronomy, I wish we had anticipated that there could be more than one proposal for an extremely large telescope. Had we recommended a selection process, it is possible that NSF would have supported one of the proposed telescopes and it would be in or near operation now. For space-based astronomy, I wish we had obtained a more accurate estimate of the cost of the Next Generation Space Telescope (now JWST). At that time, there was no independent costing process; the experience with JWST led to the introduction of such a process in the 2010 survey, and this was a major improvement. Had we known the true cost of JWST, it would have been descoped and might be in operation now. However, in the end it might turn out for the best: If JWST is as successful as we hope, it will provide results that otherwise would not have been obtained for decades.” 

However, in trying to address the mistakes of the past, we also don’t want to swing too far in the opposite direction, as Lynne Hillenbrand experienced with Astro2010, following the issues with Astro2000 that Joe and Chris explained:  

“The initial reaction to the Astro2010 report was critique that we had not been as adventurous or as liberal as expected with our recommendations. This is because we had done our best to make everything fit within the budget guidance from the agencies, and we thought we had a pretty good, sequential plan. It included off-ramps and on-ramps for funding/priorities depending on how the science and the technology progressed over the decade. However, not too long after the report release, some major projects that were already well along suddenly needed a big chunk of the expected budget for the decade, and *then* everyone was critiquing our report for recommending so much! […] I wish there had been room to actually try executing our plan. Without all of the over-shadowing events, a more modest version of WFIRST (the one we recommended) could have been flying already, and we might have more small missions (which train people and spread the benefits of project work around the country) up or in progress.” 

Of course, the NASEM staff have a very different point of view of the things they wish had been different, mostly pining for the logistical solutions that today’s surveys have access to. Michael Moloney wished they had: 

“Just the technology […] even then we were pushing the edges of how we engaged with members of the community to get white papers. There had never been a survey to get 700 white papers before. That was really made possible by folks being able to directly upload them onto the web. That helped a lot. Looking 12 years later could have been able to engage more with the community. We did the best possible job we could have done, having town halls, having the white-paper process, a very open-ended system where anybody could email us any time. […] We did as well as we could with the technology we had.”  

With the history of decadal surveys in mind, where do we go from here? Once the report is out, we will need to advocate for the recommendations. We’d like to see an all-hands-on-deck approach to advocacy for Astro2020, with AAS members contacting their Members of Congress to stress the importance of funding the priorities. For each individual, the work needed isn’t very much, as Chris McKee put it, “focusing on the exciting results that will come from implementation of the proposals is enough.” But if we had all 8,000 members of the AAS calling in with the same message, that would have a huge impact. Of course, professional advocates will be covering the more complex aspects of messaging, as Lynne described it, “there are a lot of forces at play, and the virtues of astronomy are not necessarily the reasons things happen”, but Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents and they generally react very positively if they can feel our enthusiasm. Thankfully decadal advocacy is a relatively “easy sell” on Capitol Hill, and Michael Moloney explained why: 

“There is tremendous respect for the survey process and the way the astronomy and astrophysics community have set the benchmark for how to engage a whole community in the priority exercise […] that there can be a community consensus around a rank-ordered prioritization. That’s extremely rare in the scientific community. Consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. It is recognized as a deliberative process that leads to this outcome that is driven by trying to ensure that as a wholistic program we are advancing our knowledge in the best way we can. That’s important to remember […] it can be easy to lose sight of that. It may not be unique anymore, but astronomy and astrophysics is recognized as being a leader in this sort of approach on how to long-term plan for a scientific community. So, don’t take it for granted. It does allow the decision makers to be able to understand where the scientific frontiers are and get excited about them. You can see that when you’re in a room where the survey chair is talking about the survey to a member of the House or Senate, or a senior staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. You can see that respect for the survey process translates into a real enthusiasm about the science. That’s what we all want at the end of the day, isn’t it?” 

Michael made an important point about consensus versus unanimity. It’s expected that some members of the community will disagree with the recommendations in the report. As Roger Blandford put it:  

“I do not believe that there will be a single astronomer who agrees with every word! Accept the report as an honest attempt to optimize the science for the good of the whole field and the United States. Focus on the parts that resonate most with your interests.”  

If you find yourself in disagreement with any of the recommendations, here is some more advice from the other past survey volunteers. Lynne recommends that if you read something that upsets you, you should first calm yourself down and then finish reading the full report, trying to be broad-minded. Chris McKee had similar advice: 

“The decadal process is not perfect, but it achieves a community consensus and is far better than a system in which projects are chosen on the basis of powerful personalities or congressional lobbying. If you disagree with the process, then I encourage you to find like-minded individuals, propose improvements [to the process], and share them with the community. Federal funding agencies rely on the decadal surveys, and they want to get the best possible advice.”   

Regardless of how we feel about the decadal report’s recommendations, its arrival will mark the beginning of a new era for our field. I asked the interviewees to give some parting thoughts for the next generation of astronomers. Chris McKee hopes the next generation contributes to Astro2030. Lynne Hillenbrand reminds us, “The survey committee is doing its best to look out for both the near-term and the long-term health of our field, and thus not everything that is recommended will look like an obvious choice.” Michael Moloney leaves us with this message: 

“[...] in the astronomy and astrophysics community, and the physics community more broadly, and the physical sciences community more broadly than that, everybody recognizes that principles of inclusion and belonging are critically important to us as a community. And I know particularly for early career folks in the community that that is a priority, but I think that is now reflected as a priority across every generation in the community. That’s tremendously exciting. […] We are looking at a pivot in the community where we’re all looking to build a better culture for astronomy and astrophysics, physics, and the physical sciences. That has been integrated into the survey process in a very explicit way this time. Not for the first time, it’s always been a very important discussion in prior surveys, in what we call the State of the Profession. […] I do know there was an explicit commitment from the survey to ensure that the recommendations from that panel be integrated in a very holistic way into recommendations of the survey committee. That adds to the excitement and pride, frankly, the community should feel about the future.” 

From an AAS Public Policy staff perspective, we stand ready to advocate for the recommendations on the state of the profession and infrastructure. We look forward to the critical discussions the report will inspire on the state of our field and where we are going, and we plan to write the next article in this series on those topics. Regarding the report overall, Roger Blandford summed it up for the next generation nicely, “it is not their job to fulfill the precise program set down by Astro2020; instead, they should aspire to show how much discovery its authors failed to imagine!” Cheers to endless possibilities.  

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