The US astronomical community is anxiously awaiting tomorrow’s press conference on the release of the “Astro2010 Decadal Survey”. Now, the astronomical community has press releases all the time, but almost all are about communicating scientific results or images to the general public. Tomorrow’s is different. What we learn will shape the next ten years of investment in astronomical infrastructure, and set the course of much of scientific innovation in the ten years after that.
For close to half a century, the astronomical community has gone through an extremely productive exercise in navel gazing, producing exhaustive reports once a decade to lay out our priorities as a field. These reports are the result of a year long process of consultation, analysis, and lobbying. Through the National Academy of Sciences, the community organizes a series of committees to evaluate every aspect of US astronomical research. They try to identify scientific areas that are ripe for breakthroughs, and then to match these areas with specific technological investments in astronomical tools (primarily telescopes, but also increasingly computational and theoretical resources). The committees then do their best to rank these investments into a prioritized list.
The process of making a prioritized list is relatively horrific, since it involves choices between extremely different, non-overlapping projects. For example, if you’ve spent your life understanding optical and near-infrared spectra of galaxies, you’ll be rooting for a gigantic ground based telescope — most competing projects will be of little utility for your research. However, as a field, we are forced to face up to the fact that sometimes the best way to move forward on an astrophysical topic is not necessarily where we, as individuals, have chosen to do so. We also have to recognize that what may interest us personally may not be the most important question in the field. For example, I’m a nearby galaxy kind of girl, but I’d be a fool not to recognize that extrasolar planets are far more “ripe” for dramatic results. Finally, accepting these facts is not equally easy for all individuals, and many people are willing to go the mattresses for their preferred outcome. One hopes for good behavior, but people will be people.
The reason the process is so high-stakes is that the ranking that comes out of the Decadal Survey is taken very, very seriously. The upper administration of NASA and the National Science Foundation take these recommendations as commandments (i.e. don’t bother seeking funding for the satellite telescope that was ranked 15th). Ever more seriously, congressional staffers read these reports, making Congress extremely unlikely to finance anything but a top ranked project. (The few times that earmarks have been laid out for specific projects, it’s been Seriously Frowned Upon by the community, and by any administrator who has based their planning on the ranked list). Frankly, this is great, even if it’s hard. We wouldn’t want anyone else to make these decisions but us, as hard as it is to sometimes see your favorite project nudged out by something you are far less interested in.
So, the big things to look for in the news tomorrow are the first ranked ground-based project (i.e. NSF funded) and the first ranked space-based project (NASA funded). In the current funding climate, and with the growing costs of building competitive facilities, the community is unlikely to get more than one major initiative rolling — if that. This decadal report is unlikely to make the mistakes of the last one, which can best be described as being equivalent to asking a 3 year old whether they’d prefer a bathtub full of ice cream or a pony. This round, there was much more attention paid to cost, so that the committee could make realistic decisions.
Frankly, it’s a bit of a scary time. The situation reminds me a bit too much of the Superconducting Supercollider. The funding levels needed to make big advances are at a point where we really can’t afford more than one major initiative a decade. That puts us in the unfortunate position of having a single point failure. Say we back one big project. Suppose that the one big project goes over budget (as cutting edge facilities frequently do) to the point where it gets cancelled, 10-15 years from now. Then, we’re left with nothing, and young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.