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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program 4 Findings and Recommendations Although the strong recommendation of the committee is against transfer of NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities to NASA, the committee did find clear evidence for legitimate issues and potentially troublesome trends that require attention. The scientific challenges in astronomy and astrophysics are very broad and fall within the scope of several agencies. Responding to each challenge will require a coordinated approach combining the strengths and resources of all three major astrophysics-related agencies—NSF, NASA, and DOE—as well as other participants. The recent profound changes in the field of astronomy and astrophysics cited in Chapter 1 of this report and in the findings below raise questions as to whether the management structures that were in place throughout the latter part of the 20th century are still appropriate for the first part of the 21st century. The primary concerns of the committee and prior studies are summarized in Box 4.1. Focusing on the roles of NSF and NASA, the committee endorses an integrated approach to addressing many of these high-level concerns affecting the future health of astronomy and astrophysics research in the United States. The committee also recognizes that there are more specific, complex, and long-standing issues within the discipline—especially in the ground-based optical/infrared community—and that these specific issues have been thoroughly addressed by previous panels in much greater detail. The approach presented below in the form of seven findings and six recommendations attempts to create a new overarching framework to address most of the
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program BOX 4.1 Summary of Concerns That Require Attention The inadequate coordination between NASA and NSF that results in lack of coherent planning for the federally funded portion of astronomy and astrophysics. This lack of coordination has the potential to reduce opportunities and increase inefficiencies and is detrimental to both space missions and ground-based pursuits. The impact of insufficient coordination of the federal program in astronomy and astrophysics with the activities supported at state, local, and private levels, particularly given the substantial investment of the latter institutions in ground-based optical/infrared astronomy. This fragmentation is a long-standing problem but also represents an opportunity to strengthen the overall astronomy and astrophysics research enterprise in the United States. The lack of a clear mechanism for coordinating, in an integrated fashion, the activities of the United States in ground-based astronomy and astrophysics with those of other nations. The practice at NSF of making major investments in facilities without providing adequate funds to (1) ensure the availability of instruments for optimal exploitation of the facilities and to (2) underwrite the necessary supporting research grants to enable theoretical work and the analysis and publication of the data. The perceived imbalance between support for space-based and ground-based astronomy (with the latter generally considered to be inadequate). The perceived management shortcomings of NSF in conducting major projects. The growing vulnerability of the astronomy and astrophysics research talent base to disruption caused by the failure of a major space mission (such as the Hubble Space Telescope). high-level concerns. This new framework should facilitate the resolution of specific, but important, lower-level issues as well. FINDINGS1 Established Effectiveness of the Federal Organization The best measure of the overall effectiveness of the federal organization for astronomy and astrophysics is the results of research supported by it. The accomplishments in this field, particularly in the last decade, speak for themselves. Observations have given rise to deep theoretical insights about planets, stars (including the Sun), galaxies, and the history 1 The committee’s findings are generally consistent with the policy conclusions of the most recent decadal survey committee.
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program of the universe. Recent observations of the Sun have helped scientists understand better how it interacts with Earth and have revealed much of its inner workings (forcing particle physicists to confront and test the fundamental nature of neutrinos). Cosmology has becomes a quantitative science yielding profound insights about the origin and fate of the universe. The Hubble Space Telescope has enabled study of the universe at greater distances and farther back in time than ever before, in the process revealing evidence for the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. Evidence has grown that most galaxies have at their cores enormous black holes. This list could go on for many pages. NASA and NSF support of the astronomy and astrophysics community, of key missions and instruments, and of various planning processes, including the decadal surveys, has been crucial to most of this work. The committee concluded that the federal system has performed its function in support of astronomy and astrophysics research very well over the last decade. But it is clear that the field now faces a new level of challenges. Continued success depends on making some adjustments to the current system to realize the ambitious priorities for the future that have been set forth in the most recent decadal survey report. An integrated national program that fully exploits the synergies of ground- and space-based observations over all wavelengths and using new probes such as gravity waves and neutrinos is needed to address the challenges of the new millennium. Implications of the Interdependence of Space- and Ground-based Astronomy Innovative facilities require an integrated system and new approaches to coordination. The new astronomical facilities proposed in the recent decadal survey report are much more powerful and unavoidably more expensive than those currently available. Their construction and operation will be beyond the means of private donors and perhaps even those of single agencies or nations. For all these reasons, enhanced levels of collaboration among institutions, government agencies, and nations are now required. Consequential Changes in Opportunities for Federal Agencies Even as NASA becomes more dependent on ground-based science, it is likely to remain a space-mission-focused agency, working mainly through its own national centers, with emphasis in the areas of astronomy most related to space observations. Nevertheless, scientific outcomes now depend on integrated space- and ground-based observations in addition to new instrumentation, theory, supercomputers, and increasingly so-
