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FYI Number 55: April 23, 2001

Blue Ribbon Committee Formed on Management of Astronomy Research

Based on a recommendation by the Bush Administration, the National Research Council has formed a new committee to look into the possibility of transferring to NASA the astronomy responsibilities currently managed by NSF. The Committee on Organization and Management of Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics (COMRAA) will consider this and other options, and is expected to release its report by September 1, 2001.

As described in FYI #24, the President's March 1 budget blueprint suggested that "now is the time to assess the Federal Government's management and organization of astronomical research." The document called for NSF and NASA to establish "a Blue Ribbon Panel to assess the organizational effectiveness of Federal support of astronomical sciences and, specifically, the pros and cons of transferring NSF's astronomy responsibilities to NASA. The panel may also develop alternative options."

A provisional membership list for the committee is now available. It would be chaired by the former head of Lockheed Martin, Norman Augustine. The other provisional members of COMRAA are: Lewis Branscomb, Harvard University; D. Allan Bromley, Yale University; Claude Canizares, MIT; Sandra Faber, U.C. Santa Cruz; Robert Gehrz, University of Minnesota; Philip Goode, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Burton Richter, Stanford University; Anneila Sargent, Caltech; Frank Shu, U.C. Berkeley; Maxine Singer, Carnegie Institute of Washington; and Robert Williams, Space Telescope Science Institute. The committee's mission will be to "assess the organizational effectiveness of Federal support of astronomical sciences; discuss the advantages and disadvantages of transferring NSF's astronomy responsibilities to NASA; [and] consider other options for addressing the management and organizational issues identified by the committee and by recent NRC reports."

The committee's web site identifies two recent NRC documents addressing the status of U.S. astronomy: Federal Funding for Research in Astronomy (the FFAR report), and Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium (the AASC report). According to the web site, "the FFAR report found that over the last decade, the balance of support has shifted toward NASA. NSF's share of support for grants has fallen from 60 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to 30 percent at the end of the 1990s." Both reports raised concerns that a large portion of total astronomy funding supports a small number of NASA space missions, and that NSF has a tendency to underinvest in research and analysis that would capitalize on the capabilities of new facilities.

The committee plans to hold four meetings before its final report is due on September 1. Public comment will be accepted at the second meeting, scheduled for June 13-14 at the National Research Council (NRC) in Washington, D.C.

COMRAA web site

Additional information is available on the American Astronomical Society web site

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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