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FYI Number 114: September 5, 2001

NRC Committee Recommends Separate NSF, NASA Astronomy Programs

NRC Committee Recommends Separate NSF, NASA Astronomy Programs "The National Science Foundation's astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities should not be transferred to NASA," an NRC committee recommended in a report issued today. Rather, the committee favors the establishment of an interagency planning board for the development of a "single integrated strategy" for the research supported by both agencies.

These conclusions were reached by an eleven-member committee chaired by Norman Augustine that convened in June. The committee held three meetings during which it received testimony from 30 individuals. The American Astronomical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics) facilitated the transmittal of hundreds of comments that were reviewed by the committee.

The catalyst for this examination of NSF and NASA's astronomical and astrophysics program was a three-sentence paragraph in President Bush's "Budget Blueprint" released in March. Declaring that "now is the time to assess the federal government's management and organization of astronomical research," it called for a panel to review the advantages and disadvantages of transferring NSF's astronomy responsibilities to NASA.

The NRC committee lauded both agencies for the support that they have provided for profound ground- and space-based discoveries during the last decade. The report reviewed previous and potential management and funding concerns about the programs. Among them were inadequate coordination and the lack of coherent planning between NSF and NASA, insufficient coordination with non-federal programs, the lack of a coordinating program with international programs, perceived or actual concerns about NSF management and funding practices for major projects, "the perceived imbalance between support for space-based and ground-based astronomy," and "the growing vulnerability of the astronomy and astrophysics research talent base to disruption caused by the failure of a major space mission."

"Responding to each challenge will require a coordinated approach combining the strengths and resources of all three major astrophysics-related agencies - NSF, NASA, and DOE - as well as other participants" the committee concluded. It recommends the establishment of an interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Planning Board. Its neutral and independent chair would be selected by the Office of Management and Budget in conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Board would have representatives from NASA, NSF, DOE, and other agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution and DoD. Drawing on the NRC astronomical decadal surveys, the Board would prepare an integrated strategic plan and coordinate research among the participants. The report cites as examples three White House coordination programs for oceanographic, information technology, and climate research. This and other recommendations have the unanimous endorsement of the Committee members. Merging the two programs, the Committee concluded, "would have a net disruptive effect on scientific work."

The 63-page report can be accessed as a prepublication manuscript at this National Academies site.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3095


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