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program phisticated data storage and analysis. NASA needs to make use of all pertinent tools, including ground-based observatories, if it is to maximize the outcomes of its suite of space missions. The NSF pursues science in the broadest sense and encourages connections between astronomy and physics, geophysics, computation, mathematics, chemistry, and other disciplines. It is responsible for ensuring the depth and breadth of the U.S. academic research capability and has a specific charge to foster the education of young scientists on which that capability ultimately rests. Although in the past NSF has been responsible for the successful design and construction of large astronomical facilities, its administrative and financial resources have frequently been insufficient to ensure optimal operation and maintenance of these facilities. For example, the organizational plans for ground-based astronomy and lines of responsibility for decision making at NSF and its facility contractors are frequently not as clear as they should be. This situation, if not ameliorated, will challenge NSF’s ability to respond to the challenges posed in the most recent decadal survey. The slow growth of the NSF astronomy research budget over the last decade, coupled with the cost of new telescope facilities and the many competing demands within NSF, has exacerbated these issues. Issues in Ground-based Optical/Infrared Astronomy and Astrophysics By a substantial margin, NSF does not have the resources to keep U.S. ground-based optical and infrared astronomy at the world level. Fortunately two sources of funding have eased the situation in the last decade: non-federal investments from private and state government resources for the construction of new telescopes, and international sharing of costs for the largest optical project NSF has been able to accomplish (i.e., the Gemini Observatory). This dependence on private, state, and international resources is both a blessing and a burden. The blessing comes because these projects, which could not have been built by NSF alone, have allowed the United States to stay abreast of the state of the art. A burden arises domestically because it appears that a contribution to the costs of the operation and/or instrumentation of the private observatories by NSF is a key to optimizing the scientific return from these facilities and to providing access to them for the broader U.S. community. A burden arises internationally because the international cost-shared projects are still very expensive and require a level of managerial complexity that has proved a challenge for NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division. The substantial private and state investments in telescope facilities have resulted in the construction of a number of university-based, large
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program telescope facilities, whose directors have joined together to form a common council known as ACCORD. The state and private resources alone are not sufficient to operate and instrument telescopes so as to optimize their potential. Yet, the private foundations and states that fund construction of these independent facilities want to see maximum impact from their investments. There is thus an opportunity to serve the broad community of U.S. astronomers by providing access to the private and state facilities in exchange for support by NASA and NSF to enhance the capabilities of these observatories. An important consequence of such an approach would be to foster coherent system-wide planning for funding the operation, maintenance, instrumentation, and research at the private and public telescopes. Because of NSF’s strong involvement in ground-based astronomy through its funding of the national centers and the university community, it seems natural to assign the responsibility for organizing a coherent overarching plan to its Astronomical Sciences Division. NSF now has limited leverage with the ACCORD institutions and therefore did not play a central role in the decisions that have led to the current situation. Nevertheless, because of the tremendous potential that these facilities have to advance astronomy, the Astronomical Sciences Division has initiated the new Telescope System Instrumentation Program to address the need for instrumentation at the private telescopes. This program will provide grants for instrumentation with the provision that awardees make observing time (or a similar resource or product) available to the astronomy and astrophysics community at large and not just to their own staffs. It has proved difficult for the Astronomical Sciences Division to negotiate the detailed terms of agreement under past versions of this program, but it is currently discussing the parameters of this new program with the university community. Whether a government agency can leverage the large private and state investment—to the benefit of the entire field—by providing effective coordination of a group that includes independent entities remains to be seen, but the proposition cannot be tested unless NSF can provide sufficient incentives. The one public institution funded by NSF that operates ground-based optical/infrared telescopes for general use by the astronomy community is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The National Optical Astronomy Observatory was assigned a leading role in the major ground-based optical/infrared initiatives recommended in the 1990s decadal survey report: the Gemini Observatory. These two telescopes are now the crown jewels of publicly funded ground-based optical/infrared astronomy. There has been heavy criticism from the astronomy and astrophysics community of the handling of the negotiations with international partners for the construction and operation of the Gemini Telescopes. The European partners were uncertain about the lines of authority in the
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program United States and, in response, NSF created a Gemini Observatory organization separate from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The astronomy and astrophysics community believes that this process has ultimately weakened the U.S. position in the project. It is arguable that allowing an open competition for the management of the Gemini project would have resulted in a stronger leadership organization taking control. It is undoubtedly true that the existence of a more systematic and transparent project management process within NSF would have enabled the Astronomical Sciences Division to take a stronger hand in dealing with the issues in this case. With such a field of players spanning the private and public sectors, there is a need for clear lines of responsibility to be defined by the NSF when it awards contracts for facility construction and management in astronomy and astrophysics. Unless NSF reviews and approves revised mission statements and performance plans for each organization that is involved, responsibilities and lines of authority will remain loosely defined at best. Such a lack of clarity will place the United States at a disadvantage in negotiations with international partners. If NSF funds and promotes a strong program of support for instrumentation and research at the private observatories, it should be able to acquire enough leverage to foster system-wide coordination and