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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH Executive Summary As the result of a study to address questions about trends in and the current state of federal funding for the field of astronomy, the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) developed the following four principal findings in response to the charge outlined in the Preface: Finding 1. There has been a dramatic shift in the source of the funding for individual research grants in astronomy, with the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) share falling from 60 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to 30 percent at the end of the 1990s. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) share of the grant funding has risen commensurately. The continuing growth in funding for astronomy in the 1980s and 1990s has been largely the result of the success of NASA's space science program, in particular the launch of NASA's Great Observatories and several midsized facility-class satellites. Another important factor in the growth in funding for astronomy has been a large influx of private funding (from foundations and universities) for the construction of ground-based telescopes. Finding 2. The overall level of federal support for astronomy remains strong, but shifts in funding patterns, with NSF supplying a declining percentage of grant funding relative to NASA, have the potential to create imbalances that could be detrimental to the overall health of the field. For example, funding for broad-based astrophysical theory has not kept pace with the growth in funding for astronomical research overall. With NSF's relative role in astronomy continuing to shrink, the subfields that depend primarily on NSF funding are vulnerable. Over the past 15 years, there has been essentially no significant change in the annual budget of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences. As a consequence, the fraction of support for the U.S. astronomy enterprise provided by NSF has declined. This trend substantially affects the grants programs, since the number of astronomers has increased over the same 15-year period by more than 40 percent. Increases in NASA funding have taken up the shortfall in some areas such as optical and infrared astronomy; however, an increasing emphasis on mission-oriented support has created vulnerabilities in those subfields for which NASA support is not readily available, such as broad-based theory, computational astrophysics, and radio astronomy, where some erosion in grant funding already is evident. The committee was unable to produce an exhaustive list of vulnerable research areas but suggests that funding balance across subfields of astronomy is an important issue that requires further study. Finding 3. Although the number, size, and capability of ground-based observing facilities, both public and private, have increased considerably, there has been no commensurate increase in NSF funds for utilizing these facilities (i.e., for instrumentation, individual research grants, or theory). Rapid growth and change create problems of adjustment. Funding for utilization of both ground-and space-based astronomical facilities remains an important issue. There are some fields of astronomy in which support has not been adequate to exploit the dramatic scientific discoveries of the last decade or to pursue the opportunities offered by the explosion in scientific capabilities. For instance, ground-based facilities have grown in number and scope with the completed, or soon to be built, large, private- and
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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH state-funded ground-based telescopes and with NSF initiatives that include the Green Bank Telescope, the Gemini telescopes, the Arecibo telescope upgrade, and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA/MMA). Yet funding for instrumentation, theory, and observer grants at NSF has not kept pace with support for construction. Facility instrumentation for major new telescopes is a clear need for the foreseeable future in response to the leaps in technical capabilities and the large increase in telescope collecting area. Training of instrumentalists for both ground- and space-based facilities is also an outstanding need. Finding 4. As a result of NASA's increased role in astronomical research funding, a large portion of the total support is tied to a few flagship space missions. NASA is a mission agency whose program is strongly focused on initiating and launching space-based instruments. Funding for operations and research accompanies each mission. This paradigm has been extremely effective in maximizing the scientific return from these missions. However, the worrisome corollary of this arrangement is the potential for premature termination of the research support associated with a mission in the event of a catastrophic mission failure. Although NASA has a strategic planning process that is quite effective in engineering smooth transitions from one mission to another, there appears to be little explicit planning for unexpected or premature mission termination. If a centerpiece astronomical research mission in space were to fail at a time when follow-on missions were far in the future, the impacts would include not only the loss of a major observational tool, but also the premature termination of the stream of research data and the flow of funds to analyze the data. Because analyzing the data from such major missions is the work of a significant fraction of the astronomy and astrophysics research community, the personnel impact could be substantial, which could in turn dampen the community 's ability to help plan for, and utilize, future missions. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) grants program accounts for roughly 25 percent of all individual investigator funding in astronomy. It supports researchers at all levels, including students and postdoctoral fellows. In the event of an HST failure, the additional loss of jobs directly associated with the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center would be substantial, not to mention the loss of a primary scientific capability. Recovery of the scientific personnel complement and the nation's astronomical research capability from such a catastrophe would be slow. Most important is that a significant fraction of the support for the youngest members of the field comes from such missions. The impact on the youngest astronomers, such as those supported by Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, Hubble, and Chandra fellowships and those supported by the research and analysis (R&A) funds for such missions, would be disproportionately large and would significantly affect the future of the field. The committee's four findings have led it to suggest that the following proposition be considered in future assessments of the field: plans for future facility construction, both ground and space based, should be accompanied by a strategy to accomplish the scientific mission, including provision of instrumentation for ground-based telescopes, support for observations, and funds for the necessary and relevant astrophysical theory. The strategy should address the following objectives: Ensuring continuity of research in critical subfields in the event that major facilities are lost or significantly delayed; Developing new instrumentation for both space- and ground-based facilities; Training instrumentalists; Optimizing the distribution of spending on hardware and personnel; and Maintaining flexibility to respond to changes in the directions of research in astronomy and astrophysics.
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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH In conclusion, the committee found the field of astronomy in the United States to be in generally good health. The United States still leads the field. New discoveries continue to be made at a quickening pace. Observational capability continues to grow rapidly with the construction and deployment of ground- and space-based instruments of remarkable power. There is strong public interest in astronomy. However, the dramatic shift in the majority of research grant support from NSF to NASA over the past two decades has led to a system in which the funding for subfields that cannot rely on NASA support has eroded somewhat and the funding for the field as a whole is vulnerable to the unexpected termination of a major NASA mission.
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