18 July 2019

First Astro2020 Decadal Survey Steering Committee Meeting

By Kelsie Krafton

American Astronomical Society (AAS)

Astro2020 BannerThe steering committee for the National Academies' Astro2020 Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics held its first meeting in Washington, DC, 15-17 July 2019. Such studies typically begin by hearing what their sponsors are expecting from the committee, so the first of two days of public sessions focused on input from the three sponsoring agencies: the Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The second day focused on input from policy stakeholders on Capitol Hill and in the White House and on suggestions and lessons learned from the chairs of the Astro2010 decadal survey as well as the midterm assessment of progress toward meeting its recommendations.

Day One

Kicking us off on day one was Kathy Turner, physicist and program manager in the DOE Division of High Energy Physics (HEP). HEP’s Cosmic Frontier (CF) program is looking to Astro2020 for guidance. HEP takes into consideration advice from many other sources when making decisions: DOE's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) and its Particle Astrophysics Scientific Assessment Group (PASAG), NSF's Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), the National Academies' Board on Physics and Astronomy (BPA) and Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA), and community input and studies. CF is looking for scientific opportunities and projects from Astro2020, some of which may go into the next strategic plan prepared by HEPAP’s Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5). CF does not have its own wedge of the budget, so those projects from Astro2020 that are considered will be competing with all HEP projects.

Presenting the perspective from NASA on Astro2020 was Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division since 2012. He reminded the room that the NASA Authorization Act calls for guidance by the decadal survey, and community input is critical. NASA recommends against the absence of medium-size projects, like probes, in Astro2020. NASA can work on fitting the science into the budget box, so for Astro2020 the committees should prioritize based on science and be willing to make trades to get the budget down. Flagship missions, despite their high cost, still offer the greatest returns of science per dollar spent. They allow the US to maintain global leadership in the field, they drive the NASA budget and create stakeholder support, and they come from decadal surveys. When a flagship overruns, it delays the next flagship; it does not eat into the NASA budget. Flagships are unique and complex, and their costs are difficult to estimate. NASA has always reserved 50-70% of the budget for flagships. As far as new observatories are concerned, Astro2020 should recommend what to do first, not what to do only, and carefully consider how time is budgeted.

The NSF sent a whole team of people to give us their perspective: Ralph Gaume of NSF astronomy, Saul Gonzalez of NSF physics, and Vladimir Papitashvilli of NSF polar programs (who called in for his segment of the presentation). The NSF’s goals for Astro2020 are as follows:

  • Community consensus on priorities
  • Recommendations, clear priorities in order, and actionable advice for the agencies
  • Projects that address the priorities
  • Timelines: what is ready now, and when the rest will be ready
  • Estimates of costs, cost gaps, and risks
  • The state of the profession

The NSF requests that Astro2020 thinks big (as justification for requesting a big budget), is ambitious in its goals, and lets the NSF sweat the implementation details.

Day Two

The second day of the meeting opened with a panel of two: Pam Whitney, majority staff director for the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, and Joel Graham, professional staff member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation. While they could speak only for themselves, they did their best to give us the Hill’s perspective on Astro2020. The decadal survey helps the Hill stay true to the scientific community’s priorities. For Astro2020, a visionary plan is most important, and the budgetary picture is appreciated guidance. The most recent planetary-science decadal survey recommended different plans for different budgets, and Congress would like to see the same from Astro2020. A review that occurs more frequently than the 5-year midterm would be appreciated by the Hill. Whitney and Graham's advice on balancing between inspirational and irrational when thinking big was to put forward small projects that can still wow the public. Hands-on opportunities for the younger generation, like balloon experiments, have great support from Congress too.

Next on the agenda was a brief overview by Randy Persinger from the Aerospace Corporation of the often misunderstood Technical Risk and Cost Evaluation (TRACE). At the request of the decadal survey committee, the company performs this independent analysis for proposed projects whose budgets are about $850 million or higher to assess technical readiness and lifecycle costs.

Roger Blandford called in from Stanford University to share lessons learned from Astro2010, for which he was chair of the survey committee. He reminisced about Astro2010’s giant meeting, the "Jamboree," which included all the panels and committees, and after which the cross-talk kept going. He recommends a similar meeting for Astro2020 and says it’s not possible to over-communicate among the survey participants.

Blandford also reminded the steering committee that once Astro2020 is submitted, the battle is not over — the community needs to keep fighting for our priorities. He wants the AAS to take a more active approach in leading this ongoing effort. He expressed regret over how events unfolded for Astro2010 — some of its highest-priority recommendations still haven't been implemented — and suggested we can do better. As part of this push forward, he suggested a standing committee to provide real-time responses based on what's happening globally. This prompted some discussion in the committee; some felt this duty could possibly be fulfilled by the CAA. Blandford ended that regardless of what happens with Astro2020, the decadal survey keeps the community together. It opens our eyes to the excitement, progress, and problems in areas outside our own specialties. Worst-case scenario: we all learn a lot.

From Astro2010 to Astro 2020

New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH) is the midterm assessment of Astro2010. The NWNH committee’s chair, Jacqueline Hewitt from MIT, called in to present a summary of the progress made on the plan outlined in the midterm review. DOE support for the NWNH program has been strong and consistent. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is on schedule and within budget but needs funding for investigators. NSF’s budget shortfall has led to less than half of the NWNH program being implemented. The committee recommends that NSF divest from lower-impact ground-based facilities. Any delays in the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will impact Astro2020, and the committee recommends an independent technical, management, and cost assessment that includes the addition of a coronagraph. NASA should prioritize the Explorer program, gravitational-wave technology, and X-ray technology above investment in the European Space Agency's Euclid mission. NASA’s Astrophysics Division should make at least four Explorer announcements of opportunity during the 2012-2021 decade. Also, NASA should restore US support for ESA's Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) or risk losing out on the opportunity to participate in space-based observing of gravitational waves. For Astro2020, the NWNH committee would like to see engagement with the philanthropic sector, international context, and communication of budget expectations with the entire community.

Grace Hu and Yi Pei are program examiners at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and cover NASA science and NSF, respectively. Pei has a PhD in astronomy. Both spoke of the importance of the decadal surveys in making the case for investment in astronomy and astrophysics and said they expect the agencies to carry out the recommended programs as best they can within budgetary constraints. The examiners have little influence over their top-line budgetary constraints, but there is flexibility in how they allocate funding within a top line. They said that they are not a priori opposed to “flagships” but that they worry about programmatic balance given how often flagships experience cost overruns. They asked the committee to define more specifically what they mean by “balance” and to provide decision rules that the agencies and examiners can use during execution when actual budgets invariably differ from the scenarios used by the survey committee. When asked about growing budgets with arguments about leadership and international competitiveness, they suggested that those arguments are better made to other White House offices such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Economic Council.

Day Three

On the final day of their meeting the steering committee gathered in a closed session for members and staff, so I can't tell you what transpired there. But I look forward to keeping the AAS community apprised of future developments as the Astro2020 decadal survey progresses toward completion.