1 March 2013

News from NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST)

James Ulvestad National Science Foundation

NSF and the ABCs of Sequestration

At this writing, on 27 February, the U.S. Government is nearing the 1 March deadline for across-the-board reductions in the U.S. budget, known as “sequestration.” Those inside the Washington Beltway are more familiar than others with this situation, so it seems worthwhile to summarize for AAS readers the basics of sequestration and its possible effects on NSF and AST. The impact for the NSF community has been summarized by the NSF Director, Dr. Subra Suresh, in a notice entitled “Impact of FY 2013 Sequestration Order on NSF Awards.”   As the document states, the impact of sequestration would be a budget reduction of approximately 5% for NSF appropriations in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 (1 October 2012 through 30 September 2013), relative to the FY 2012 budget.  Three core principles, reproduced below, are being used by NSF:

  • Protect commitments to NSF’s core mission and maintain existing awards;
  • Protect the NSF workforce; and
  • Protect STEM human capital development programs.

In following the first principle above, again quoting the Director’s memo, “all continuing grant increments in FY 2013 will be awarded, as scheduled, and there will be no impact on existing NSF standard grants.”  As the Director also states, “the major impact of sequestration will be seen in reductions to the number of new research grants and cooperative agreements awarded in FY 2013.”

With regard to the second principle, unlike most federal agencies and universities, the NSF spends only a very small fraction of its budget (approximately 6%) on internal agency costs. Thus, in contrast to media reports of extensive furlough plans in other agencies, it is much less likely that such actions will be necessary in NSF.

The third principle places at high priority early career awards.  For AST, the result of this principle is that we are in the process of making FY 2013 awards in the following programs: CAREER; Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowships; and Research Experiences for Undergraduates sites.

Given the uncertainty in budget prospects, the community should expect award decisions in other programs to be made much later this year than is customary or desirable. In making difficult choices regarding possible changes in the AST portfolio balance, we will continue to be guided by the latest decadal surveys and their application to ongoing and future capabilities, as recommended by the recent AST Portfolio Review.

Other AST Budget News

The U.S. Government currently is operating under a Continuing Resolution that expires on 27 March, with no full-year appropriation yet in place for FY 2013. The interaction of a final FY 2013 appropriation (or continuing resolution) with sequestration is dependent on legislative action.  It also has been reported in the media that the President’s budget request for FY 2014 (the year beginning 1 October 2013) will be submitted to Congress in late March. Readers should remember that the eventual FY 2011 and FY 2012 budgets for AST were significantly below the President’s requests.

Additional AST News

In spite of budget uncertainties, the business of AST continues.  The following items are of note; see the NSF web site for further information:

  • The definition and interpretation of proposal merit-review criteria changed significantly in January 2013, and will have an impact on all proposals submitted after that date. Proposal submission procedures in FastLane also have been changed, with additional on-line forms for items such as the Project Summary, and additional automated checking of compliance with published NSF policies.
  • All award reports now must be submitted via the Research.gov portal rather than the NSF FastLane portal.
  • A new solicitation (NSF 13-539) has been issued for the FY 2013 program on Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum (EARS); proposals in response to this solicitation are due on May 14. In the 2012 competition, two of the 24 awards were directly related to passive spectrum use, and several others were related to mitigation of radio-frequency interference.
  • Management competitions for Gemini, NRAO, and NOAO are under way.  Interested community members and potential proposers should see the various Dear Colleague Letters that are posted on the AST web site. We expect additional letters to be posted within the next few weeks.
  • Official inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array will take place on 13 March 2013.
  • The annual report of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) will be submitted to Congress and the agencies by 15 March, and may be found on the AAAC site soon after its release.
  • There has been significant AST staff turnover in the past six months.  Drs. Jeff Pier and Tom Gergely have retired, while Drs. Scott Fisher, Don Terndrup and Katharina Lodders have recently concluded their terms as rotators at NSF.  We thank all these individuals for their service to NSF and to the community. Drs. Glen Langston and Ilana Harrus started work as permanent NSF employees in February, and Dr. David Boboltz will join AST in a similar capacity in March. Dr. Dan Evans of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics joined AST as a rotator last September.
  • Dr. Patricia Knezek will start work as the new Deputy Division Director (DDD) for AST on 11 March.  We thank Dr. Dana Lehr for serving as Acting DDD for the past year while simultaneously continuing many of her other duties within the division.
  • The NSF Director, Dr. Subra Suresh, will be leaving the Foundation at the end of March to take up an appointment (beginning in July) as President of Carnegie Mellon University.