planning. Although private donors and states have built the bulk of the new, large optical observatories in the United States in the recent past, it is unlikely that they will be able to provide by themselves for the next generation of even larger telescopes. This is another reason for concluding that ground-based optical/infrared astronomy would benefit from being organized into an efficient, integrated system involving a close and effective partnership between the federal government and private and state observatories. A unifying national mechanism is also needed to ensure the cooperation of the universities and independent observatories in developing the next generation of telescopes. Policy and Structural Issues in NASA and NSF NASA’s policy with respect to future investments in ground-based observations rests primarily on the relevance of these observations to planned space missions. As NASA increasingly commits to science-based criteria in measuring the success of its activities, it can maximize the scientific output and cost-effectiveness of its missions by recognizing the increased importance of utilizing the growing power and resolution of ground-based observatories for precursor and follow-up measurements. The NSF has designed and constructed large astronomical facilities, it operates a fair and productive research grants program, and it fosters the
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program development of young scientists. Nevertheless, the operation of NSF astronomical facilities would benefit if the lines of responsibility between NSF and its contractors were more clearly defined. NSF’s strategic decision making could also be more transparent to its contractors, to Congress, and to the scientific community that it supports. Transparent decision making is particularly important for the successful development of an integrated program in astronomy and astrophysics. The current NSF advisory committee structure is not well suited to the developing opportunities in ground-based astronomy, which require extensive strategic planning. It is important to reestablish an external advisory structure for NSF’s Astronomical Sciences Division in order to ensure that its strategic planning captures the breadth of vision of the whole community. The committee did not find evidence that NSF has significantly more problems during the construction phase of large projects than do NASA, DOE, or other similar agencies. However, the committee found that the NSF lags other agencies in establishing transparent standards and systematic processes to define and develop large projects, assess readiness for construction, measure project performance, and manage the transition to operation.2 In other words, NSF, through its contracting organizations, has been generally successful in completing major construction projects despite its lack of a clear, systematic approach to managing such projects. Nevertheless, a systematic and transparent approach would help NSF to avoid common pitfalls in large project management in the future—especially as new projects grow in size and complexity—and it would certainly improve NSF’s ability to convey project status to stakeholders and to other concerned and responsible parties (especially those in the Congress and the Executive Branch). A new standardized approach would also include open bidding for the large and technologically challenging ground-based initiatives recommended by the decadal surveys. Such open competition for new national facilities would benefit the university community participants that could lead such projects, and the competition would optimize the scientific return on the investments made by NSF. The committee is hopeful that the current NSF self-review requested by the Office of Management and Budget and ongoing government oversight of NSF’s large project management can serve to improve the agency’s stewardship capabilities in this arena. However, NSF has to do a better job of openly communicating with the Congress about these 2 An example approaching the type of systematic process that the committee is describing is the process delineated in the NASA Strategic Management Handbook (“The Red Book,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 2000). It is available online at <http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/codez/plans/2000Handbook.pdf>.
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program large projects from their earliest conceptual stage, including placement in the Major Research Equipment account queue, through to completion of their scientific operation stage. The committee recognizes that it has posed some significant challenges to NSF: creating policies and structures for building a national optical and infrared observatory system that involves coordination with the private- and state-funded observatories; sharing costs and authority with astronomical institutions in foreign countries; and negotiating with NASA and other federal agencies over investment strategies. NSF must accomplish all of this with constrained budgets and many strong competing needs elsewhere in the science and engineering fields for which NSF has stewardship. Responding to these challenges will require the full support and attention of the National Science Board to policy-level planning and oversight of large astronomy projects, possibly to a greater degree than has been customary. The Implications of Concentrating All Astronomy and Astrophysics Activity in a Single Agency NASA and NSF have quite distinct cultures, strengths, and missions, and each contributes distinctively to society. Their diverse approaches add to the vitality of the overall U.S. astronomical and astrophysical research effort. While developing an integrated plan might be easier within a single agency, denying NSF a key independent role in astronomy and astrophysics would seriously weaken the intellectual roots of the discipline and undermine support for the combination of teaching with research that is essential to educating the nation’s future scientists. This is too high a price to pay for concentration of astronomy and astrophysics in a single agency. In addition, many NASA space missions had their conceptual origins in university research, and the workforce that carries out all aspects of these missions was trained mainly at these universities. NASA’s science productivity would be one of the major casualties if the creativity of university research in astronomy and astrophysics were reduced by a diminished role for NSF. The Benefits of an Integrated Multiagency Strategy of Research Support A balanced, integrated strategy for all U.S. astronomy and astrophysics can result in an optimally effective program for the nation. Given the fact that a new coordination and planning process is called for that should bring together all of the federal supporters of astronomy and astrophysics for the first time, the committee believes that the Office of Science and
