The current distribution of activities and grants funding poses particular challenges for maintaining a workforce skilled in instrument and project development. Although properly funded programs for space and ground facilities often provide significant support for the training of new data analysts, the opportunities for training students in instrumentation have declined precipitously over the past 20 years. Training for the next generation of instrumentalists is most efficient when there is a steady-state hierarchy of project sizes, so that people can progress from relatively smaller, simpler, and faster projects to responsibilities in larger and more complex activities.
Despite existing NASA and NSF funding mechanisms that can support technology training, the data gathered by the survey’s Infrastructure Study Groups show that fewer than 5 percent of students recently receiving Ph.D.s from astronomy departments classify themselves as belonging to “instrumentation and methods” subfields. If there are to be enough young instrumentalists to spearhead the ambitious new instruments and facilities of the coming decade, more must be done within graduate astronomy programs to educate and train them. The growth of astrophysics research within physics departments can help in this regard.
Some of the input Astro2010 received in white papers submitted by the community discussed the need for increased emphasis on instrumentation within U.S. astronomy and astrophysics Ph.D. programs. It is important that universities recognize the value of skilled instrumentalists, and that they continue to provide opportunities for early-career training. Further, the scientific community must value the intellectual contributions of instrumentalists as an integral part of the astrophysics endeavor.
The Explorer program, which develops small and mid-size missions on timescales of a few years, is a crown jewel of NASA space science. Its tremendous scientific productivity results from the selection and implementation of focused scientific investigations enabling rapid response to new discoveries. For example, among the astrophysics Explorers, the WMAP Medium-scale Explorer (MIDEX) mission capitalized on the discovery made by a previous Explorer, COBE, that the microwave background has measurable fluctuations. Launched just 5 years after the COBE results were published, WMAP demonstrated that precise information about the early universe is imprinted on these minute fluctuations, leading to greater understanding of the age, geometry, and content of the universe; the papers based on WMAP data are the among the most highly cited in all of astrophysics. The Swift gamma-ray burst (GRB) MIDEX was launched just 7 years after the discovery that GRBs—bright, few-seconds-long, high-energy pulses from the cosmos—are accompanied by long-lived afterglows extending down to radio wavelengths. These