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Shooting For The Stars

For a city like Washington that lives on the latest morning polling results, waiting 10 years for the results of a survey to gauge popular sentiment on an issue is hell.

But this is what the astronomical community does every decade since the early 1960s to prioritize the allocation of federal funding for billions of dollars worth of astronomy programs and projects, funded by NASA, the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation.


With the release of "New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics," which outlines the results of the most recent survey, it's worth pondering how realistic it is to expect federal funding for the astronomical community's wish list. After all, we're in an atmosphere of debt and tight budgets, run against the backdrop of the midterm election.

The wish list includes projects ranging from the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope and other international space- and ground-based observatories -- the American shares of which are projected to cost up to $2.5 billion -- to small technology development programs at NASA costing a few million dollars. The pre-publication copy of the final report can be viewed at for recommendation details.

The survey, which is organized by the National Research Council, got its start with prompting from members of Congress, many of whom found it difficult to assess competing requests for astronomical funding, said Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society and a professor at Vassar College.


They didn't want to have to "guess whether project 'a' from state 'x' is more important than project 'b' from state 'y'," Elmegreen said in an e-mail.

Through the survey process -- by which hundreds of proposals are submitted to and vetted by committees of astronomers -- senators and representatives get astronomers' consensus of which projects have the most scientific merit.

If the past 10 years is any evidence, the process largely works. Most of the large- to mid-size projects recommended in the previous decadal survey have either been completed or are on their way to completion.

The projects included the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch in a few years, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which was launched in May, according to John Huchra, a professor of cosmology at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


Huchra also was a vice chairman of the NRC's Committee on the Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics 2010.

"The decadal process is a careful amalgamation of all the [astronomical] proposals, driven by the best science and ranked according to the projects that can do that science, within the bounds of technical readiness, cost, risk and budget guidelines," said Elmegreen. "So we've already done the hard work of figuring out not only what the [astronomical] community wants as a whole, but how to achieve it."

This isn't to say that everyone always buys into the process or agrees with the results. Huchra's fear is that despite most professional astronomers and others engaging in a multiyear process to develop the astronomy community's list of priorities, someone whose project wasn't highly recommended will seek an end-run to get their project funded.

"They may try to game the system by going directly to a legislator" to seek federal funding for their project through an earmark, Huchra said. "That would be very unfortunate for the field and for the country" because it helps to politicize the scientific process.

Instead, those whose projects weren't recommended should seek universities, foundations or other sources of funding because "we don't need to be spending a huge amount of federal funds on less productive projects," according to Huchra.

That the survey is being released in the midst of what might turn out to be the prelude to a turnover in Congress, or at least in the House, shouldn't make a difference in whether any or all of the recommendations can be at least partially implemented before work starts on the next decadal survey.

"As astronomy is inherently nonpartisan, we have little difficulty implementing survey recommendations based on who is in power in Congress," said Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society. Most lawmakers understand the connection between a strong investment in basic research and development and the nation's economic health, Marvel said.

Instead of politics, a more pressing problem is the availability of money to fund the survey's recommendations, which would be true at any point in history, but especially now given an era of record deficits and other fiscal and monetary uncertainties.

It's the "bigger issues that drive budget availability [that can] end up slowing down or negatively impacting the implementation of the recommendations," Marvel said. "If the only way the government can save expenditures in the near term is through cutting domestic discretionary [spending], then our nation will have a lot more to worry about than just whether it is funding astronomy decadal survey recommendations."

This article appears in the October 2, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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