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget are the proper government entities to supervise the establishment of such a process. They have the necessary government-wide perspective, and they can serve as honest brokers in assisting the agencies to come together. Furthermore such a role is quite consistent with their charters. An integrated strategy that is (1) rooted in NSF and NASA with the participation of other relevant federal agencies, (2) supervised and approved by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and (3) endorsed by the Congress can result in an optimally effective program for the nation. Currently, there is no national organizational structure charged with formulating an integrated program of space-based and ground-based science and providing the necessary scientific, engineering, and fiscal guidance. The decadal survey provides only a point of departure for such a national strategic plan. An important advantage of an integrated approach is that it would provide a more focused path to the construction and operation of joint projects, whether national or international. An integrated program also provides the best context within which the national agencies can work to ensure that the United States enters and sustains its international collaborations with a clear scientific purpose and a well-considered technical and administrative approach. RECOMMENDATIONS The foregoing findings led the committee to make the following recommendations. The National Science Foundation’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities should not be transferred to NASA. In order to maximize the scientific returns, the federal government should develop a single integrated strategy for astronomy and astrophysics research that includes supporting facilities and missions on the ground and in space. To help bring about an integration of ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget should take the initiative to establish an interagency planning board for astronomy and astrophysics. Input to the planning board from the scientific and engineering community should be provided by a joint advisory committee of outside experts that is well connected to the advisory structures within each agency. The recommended interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program Planning Board, with a neutral and independent chair to be designated by the Office of Management and Budget in conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should consist of representatives of NASA, NSF, the Department of Energy, and other appropriate federal agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Defense. The Planning Board should coordinate the relevant research activities of the member agencies and should prepare and annually update an integrated strategic plan for research in astronomy and astrophysics, addressing the priorities of the most current National Research Council decadal survey of the field in the context of tight discretionary budgets. The membership of the Planning Board’s advisory committee should be drawn in part from the external advisory panels of the Planning Board’s member agencies. The advisory committee should be chaired by an individual who is neither a member of the agency advisory panels nor an agency employee. The committee should participate in the development of the integrated strategic plan and in the periodic review of its implementation. NASA and NSF should each put in place formal mechanisms for implementing recommendations of the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Planning Board and integrating those recommendations into their respective strategic plans for astronomy and astrophysics. Both agencies should make changes, as outlined below, in order to pursue effective roles in formulating and executing an integrated federal program for astronomy and astrophysics. These changes should be coordinated through the interagency Planning Board to clarify the responsibilities and strategies of the individual member agencies. The NSF, with the active participation of the National Science Board, should: Develop and implement its own strategic plan, taking into account the recommendations of the interagency Planning Board. Its strategic plan should be formulated in an open and transparent fashion and should have concrete objectives and time lines. NSF should manage its program in astronomy and astrophysics to that plan, ensuring the participation of scientifically relevant divisions and offices within NSF. To help generate this plan, NSF should reestablish a federally chartered advisory committee for its Astronomical Sciences Division to ensure parity with the NASA advisory structure. The chair of this Astronomical
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program Sciences Division advisory committee should be a member of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate advisory committee. Furthermore, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate advisory committee should make regular written and oral reports of its key findings and recommendations to the National Science Board. Address the outstanding issues that are affecting ground-based astronomy at present. Lead the development of an integrated strategy for assembling the resources needed to build and operate the challenging suite of ground-based initiatives recommended by the most current decadal survey. Work to create an integrated system for ground-based optical/infrared astronomy and astrophysics encompassing private, state, and federally funded observatories, as advocated by the decadal survey. Improve and systematize the process for initiating, constructing, managing, and using ground-based facilities, so that it includes: clear lines of authority for negotiations, particularly those involving international partners, an open bidding process for contracts, comprehensive budgeting that provides for all aspects and phases of projects, and provision of the resources required to exploit the scientific potential of the facilities, including associated instrumentation, theoretical work, data analysis, and travel. Undertake a more concerted and well-funded effort to inform the press and the general public of scientific discoveries, and cooperate with NASA in developing a coordinated public information program for astronomy and astrophysics. In parallel, NASA should: Implement operational plans to provide continuity of support for the talent base in astronomy and astrophysics should critical space missions suffer failure or be terminated. Continue and enlarge its program of research support for proposals from individual principal investigators that are not necessarily tied to the goals of specific missions. Support critical ground-based facilities and scientifically enabling precursor and follow-up observations that are essential to the success of space missions. Decisions on such support
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U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program should be considered in the context of the scientific goals articulated in the integrated research plan for astronomy and astrophysics. Cooperate with NSF in developing a coordinated public information program for astronomy and astrophysics.
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