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President's Column — Fall: A Time for Renewal

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 09:09

Emerging on the autumnal side of the equinox should signal only one thing to AAS members: it is time to renew your membership! This year brings a number of new benefits that makes the case for renewal compelling.

First, you can renew for two years (unless you’re a junior member), locking in the 2014 membership rate through 2015 and leaving you with one less thing to do next fall, which you just know is going to be even busier than this fall. Second, your renewal will yield a coupon for 15% off your share of author charges for a paper you publish in one of the world's highest-impact astronomy journals, ApJ or AJ. And if you renew for two years, you get two coupons, one for a paper in 2014 and one for 2015. If you are as prolix as I am, your renewal could well yield a net return to your grant or pocket. And, of course, your membership provides discounted registration fees for our meetings in Washington and Boston this coming year. Ask any economist you know: rational-choice theory simply requires that you renew now.

Later this month, we'll be launching the AAS Agents program, which will provide additional savings to the person from each department, observatory, or institute who wishes to devote a few hours a year acting as the ears and mouth of the AAS at his/her institution. Thirty agents have already signed on; Michael Strauss of Princeton got to be Agent 007, so that's taken, but other good numbers remain. Agents get a half-price meeting registration and, more importantly for those of you in PhD-granting departments, their grad students receive four years’ membership for the price of one when the department matches the AAS discounted rate — one department has already signed up 15 new members. I'd like to thank all of you who have signed on as agents to date, and I look forward to registering volunteers at the other institutions this month (interested persons may sign up using our online form).

Lest you think all these discounts indicate an age of profligacy at the AAS, rest assured we have not succumbed to the deficit addiction prevalent in the rest of Washington. Indeed, we are on track to close the calendar year with a balanced budget for the fifth year in a row. Our journals continue to prosper, and our public-policy activities continue to operate as effectively as they can while dealing with the sad excuse for a government under which we currently function. As I write this on the eve of a government shutdown, just about everything is uncertain, so I will refrain from any further comment until my next column when, I am sure (said Pollyanna), all will be sorted out.

Whatever the outcome of the budget and debt-ceiling negotiations, however, we can be quite certain that we will be operating under continuing budget stringencies for some time to come. In a recent telecon with the AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy, Jim Ulvestad, Director of Astronomical Sciences at NSF, made an important, and perhaps under-appreciated, point about the outcome of the peer-review process when the acceptance rate falls toward (or below) 10%. At this level, each panel typically gets to award funds to only one, or at most two, proposals. This is inherently unhealthy, not simply because so many worthy proposals are unfunded, but because it is not at all clear that the best proposals are funded.

Peer review is our gold standard for distributing limited resources, but it is not infinitely robust. When stressed to the point that reviewers are forced to pick one of a half dozen fully worthy proposals that will conduct ground-breaking research, not only do panels tend toward conservative choices that will yield "certain" results, but also they are forced to turn to scientifically irrelevant distinctions to make impossible choices — e.g., making five typos vs. one typo in a 15-page proposal the basis for a selection clearly isn't guaranteeing the best science gets done.

Other divisions at NSF, already at the 10% mark or below, are attempting to address this problem by adopting restrictions on budget items (e.g., a limit of one month of summer salary for faculty proposers) and proposal process changes (e.g., the Biological Sciences "sandbox," which attempts to assure funding for some risky proposals, and a pre-proposal process). The CAPP is starting a forum for ideas on what policy changes might be adopted to deal with our vanishing selection rate, and I would appreciate any ideas members of the Society might offer. Meanwhile, of course, we will continue to make the case that ceding US leadership in this fundamental area of science is not in the national interest, but realism suggests we had best have some coping mechanisms in place if new resources are not forthcoming.

The good news, of course, is that our scientific understanding of the universe continues to advance, and the public remains fascinated with our work. I gave a public talk in New York this past weekend, and more than 800 people showed up to hear "What We Know (and Don't Know) about the Universe" rather than take a walk in the park on a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon. We must all work in our schools and university classrooms and in public fora of all descriptions to continue sharing what we do — it may not be a sufficient condition to assure a rosy future, but it is certainly a necessary one.

With best wishes for an autumn marked only by falling leaves and not by falling budgets, and in anticipation of seeing many of you in Washington in a few months,


David J. Helfand
Columbia University