The Next 10 Years of Astronomy

By Julianne Dalcanton | August 12, 2010 12:20 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Politics, Space
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  • Martin E.

    The SSC analogy is all too apt. I just gave a talk in Leicester, UK, about how astronomy is hitting the “Funding Wall” (a great phrase that I appropriated from Peter Foukal, AAS Newsletter Oct 2005): total NASA projection of funding for new missions through 2020 $2.3B, cost of 1 Great Observatory >$3B. I.e. 1 or less. But that was Oct 2009’s projection; as soon as I gave my talk someone said the new number was $1.7B, and a short while later the rumor was that JWST was about to eat some 100’s of $M, so we may be under $1B total for new missions. At that rate even the Top Ranked space mission is infeasible.
    What then do we do? My vote is to only do smaller missions; that will force us to be smart about what we do. It’s easy to say “I have a 2 meter space telescope now, so I want a 6 meter next”, it’s harder to say “What’s a good piece of science I can do for $xM?”.
    But all is speculation until tomorrow…

  • Julianne

    It’s easy to say “I have a 2 meter space telescope now, so I want a 6 meter next”, it’s harder to say “What’s a good piece of science I can do for $xM?”.

    But, in some cases, it’s not just easy, but it’s the most sensible thing you can say. My scientific bread and butter these days depends entirely on the angular resolution of telescopes at UV/optical/NIR wavelengths (i.e. all HST, all the time). Because of the diffraction limit of HST’s 2.5m mirror, there are things we simply can’t do unless we get a longer baseline in space. And sadly, there isn’t yet a way to make that cheap. Nor, is there a way to get the same capability with something downscaled — you can’t beat delta-lambda over lambda.

    But I do agree that it may just never be affordable. At least not for a long time. One could imagine a distant future with really giant heavy lift vehicles, so that you didn’t have to do fancy crap with folding stuff up to fit in a smaller tube. You can probably build instruments more cheaply if you don’t have to worry as much about payload limits. Instrumental technology may become cheaper.

    But yeah, I’m probably dreaming. Getting 8m class telescopes in space is going to be spendy, no matter when or how you do it.

  • Lab Lemming

    So is this “we” US astronomers, or the entire scientific community? The specific funding bodies mentioned in this post (NSF NASA) seem to be American only.

  • Julianne

    Yup — “we” is the US astronomy community only. Should have clarified…

  • Lab Lemming
  • Julianne

    I wouldn’t describe myself as upbeat either. But, I try for zen-like calm and pragmatism.

  • Brian Too

    Single points of failure are bad. If I may, they are worse with an organization like NASA that takes on difficult projects. By design.

    The risk is not solely that the project gets cancelled. What if you have projects like the Space Shuttle, or the ISS? These succeeded but, let’s admit the truth, were not wildly successful. They have the sort of success that head honchos can point to and say “that project validates both me and my organization”. In other words they are politically defensible.

    However it’s possible to second-guess those spending decisions and come up with alternate scenarios and projects that would have achieved more. In theory and assuming good outcomes, but still. From what I’ve seen, lots of people have done exactly that.

    For instance, to counterbalance the merely modest successes of the Shuttle and the ISS, take a look at the robotics missions NASA has pulled off. Take a look at the Hubble. These projects do a lot to polish up NASA’s image in both the technical and public realms.

    These funding and shepherding bodies (NASA, NSF, NAS) need a portfolio of projects running concurrently. Otherwise you have too much project, portfolio and even organization level risk.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It astonishes me that anyone would feel validated by either the ISS or the STS. The only sensible assessment of these is a spectacular waste of money and a spectacularly lethal waste of money, respectively.

  • Ghost

    How could anyone possible say that the ISS is a modest success?

    “Young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.”

    This is the situation in about every other field of science, so if it isn’t happening yet in astronomy, then the field must be (relatively) overfunded.

  • Julianne

    The ISS and the shuttle were reasonable successes at providing a regular US presence in space, which is what they were designed to do. NASA is not primarily a science agency, although I would of course love it if it were. Indeed, NASA would not exist if the only driver for it were science. As scientists, we get the benefits from tagging along on what NASA develops for other purposes. If NASA built a giant lift vehicle as part of a Moon-Mars program, we could maybe get to stick a giant telescope in it. But, they’d never in a zillion years use a giant telescope to justify funding development a giant lift vehicle. A giant _downwards_ facing telescope, maybe, but not a science-driven one.

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  • DrAstro

    “Young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.”

    After just completing a post-doc in the US, my only new offers came from Europe… and now I am in Europe. What was the generic reason no US post was available? The universal answer was, “money shortage.” Combined with the overproduction of PhD’s in astronomy/astrophysics, if a young astronomer is not competing for prize fellowships or having success raising soft-money, then their career outlook is bleak.

