U.S. Astronomers vow to help prioritize science funding

By Phil Plait | February 11, 2008 1:30 pm

A very interesting email came to me the other day. It’s from the American Astronomical Society, the largest professional society of astronomers in the US. Sometimes, the AAS will make a position statement of some sort, and in general they are not of great interest to the public. But this one made me laugh, though perhaps ruefully.

Why? Well first, in January I attended a meeting of the AAS, and NASA top banana Mike Griffin came to speak… and let’s just say it didn’t go so well. No, let’s not just say that: read what I wrote after listening to him. Bottom line: he was ticked that some astronomers circumvented NASA’s funding process by going straight to Congress to get earmarks for some missions. That messes up the funding for other projects, putting them in jeopardy.

My take after the speech when talking with other astronomers is that this is true, and we need to band together. However, the flip side of this is that Griffin said it in a way that made him come off as kind of a jerk. He literally said that if astronomers "want to sit at the adult table" we’d better shape up. Cute, huh? Nothing inspires people more than being called childish. Let me be clear: I agree that we need to figure out how to be united on this, but I do wish Griffin had said it in a way that wouldn’t instantly unite astronomers against him.

Anyway, the statement just released by the AAS reflects the sense that we need to unify. Here is the statement in its entirety; emphasis is mine.

On Community-based Priority Setting in the Astronomical Sciences

Adopted 24 January 2008

The American Astronomical Society and each of its five divisions strongly endorse community-based priority setting as a fundamental component in the effective federal funding of research. Broad community input is required in making difficult decisions that will be respected by policy makers and stake-holders. The decadal surveys are the premier examples of how to set priorities with community input. Other National Academy studies, standing advisory committees, senior reviews, and town hall meetings are important components. Mid-decade adjustments should also be open to appropriate community input. Pleadings outside this process for specific Congressional language to benefit projects or alter priorities are counterproductive and harm science as a whole. The American Astronomical Society opposes all attempts to circumvent the established and successful community-based priority-setting processes currently in place.

Well, good. It’s nice to see this being written down. The problem is, if some team wants to make sure their project gets funded, the AAS really cannot stop them from contacting their Senator or Rep to try to get an earmark for it; the AAS is not a legal body in that sense and I doubt would kick anyone out for circumventing the statement. However, word would spread pretty quickly if someone did do that, and the gossip would fly. That would be… interesting.

I certainly hope it doesn’t happen. Like I said, I think we really do need to stick together and speak with one voice. We cannot put a single mission ahead of others without a unanimous agreement, because that would threaten many, many other projects. It’s all good, and it’s all important, and we all have a stake in every mission, even if we aren’t directly involved. I’d really prefer we don’t all hang separately.


Comments (11)

  1. Rob

    Of course, it presupposes that the decision being made was made with appropriate consultation before hand, and wasn’t just an administrator saying it wouldn’t be possible to service Hubble, or the many, many other decisions that get made by committees representing one sector of science that affect other, unrepresented, sectors (see the Division of Planetary Science’s response to the NSF Senior Review for an example where one of the five divisions of the AAS clearly feels that a conclusion was reached without appropriate consultation).

    Then again, things are even worse in Britain right now! Bye, bye Gemini…

  2. DennyMo

    Having worked with earmark money and the leaches who convinced some Congressman/staffer that their R&D project was “a good idea”, I have decided that earmarks are most often the path of least resistance for un-/under-qualified people to get funding to work on answers to questions no one is asking. I wish earmarks were illegal, and think this is one case where even BA can agree with something that Pres. Bush has done: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/01/20080129-5.html

  3. Tom

    Good stuff. I’m glad astronomers got the message despite the tone of its delivery.

    It’ll definitely be interesting to see how the first astronomer who goes straight to Congress gets treated.

  4. LarrySDonald

    Basically I feel the bolded part should be aterisked with (* until ruling bodies have more experience then us at it). Which would be a bad thing, seeing as it would involve devoting their lives to it, probably to the deficit of everything else.

