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President's Column

Thursday, November 15, 2012 - 09:27

From close-up pictures of water-sculpted pebbles on Mars, to the detection of galaxies at the boundary of the Dark Ages, discoveries in our field continue to advance our understanding of the Universe and to fascinate legions of the public who support our inquiry. Unfortunately, we do not see similar progress in the political sphere, even now that the consequences have been spelled out of allowing budget sequestration to hit every government agency in January. The election will, no doubt, provide a new ground-truth within which our elected representatives must work, but it is unlikely to contribute to the bi-partisan spirit necessary to address seriously the nation’s budget problems.

It is into this environment that the National Science Foundation Astronomy Division’s Portfolio Review Committee released its report in late August. My personal opinion is that the Committee did an extremely good job working with the scenarios they were given. They scrupulously held to the scientific priorities of the Decadal Surveys and were meticulous in creating an inventory of the resources we have—and the facilities we need—to carry out the research that supports those priorities. They were sensitive to the dislocations their recommendations could cause and cognizant of their impact on the astronomical workforce. Finally, they were creative in recommending new, and re-balanced, programs to support innovation despite the current, highly constrained circumstances.

I carried this personal view of the Report into the process by which the Society issues public statements. Members should know that this process involves consultations among the seven-member Executive Committee plus, in the case of major public policy issues such as this, the fifteen-member Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy. It also includes the perusal of press releases issued by astronomical organizations and Congressional offices, as well as listening to the opinions of individual members who contact any of the nearly two dozen people formally involved. The process also generates many iterations and a great deal of word-smithing. The product of this process can be seen on the AAS website.

It is my experience that getting twenty people—who, by design, represent different constituencies, arise from different backgrounds and are shaped by different life experiences—to agree on the wording of a document is an impressive accomplishment. It also runs the risk of producing a less than compelling text, given the necessary compromises involved. After this exercise, however, it occurred to me that we should perhaps offer our services in the form of workshops for Congressmen on how to get things done. Unfortunately, Congress immediately left town.

Since I am granted this space to unburden myself of my opinions, however, I will use it to make one point with greater emphasis than our consensus document allowed.

There is no doubt that the closing of any public-access observing facility will be painful for a significant portion of our community and that dislocations will ensue. However, as the Portfolio Review makes clear, even in budget scenarios more rosy than the more optimistic one they considered, it is simply not possible to both keep all current facilities open and to proceed with the ground-breaking new facilities—ALMA, LSST, ATST, etc.—that we deem essential to our continued exploration of the Universe. Not possible, that is, unless one essentially eliminates individual investigator grants.

Now, an argument can be made (and I have even been known to posit it as an abstract concept) that it is possible to explore the Universe without grants but it is not possible to explore the Universe without telescopes. However, speaking of dislocation, the end of grants would require a complete restructuring (naively, elimination) of graduate training, of postdoctoral research, and of innovation in the laboratory—all outcomes inimical to our continued progress and devastating to workforce development. Of all the opinions we heard, none advocated eliminating the grants program.

But here is the critical point: while you can be certain that Congressmen and Senators representing affected facilities will rally to the cause of keeping them open (we have already seen the first “over my dead, cold body” press release), I can not imagine a groundswell of support on the Hill defending your $85K per year NSF grant. It is relatively straightforward for a Representative or Senator to get directives to the Foundation written into the Authorization and Appropriations bills—“Thou shalt not close that facility”—but it is highly unlikely that the same Congressman will add all the funds required to both avoid the closure and leave the grants programs unscathed.

I am, of course, in favor of continuing to make the case that our stunning scientific successes and our massive impact on both education and the public imagination deserve the funding profile envisioned by the Decadal Surveys. But with trillion-dollar-plus deficits, a tax policy that is a travesty, and entitlements growing far faster than inflation, it is going to be a very hard sell. And, as the Committee’s report notes repeatedly, one cannot responsibly cease to operate facilities overnight—it will take years. If work is not begun now on the task of reducing the burden of facility operations costs on the Astronomy Division budget, the consequences a few years hence could be dire indeed.

I believe it is in the collective interest of our membership that we not allow the distribution of the federal resources we are allocated to be further politicized. The Portfolio Review Committee was a Committee of our peers making their best judgments in the interest of our science. Reasonable people can, of course, disagree with details of their conclusions, but I hope that we can remain united in our support of peer review as the basis of resource allocation, and supportive of an allocation that retains a strong program of individual investigator grants.

Meanwhile we continue with our mission to “enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe.” A major display of our progress will take place in Long Beach during the second week in January. I hope to see you there.

David J. Helfand
Columbia University