    It’s a sad state of affairs in the US that the most promising career prospects for a young intellectual are in the defense industry because they have all the loot.

  • David

    “Young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.”

    Speaking as a young European astronomer (planetary science actually, but close enough): Funding situations in the UK are dire, and in the near term they will probably only get worse still, and while the rest of the EU is fairing better on the whole, the perception at the moment still seems to be that the best opportunities are state-side. YMMV.

  • AI

    The golden age of astronomy is likely almost over. Most low hanging fruits have already been picked. Technology (lift/energy/nanotech) need to significantly advance before others come within reach.

  • grbiersema

    I like that the Astro2010 committee already prepares us a bit for bad news, by announcing the results on friday the 13th :-)

  • pollux

    its true that we need money to push science forward, but i miss people that do a lot of science with the data already at hand or that make breakthroughs without too much dollars… science is a business now… no place for einstein today, i guess.

    i met too many people that instead of talking about science, talk about money/projects… the astropoliticians probably forgot Maxwell’s equations.

  • daniel

    Watching the assembled masses gather on the webcast. It’s strange that the (near-term) future of the field is, to some extent, about to be announced.

  • Julianne

    I’ve got the PDF, and will blog the results after I get the kids off to camp!

  • Richard Scalzo

    “Young astronomers start looking for jobs in Europe.”

    Or Australia.

    In fact (12:05pm) Debra Elmegreen just took a swing at that, saying that astronomy departments really need to mentor their students to be aware of other career options… and that many of those options didn’t require Ph.D.s.

    But it’s a good question (and there are some good comments on it, Julianne’s particularly) — how much farther can we really push, experimentally, before we hit solid walls based on finances, or other resources (land, energy, …)? How long before we start hitting sociological fundamental limits — organizational size and complexity, attention span (esp. of elected representatives)? What ARE those limits, even? The SSC analogy is apt, and the LHC is already at the small country level in terms of staff and funding…

    It’s dreary, almost too dreary, to imagine that exciting science may simply have gotten too hard to actually carry out in practice. Nothing like resource limitations to channel creativity, though.

  • The AstroDyke

    Does anyone want to tackle the GSMT issue? Namely, that it was ranked 3rd instead of 1st, and that the committee urges NSF to choose between GMT and TMT as early as possible?

    Re #20 — I was disappointed by Debra’s comments on that front. We need to do more than just tell our students that other career options are out there. We need to make some changes to our curriculum and our mentoring process, so that our students will be better prepared for those career paths. While Debra mentioned the disturbingly high ratio of postdoc positions to career–path positions in Astronomy, she didn’t mention any steps to address the issue. Or that big-budget space missions are what create the need for all those postdocs, but not a need for their long-term services in permanent positions. I’ll wait to read the report, but I wasn’t encouraged by the rather tentative answer from the committee on that front.

  • A

    I have my doubts on the GSMT issue. Taking TMT as an example, buying a quarter share is enough for a seat (the biggest seat, I believe) at the table, but not enough to control the direction without having multiple other partners on board. It’s also good for only ~30-40 clear nights per semester. Is that enough for all of US astronomy? Questionable.

  • Andrew

    The GSMT dropped from first to third not only relative to the last Decadal Survey, but also relative to the rankings of this Survey’s own OIR Program Prioritization Panel (see Table B.1). That’s got to cause some heartburn.

  • Richard Scalzo

    @ #21: Yes, it seemed like a dodge to me. Your own post of June 25 is more to the point, and the article you linked there (“The Real Science Gap”), as with many recent articles about the increasing transience/expendability of the scientific labor force. Sometimes I wonder about the extent to which the trends in science are really unique to science, or whether they simply reflect similar trends in the larger global economy — the constant pressure to do more, faster, and with less… I’ve gotten earfuls from, among others, a biologist friend who just fell off the edge of her most recent postdoc and is now scrambling for work of any kind. For myself I feel lucky to be “transported”.

    Most of us do eventually get the memo that we’re on our own, but not until much later than we’d wish… Whatever the rest of the field does, I make sure to have this kind of discussion with all the undergrads I work with who are thinking of applying to Ph.D. programs, as well as with any Ph.D. students who find themselves wondering what comes next.

  • crf

    I read on Cat Dynamics: No SKA?

    This is a little odd, because SKA seemed to me to be the most interesting and relevant (to other areas of science and industry) due to its enormous computing and data management challenges.

  • Gary

    Sadly, the current generation of professionals believe that the Universe owes them child support just by the fact of their existence.

    Not in my day.

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