In gathering data on research trends, the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics found U.S. astronomy 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.
The principal findings of the committee are as follows:
Finding 1. There has been a dramatic shift in the funding for individual research grants in astronomy, with NSF's share falling from 60 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to 30 percent at the end of the 1990s. NASA's share of the grant funding has risen commensurately.
The continuing growth in funding for the astronomy enterprise in the 1980s and 1990s has been largely the result of the success of the NASA space science program, in particular the launch of NASA 's Great Observatories and several midsized facility-class satellites. At the beginning of the 1980s, the 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. Another important factor in the growth in funding for the astronomy enterprise has been a large influx of private funding 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. The running three-year average annual budget of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences declined (by about 5 percent) from 1990 to 1999. This decline affects both the grants programs, since the number of astronomers increased over this 9-year period by 15 percent, and the facilities and instrumentation program. Increases in NASA funding have taken up the shortfall in some areas such as optical and infrared astronomy; however, the shift in balance toward mission-oriented support has created vulnerabilities in 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 is already 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-based and space-based astronomical facilities remains an important issue. In some fields of astronomy,
support has not been adequate to exploit the dramatic scientific discoveries of the last decade or to pursue the opportunities made available by the explosion in scientific capabilities. For instance, the number and scope of ground-based facilities have grown with the development and construction of large, private and state-funded ground-based telescopes and with NSF initiatives that include the GBT, the Gemini telescopes, the Arecibo telescope upgrade, and 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 is also an outstanding need, for both ground-based and space-based facilities.
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, and its 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.
In the event of failure of a centerpiece astronomical research mission in space at a time when follow-on missions remain far in the future, there is a potential for a major impact on astronomical research. The impact would follow not only from the loss of a major observational tool, but also from 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 occupies 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 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. The additional loss of jobs directly associated with STScI and GSFC resulting from an HST failure 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 CGRO, Hubble, and Chandra fellowships and those supported by the R&A funds for such missions, would be disproportionately large and would significantly affect the future of the field.
Based on the results of this study, the committee suggests that the following proposition be considered in future assessments of the field: plans for future facility construction, both ground based 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 include contingencies for ensuring the continuity of research in critical subfields in the event that major facilities are lost or significantly delayed. It should also include sufficient funding for the training of instrumentalists and for the development of new instrumentation for both space- and ground-based observations. It is necessary to balance the spending on hardware and research personnel, and to keep the mix of people suitable to the directions of growth in the field. The overall goal of both NSF and NASA for astronomy must be to maximize the scientific return by making investments in a balanced program.
Better and more stable accounting and record-keeping processes would enable long-term demographic and policy studies and would also facilitate coordinated stewardship of astronomy and
astrophysics. NASA and NSF should continue to improve cooperation to ensure that critical areas are not neglected and to maximize the nation's scientific return from areas of overlapping agency interest.
The NRC report Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998) highlighted another problem at NASA. NASA currently groups data analysis and missions operations, two very different categories, into a single budget item. Mission operations (MO) involve a team of engineers maintaining and operating a satellite. Data analysis (DA) funds support scientists using the mission data to answer scientific questions. Because the MO and DA numbers are commingled in the NASA budget, the committee found it impossible to track the level of science support at NASA. The committee strongly encourages NASA to separate these two items. Treating the two separately would enable both NASA and outside groups to better evaluate and optimize programs.
One possible path for record keeping might be to use the system described in this report to categorize grants by field and discipline and by the overall categories of instrumentation, technology development, operations, individual investigator research, and construction. Agency databases with annualized grant figures properly categorized not only would help those trying to track changes in the field but also could supply input for broader science policy decision making. In this context, the committee also urges scientific societies to track membership demographics by collecting information directly from their members on discipline, field, and employment status and location.
In compiling the data for this report, the committee came across several areas, such as the study of the Shoemaker-Levy Jupiter collision, in which NASA and NSF cooperated on interesting and significant programs. NASA, DOE, and NSF should continue to improve such cooperation to ensure that critical areas are not neglected and to maximize the nation's scientific return from areas of overlapping agency interest. This includes intra-agency cooperation as well.