FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Important Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Study Underway

Richard M. Jones
Number 116 - December 11, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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An important astronomy and astrophysics study was launched last week that will guide the decisions of Washington policymakers for many years. "Astro2010" will survey and prioritize ground-based and space-based astronomy and astrophysics scientific and technical activities for the period of 2010-2020.

The decadal survey is organized under the auspices of the National Research Council's Board on Physics and Astronomy, in cooperation with the Space Studies Board. The Committee on Astro2010 that will perform this survey has 25 members drawn from academia, industry, and federal research agencies and labs is chaired by Roger D. Blandford of Stanford University. NRC staff includes Donald C. Shapero who is the Director of the Board on Physics and Astronomy, and Michael Moloney who is the Associate Director and the Astro2010 Study Director. Support for this study is provided by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy.

The committee's first of five meetings was in Washington last week. The next event for the committee will be an invited talk and town hall meeting on January 6 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society ( AAS President John Huchra is a member of the committee.) Other meetings will be held in Irvine CA and Denver in January and May.

A "Statement of Task and Scope as Agreed With Sponsors" was distributed at the Washington meeting. The Statement of Task follows:

"The Astro2010 committee will survey the field of space- and ground-based astronomy and astrophysics, recommending priorities for the most important scientific and technical activities of the decade 2010-2020.

"The principal goals of the study will be to carry out an assessment of activities in astronomy and astrophysics, including both new and previously identified concepts, and to prepare a concise report that will be addressed to the agencies supporting the field, the Congressional committees with jurisdiction over those agencies, and the scientific community."

A description of the survey's scope and its approach, including an outline of how the committee will prioritize projects, is available at the committee's website.

At last week's open session of the meeting committee chair Blandford briefly outlined the three subcommittees - Science Frontiers, State of the Profession, and Program Prioritization - and various panels under these subcommittees. The committee will finalize its report in early 2010, and after a review, release it by the summer of that year.

The committee heard from representatives of NASA, NSF, DOE, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, and the House Science and Technology Committee. As expected, many of the presentations revolved around funding, with two speakers explaining that they would need to meet with the committee in a few months following the conclusion of the FY 2009 appropriations cycle and after the incoming Obama Administration sets forth its funding plans. In general, the committee was urged to use a flat budget trajectory as a baseline, with perhaps an annual increase of a few percentage points under a second trajectory for NASA. One speaker later cautioned that it should not be assumed that funding for astronomical research at NSF will necessarily double. The importance of the wise stewardship of taxpayers' money was emphasized, as was the need to demonstrate the value of programs to taxpayers. Also noted was the need for international support for some projects. Speakers told the committee that the incoming Obama Administration had not made known its plans or priorities for the FY 2010 budget request, although that is expected to begin to change before long. The Obama Administration will submit what was called a "budget blueprint" in early February that will show only the total amount that is being requested for each agency or department. In mid-April, after the new Administration settles in, a much more comprehensive budget plan will be submitted to Congress.

Regarding the decadal survey, the committee was urged by the speakers to "as clearly as possible to articulate a shopping list." The committee should "show your work" using "evidence-based arguments" in developing its priorities. All of the speakers spoke of the importance of the previous decadal study.

A review of previous issues of FYI for this year demonstrates the visibility of the decadal surveys. In remarks to the January 2008 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin cited decadal surveys several times, and looked ahead to the next survey, noting "I recommend that in future Decadal Surveys, the community should prioritize the science and missions from previous Surveys that have not yet entered development against each other, and against any new initiatives, and include cost 'trip wires' for missions, so that if they grow above a certain threshold, the mission priority order would be revisited" (more.) Griffin also discussed decadal surveys in his testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee (more) and the committee's report recommending FY 2009 NASA funding also cited various decadal surveys (more.) The new decadal survey was discussed at a July meeting of NASA's Astrophysics Committee (more.) Also of note is the inclusion of language in the NASA Authorization Bill that was enacted into law earlier this year (more.)

Information on Astro2010, including a committee roster and staff directory can be found at the the Board on Physics and Astronomy's website.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095