6

Discussion

Astronomy is now in a golden age, with scientifically important and newsworthy discoveries from innovative and new facilities occurring almost every week. There is extremely strong public interest in NASA 's Origins Program and in astronomical research in general. The amount of collecting area on large telescopes available to the U.S. community tripled in the last decade of the 20th century, and despite significant investments in astronomy on the part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Japan, the United States still comfortably leads the field. More is yet to come with the commissioning of another five to six new large ground-based telescopes, the recent launches of Chandra and FUSE, and early in this century, the launch of SIRTF and later in the decade NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST).

The charge to the committee encompasses three major questions:

  1. What have the trends been in basic research support in astronomy, for example, grant funding, growth in number of astronomers, proposal success rate, average grant size and duration, publication support citations, and other measures of research vitality?

  2. What are the trends in federally funded basic research support for astronomy, including support for theoretical astrophysics, and how is this support aligned with the availability of major observational facilities (including both ground-based and space-based observatories)?

  3. How vulnerable is the astronomical research community to unexpected setbacks, such as a catastrophic failure of the Hubble Space Telescope?

The committee was able to collect data on demographics, funding, and scientific output as measured by publications that bear directly on these three issues. It found generally that NASA funding overall remains healthy, providing the backbone of support in many critical fields. The NASA Long Term Space Astrophysics (LTSA) and Theory programs have provided a stable foundation of long-term astrophysics-driven support, to partly balance the mission-oriented approach of most NASA programs.

Demographic trends in astronomy remain very healthy in comparison with those in many other physical sciences. There is a steady infusion of new Ph.D.s, and graduate enrollments remain strong in the face of strong declines in physics.

6.1

BALANCE AMONG AGENCIES

Over the past two decades there has been a dramatic shift in the way astronomical research has been supported. At the start of the 1980s, NSF provided 60 percent of the federal support for individual research grants. By the end of the 1990s, NASA was providing 72 percent of the support for individual grants. Despite this significant funding shift toward a basically mission-oriented agency, the committee was unable to detect any dramatic changes in the distribution of the subfields of astronomy. Generally, the fraction of astronomers working in different subfields has not changed substantially, the fraction of



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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH 6 Discussion Astronomy is now in a golden age, with scientifically important and newsworthy discoveries from innovative and new facilities occurring almost every week. There is extremely strong public interest in NASA 's Origins Program and in astronomical research in general. The amount of collecting area on large telescopes available to the U.S. community tripled in the last decade of the 20th century, and despite significant investments in astronomy on the part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and Japan, the United States still comfortably leads the field. More is yet to come with the commissioning of another five to six new large ground-based telescopes, the recent launches of Chandra and FUSE, and early in this century, the launch of SIRTF and later in the decade NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST). The charge to the committee encompasses three major questions: What have the trends been in basic research support in astronomy, for example, grant funding, growth in number of astronomers, proposal success rate, average grant size and duration, publication support citations, and other measures of research vitality? What are the trends in federally funded basic research support for astronomy, including support for theoretical astrophysics, and how is this support aligned with the availability of major observational facilities (including both ground-based and space-based observatories)? How vulnerable is the astronomical research community to unexpected setbacks, such as a catastrophic failure of the Hubble Space Telescope? The committee was able to collect data on demographics, funding, and scientific output as measured by publications that bear directly on these three issues. It found generally that NASA funding overall remains healthy, providing the backbone of support in many critical fields. The NASA Long Term Space Astrophysics (LTSA) and Theory programs have provided a stable foundation of long-term astrophysics-driven support, to partly balance the mission-oriented approach of most NASA programs. Demographic trends in astronomy remain very healthy in comparison with those in many other physical sciences. There is a steady infusion of new Ph.D.s, and graduate enrollments remain strong in the face of strong declines in physics. 6.1 BALANCE AMONG AGENCIES Over the past two decades there has been a dramatic shift in the way astronomical research has been supported. At the start of the 1980s, NSF provided 60 percent of the federal support for individual research grants. By the end of the 1990s, NASA was providing 72 percent of the support for individual grants. Despite this significant funding shift toward a basically mission-oriented agency, the committee was unable to detect any dramatic changes in the distribution of the subfields of astronomy. Generally, the fraction of astronomers working in different subfields has not changed substantially, the fraction of

