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FYI Number 8: January 24, 2002

OSTP Director Marburger Discusses Astronomy, Physics, and the Budget

"I want to state clearly at this point that, despite its apparent impracticality, the administration values discovery-oriented science, and aims to continue to support the grand quest for knowledge about the universe at the largest and the smallest scales." - John Marburger

Earlier this month John Marburger, the President's Science Adviser and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, addressed the American Astronomical Society. Marburger discussed astronomy and physics and the relationship between them, priority-setting, sound management, and the FY 2003 budget request. Selections from his address follow:

"During most of the second half of the past century, federal support for science was strongly influenced by the conditions of the Cold War. The physical sciences, in particular, achieved immense prestige during World War II, and seem to have been regarded through the entire Cold War period as indispensable to national security. Congress tried to make the link more explicit with the 'Mansfield Amendment' in 1969, which required the Department of Defense to limit its support to research that had 'a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation.' The dual missions of basic research and national security inherited by the Atomic Energy Commission laboratories, and subsequently by the Department of Energy, also reinforced the link between physical science and security issues. But when the Cold War came to an end in 1991, many political observers, and Congress as well, began to question the assumptions underlying support for basic science. It was clear at the time that science, and particularly what I call discovery-oriented science, would have to make a new case for continued federal support that relied less heavily than in the past upon its military or national defense application."

". . . [I]t seems to me that the process of re-evaluation that began a decade ago has matured, and that we are entering its later stages. It is particularly important for the astronomy community to be aware of this evolving state of affairs, because many people view astronomy as having even less relevance to societal needs than particle physics. The fact that astronomy seems to be converging with particle physics encourages us to compare the fields and assess their joint prospects."

"I want to state clearly at this point that, despite its apparent impracticality, the administration values discovery-oriented science, and aims to continue to support the grand quest for knowledge about the universe at the largest and the smallest scales. But it also understands that the same technology that makes this quest so exciting today has created unprecedented opportunities for nearly every other field of science. Advances in instrumentation and computing power have given us control of matter at the atomic level, which has staggering consequences for life science and materials science, and for their applications to medicine and nanotechnology. These advances have opened access to a new scientific territory which is best described as the frontier of complexity. Our nation cannot fail to take advantage of the leadership at this frontier that previous investments in basic science have made possible.

"In view of this embarrassment of scientific riches, the processes of choice are paramount. Pushing back the ubiquitous frontier of complexity costs considerably less than similar progress at the receding frontiers of the large and the small. Consequently those who rely on big facilities like particle accelerators and space-borne telescopes bear a heavy responsibility to choose carefully, manage wisely, and maximize the quotient of discovery versus dollars.

"Both particle physics and astronomy do in fact have excellent planning and prioritization processes. The recent 'Decadal Survey' of astronomy and astrophysics sets forth a vision of 'Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium' that includes clear priorities and rationales for future projects. The forthcoming report of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel subpanel on long range planning similarly promises to lay out priorities and a 'roadmap' to future discovery. Moreover HEPAP guides program planning in both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, as does the comparable advisory committee for nuclear physics. Such cross agency planning and coordination is increasingly important for astronomy and astrophysics as well, as the programs of NASA and NSF bear increasingly on the same science. The coordinated management of these fields has been a matter of concern to the administration, but I believe satisfactory new mechanisms can be developed that will address the issues. The success of HEPAP and NSAC in coordinating their fields across agencies suggests that a similar National Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee can, and should, help to optimize programs within NASA and NSF.

"Both fields are also becoming increasingly international. Teams building and operating the great detectors at national accelerator facilities have always had strong international collaborations. The United States is participating in the construction of CERN's Large Hadron Collider as well as in its ATLAS detector. Future accelerator projects will be of such large scale that international cooperation will be essential. Many examples also exist of international cooperation in astronomy, both for space-based and ground-based observations. This administration values international collaborations that serve the mutual interests of the partners, and are based on sound approaches to the management of their work.

"Strong management is essential to the successful completion and operation of large facilities as well as to the effective utilization of funds for smaller programs. This administration strongly emphasizes good management for all Federal agencies, and The President's Management Agenda will be applied to science as well as to other federally funded operations. The Agenda includes the principle that performance is an important basis for funding allocations, which implies that measures of performance are essential ingredients in the budget process. Some investigators have expressed alarm at the idea of measuring basic research performance, but I believe it is an inevitable as well as an essential aspect of the post-Cold War relation between science and the federal government. In view of its long history of making difficult choices, the astronomy community could provide leadership to other fields in making its criteria for choice explicit."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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