    I do think most people agree that it’s wise to leave the choices to those more capable of handling them. Micromanagers rule microorganizations. There is some leeway for interfering with the lower parts of an organization, but by and large it’s usually quite clear the more successful organizations delegate choices about that which they have no serious idea about to those that actually do. So should be the case here. At the same time, a slide in that direction needs the less-in-power to be less narrow. So perhaps the customers, in the shape of the tax paying public, does need their fancies tickled by something more then long strings of numbers they’re too busy to understand.

  5. Tom


    You’ve got part of the earmark story, but don’t forget the opportunities Congresspeople have to ‘bring home the bacon’ with a local pork project, which they can then brag about for the next election cycle.

  6. I’m not really confident that the AAS rumour mill notices that much news along the lines of their members talking to their reps. I remember an incident of congressional interest in a NASA-granted program which, as far as I can tell, was not the result of lobbying on the part of people in the program. The program got an earmark the following budget cycle, which was very nice for them. But I don’t remember even people within the field talking about this, either at conferences or on the primary online discussion forum for researchers in the field. What I do remember is that the people who would have been expected to mill the rumours instead made disparaging remarks about the intelligence of congresspersons in relation to a different matter, which I thought was a mistake, both factual and strategic (and I said so, thus making lots of friends as usual).

    My skepticism about the efficacy of the AAS rumour mill aside, I wonder if the concern here is about earmarks as such, or about PI-initiated lobbying activities that circumvent funding prioritization activities? Do earmarked programs really get funded whilst prioritized programs lack funding, or is it *merely* the fact of earmarking (or program lobbying) that galls? I’m not familiar enough with the issues to believe I know the answers to these questions, but I am familiar enough to wonder whether these issues aren’t being used as levers in a broader power/money struggle.

  7. Ed Davies

    Even if they make little difference within astronomy, perhaps these words are a useful tool for any Senators or Representatives who wish to oppose earmarks.

  8. Here’s a nice SF plot. Imagine a future where the government no longer funds research, and astronomers have to suck up to rich people and corporations to get planetary missions funded. The Richard Mellon Scaife Mars probe. The PNCBank mission to Venus…

  9. Pat

    Earmarking can occur for other reasons: you have in your constituency a rocket or part manufacturing plant. It’s therefore in your best interest (as an elected official) to earmark x amount of dollars for purchasing from your district, regardless of actual need. Manufacture a farcical “mission” that “needs” what you’re providing.

    All too often economic and electoral priorities get first dibs over science. It comes back to dealmaking later – I got my earmarked rocket money, so I don’t oppose senator Y’s proposal to cut NASA budget by that amount. The ISS has got to be the biggest gravy train of this kind ever.

  10. Nihilodei

    Great Cod its good to have a cynic fest…

    Truly, if bean counters didn’t advise governments, we would be sucking up funding like crazy. There is a painful balance.

    Its just they never, ever realise that the spin off from one good, no great, paper is many hundreds of other papers and the associated technology advances.

    Just think how dull beer would be without the diffraction grating, the accidental application of the hall effect and (COD!!!) not using a tuning fork.

    Actually, I like the tuning fork.. but I am nearly fifty…

    “Where’s the bridge, where’s that goddamn bridge!”

    Afaeodontism… never trust your parents with money!!!!

  11. Oz Engineer

    Unfortunately, the AAS appears to forget the truism that people in power will use that power as they see fit. If that includes listening to special pleadings and acting on them, then this will always be the case, whether this association or that official wishes otherwise.

    By all means educate your friends associates as to the downside of this type of activity, but the rules of the game are not decided by astronomers or associations of scientists – they are decided by those with political clout, whether through elected office or high bureaucratic office.

    And I thought that astronomers, of all people, are best situated to be aware of the shape of the world and the forces acting on it.


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