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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH papers published in each subfield has not changed dramatically, and the fraction of astronomers employed at universities, colleges, government labs, and FFRDCs has not changed significantly. The committee was surprised by the tremendous continuity of the field. Over the past 12 years there has been a dramatic growth in the fraction of journal publications funded by foreign agencies and written by foreign authors. This growth parallels the flourishing of Japanese and European astronomy. The Europeans and the Japanese have built several major observatories, including the European Very Large Telescope (VLT) and Subaru, and have launched several cutting-edge satellites. While American astronomy benefits from collaboration on foreign-led joint missions such as ROSAT, ASCA, and ISO, the U.S. effort will have to keep pace with this overseas growth if the United States is to maintain our world leadership role in astronomy. 6.2 GROUND-BASED OPTICAL FACILITIES The construction of large ground-based optical telescopes, primarily via private funds, has resulted in a large gap in the funding of the design, development, operation, and construction of instrumentation for these facilities. The 1995 NRC report A Strategy for Ground-Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy recommended a vigorous facility instrumentation program. This need continues. While NASA has always funded the analysis and interpretation of data obtained from space, NSF has not provided the necessary funds for this activity for ground-based astronomy. The fraction of NSF proposals that are funded has been dropping steadily and is now near 28 percent. Thus, while ground-based astronomers have excellent and increasing access to new telescopes, they often lack the funds for computers, travel, theoretical precursor and follow-on studies, and postdoctoral fellows to take proper advantage of this access. Increases in NASA observing grants have taken up some of the shortfall for general support but only indirectly address the problem. One possible solution is to adopt an approach similar to NASA's and identify in advance of the construction of telescopes and instruments the resources necessary to utilize them fully, including funds for theory and facility instruments. The recent wave of construction of new large telescopes summarized in Table 5.13 has been financed largely by private donations. Although NSF has no specific obligation to support the instrumentation of these new private facilities, the committee calls attention to the vulnerability of the U.S. research effort and leadership in ground-based astronomy if adequate funding for these instruments, whatever the source, is not raised and reemphasizes the findings of the NRC report A Strategy for Ground-Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy. 6.3 VULNERABILITIES The U.S. program in astronomy and astrophysics would be severely affected by the catastrophic failure of one of its premier observational facilities such as HST or Chandra. The consequences of a failure of HST, the current worst-case scenario in astronomy, are examined briefly here, and similar ramifications of the failure of Chandra are noted. Construction of HST began in 1977. Although it has been refurbished three times since being placed in orbit in 1990, many of its basic components date to the late 1970s. As HST continues to age, the chances for catastrophic failure increase. The recent failure of one of HST 's remaining gyroscopes is an example. Each HST space shuttle servicing mission is a risky operation. Although we all hope that HST can be operated to 2010, we must be prepared for an earlier failure.

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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH Premature failure of the HST would present a very major setback to the United States and international programs in astronomy and astrophysics. The research community would lose an extremely important research tool, and NASA would lose a mission that has played a major role in convincing the public that space research is interesting and exciting. In addition to these major losses, the funding implications for the U.S. astronomical community would be significant. The HST project provides guest observer funding to the astronomical community, which has averaged approximately $20 million per year from 1995 to 1998. Approximately another $10 million is provided to the HST guaranteed time observers (GTOs), who receive observing time for their efforts to build the HST focal plane instruments, and to the Hubble fellowship program. As can be seen from the preceding sections, HST GO and GTO funding currently represents approximately 30 percent of the total direct grant funding to the U.S. astronomical community. Much of this money funds the salaries of Ph.D. astronomers, graduate students, and institutional technical support staff. The HST program supports an average of 40 Hubble fellows per year and maintains the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The STScI has a staff of approximately 60 astronomers and 180 technical support personnel. A similar-sized staff for HST operations, although with fewer scientists, is at GSFC. The STScI is the site of the NASA UV/Optical data archive and has recently been designated by NASA as the supporting institute for the NGST. If HST were to fail, the rapid reduction of about 30 percent of U.S. small-grant funding, the loss of the Hubble fellowship program, and likely staff reductions at STScI and GSFC would severely damage the U.S. astronomical research community. 6.4 THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION Despite the tremendous growth of astronomical capabilities and the enormous public interest in astronomy, the fraction of NSF funding for astronomy has been flat. As a fraction of the total NSF budget, astronomy has declined slightly from about 6 percent in the 1970s to about 5 percent today. This funding must also support a growing number of new subfields (e.g., submillimeter and neutrino astronomy). NSF funding for astronomy just about kept pace with inflation despite the growth of the community. Although NASA funding has increased and astronomy as a whole appears to be robust, the subfields in which NASA support is generally not available do show some decline (e.g., the fraction of active U.S. astronomers who are radio astronomers). 6.5 RECORD KEEPING In preparing this report, one final issue became clear to the committee. This study, as well as the recent Space Studies Board (SSB) study of the NASA R&A program (Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998), was somewhat hampered by the difficulty in obtaining adequate information from the agencies. This problem is manifested in several ways. First, records often have not been kept in a manner that would allow easy access. Although the “top-down” records of agency funding are available from various statistical abstracts of federal funding, records broken down by discipline or even records of individual grants are difficult to obtain. This is often due to the fact that one agency (NASA in particular) may fund investigators and developers in many different ways: direct contracts and grants from the agency, grants and contracts administered by NASA centers, and grants administered by affiliated agencies and subcontractors such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and STScI. Each

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FEDERAL FUNDING OF ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH program has separate record-keeping procedures and formats, and there is no central depository for information agencywide. A related problem is the changing of accounting procedures and practices. Over the period considered in this study (1987-1997), NASA restructuring has resulted in similar programs falling into two or even three different program areas or offices. There is no uniform procedure for classifying grants and contracts, even in agencies where record keeping for individual grants has been relatively good. To be fair, some of the perceived problem is the result of improvements in computer and database technology —there were slightly higher standards for accountability and data tracking in 1998 than there were in 1985. However, the committee believes that understanding long-term trends in support is beneficial to the agencies and the Congress and that this area needs improvement in the development of a common classification scheme for contracts and grants, in the centralized collection of such information when that has not been done, and in the inclusion of data from at least eight years ago in the agencies' funding databases. A key part of such a program would be to ensure that changes in agency management structure do not inhibit the ability to track funding for subdisciplines in astronomy and other fields.