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. 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.