The next decade

By Daniel Holz | February 28, 2009 5:04 am

The astro community virtually shut down a couple of weeks ago. Didn’t you notice?

Every ten years the entire Astronomy and Astrophysics community gets together to decide what to do next. We take stock, and plan out the next decade. Committees are formed, white papers are written, town halls are attended, and at the end of a long process a report is issued, with a ranked list of the priorities of the community. This Decadal Survey helps decide which telescopes are built and which space missions fly, and sets the direction for the major advances of the field in the coming years. I think this process is fairly unique among academic disciplines; a field self-consciously trying to come up with a formal plan for the future. Of course, it can be quite contentious, but at the end the bulk of the community gets behind what is decided, and everyone goes forward from there. The hope is that this process expresses the will of the community, and therefore will impact which projects are pursued and funded (as opposed to leaving it up to politicians and other non-astronomers). In addition, it’s a chance for everyone to get together and learn what’s happening across the field, and see what directions things are moving in.

We are now in the midst of Astro2010, the current decadal review. A panel has been formed, chaired by Roger Blandford. A large portion of the astro community was out-of-commission in mid February, as everyone frantically finished up their science white papers.National Academies logo Over 320 were submitted, all of which will eventually become public on the NRC website (yours truly contributed to four, having to do with coordinated gravitational-wave and electromagnetic observations, gamma-ray bursts, and rapid-cadence surveys.). If you’re impatient, you can take a look at a subset of the white papers on the arXiv. The Panel is now soliciting white papers on the State of the Profession and on Technology Development, as well as on specific mission proposals. Anyone is welcome to submit. If you have particularly strong opinions, and feel your voice must be heard, there will also be a series of Town Hall meetings over the next few months.

The survey should be completed in about a year, with a document summarizing the directions the field is likely to go in for the next decade. The titles of the science white papers makes for interesting reading in its own right. They show the tremendous breadth of the community, ranging from planets to cosmology, and from magnetic fields to first light.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Politics
  • http://www.stsci.edu/~aconti Alberto

    hmmm… it seems the number is actuallly << 320, as there are quite a few duplicates.

  • http://www.stsci.edu/~aconti Alberto

    btw, my favorite white paper is Andrew Gould’s “Wide Field Imager in Space for Dark Energy and Planets”. Andy argues that “The 2010 Decadal Committee must not lead the lemming stampede that is driving toward a DE mega-mission, but should stand clearly in its path. ”

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0902.2211

  • http://www.mikepeel.net/ Mike Peel

    OK, so I’m pretty new to the community, but I’ve never heard of this. This might be because I’m based in the UK: is this US-only?

  • Ben

    Duplicate titles generally are for white papers with the same titles that were submitted to different sub-panels of the decadal survey. In at least some cases, I believe the content is different to be tuned to the specific sub-panel.

  • http://danielholz.com daniel

    Mike, yes, it’s just an exercise for the US community. But since many of the missions (e.g., LISA) are international collaborations, there is generally broad participation.

  • Jeff

    I’m quite involved in this, mostly on the mission concept side. But in fact, I believe one of our favorite bloggers here is on one of the Decadal Survey panels, right?

    I’m sure there’s confidentiality issues, but maybe Julianne could find some way to let us know how things get hashed out in those smoke filled rooms…

  • http://danielholz.com daniel

    Jeff, I was indeed wondering why Julianne hadn’t posted about this! But she’s on the Galactic Neighborhood panel, and therefore is probably advised against actively soliciting (beyond the general call)? Hopefully she’ll chime in about the whole process sooner or later…

  • http://www.mikepeel.net/ Mike Peel

    Daniel, thanks. In that case, please remember that “the entire Astronomy and Astrophysics community” isn’t based in the US. There are a few of us still out here in the sticks (Europe, Australia, Russia, etc…)

    (that’s meant to be dry humour; please don’t take offense)

  • Julianne

    Jeff & Daniel — I actually just got back from the first panel meeting, and they gave us the Serious Talk about confidentiality. However, we are actively encouraged to seek input. I was planning on starting an open thread on monday.

    I can say that the panel so far is informed and conscientious. However, I’m on one of the panels that deals with scientific priorities, not missions. It’s the latter where things will get rough.

  • E

    Julianne, Can you explain why there’s a need for confidentiality?

    All the white papers will become public (hopefully soon). The committee reports will become public. I suspect there will be some rather bland statement explaining the processes by which the committee reached its conclusions. Supposedly, they’re making an effort to seek input. So why keep the intermediate workings secret?

    It seems to me that if they really wanted us to provide relevant input, then they’d need to let people know what they’re thinking as they go, so that people can point out the possible unintended implications of various recommendations. I would think that keeping their intermediate thoughts secret before unveiling a final result is a recipe for the masses feeling left out and tempting them to second guess.

  • Jeff

    Julianne, you’re right in that the mission debates will be rough, but the science panels are critical too if they are able to actually explicitly prioritize. That’s often anathema among a group of scientists who generally believe all science is good. But to recommend, for example, exoplanet discovery as a higher priority than dark energy, or the life cycle of stars explicitly over the secrets of pulsars, would then directly affect: 1. the mission prioritization somewhat, and 2. highly influence the likelihood of grant awards and competed mission calls.

    I’m not saying, of course, that either of those recommendations would be good, or even that any recommendation is good. But a generic statement that equates to “more astromony = good” doesn’t help the community, NASA, the NSF very much. So, good luck as you tackle some hard problems!

  • Pingback: Your Thoughts on the Next 10 Years of Astronomy & Astrophysics | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

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