House Science Hearing Looks to Future of Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Astrobiology

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Publication date: 
15 July 2016

Leaders in astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology received a warm welcome at a joint subcommittee hearing this week. The witnesses fielded a wide range of questions, including on how new projects are prioritized and funded, how the scientific workforce is being developed and diversified, and the search for extraterrestrial life.

On July 12 the House Subcommittees on Space and on Research and Technology held a joint hearing to explore progress in astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. Witnesses represented NASA’s Astrophysics Division, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), the privately funded Breakthrough Listen initiative, and the American Astronomical Society, an AIP Member Society.

Committee members and witnesses uniformly praised recent scientific breakthroughs and the strong public interest they sparked, and looked forward to the future of “multi-messenger astronomy,” interweaving observations of photons, neutrinos, cosmic rays, and gravitational waves. In his opening statement, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee, reflected, “Recently, we have seen amazing discoveries of planets outside our solar system and the detection of gravitational waves. This is just the beginning.”

Questions to witnesses covered a range of subjects, including cosmology, the role of citizen science, near-Earth object tracking, international collaboration and competition, and project management. Committee members also expressed interest in the fate of the Arecibo Observatory, but Jim Ulvestad, director of the NSF Astronomical Sciences Division, had no news to report. Sustained discussions revolved around the decadal survey process of project prioritization, the development of the scientific workforce, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Admiration expressed for decadal surveys

Committee members showed bipartisan support for the National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey as a means of allocating budgets among projects. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) noted that the Hubble Space Telescope and the exoplanet-hunting Kepler mission had, in their early histories, been singled out for “the chopping blocks here in the Congress.” She asked witnesses to comment on the importance of the survey process and of standing by its recommendations in the face of setbacks.

Angela Olinto, University of Chicago professor and AAAC chairwoman, replied:

I am very proud of that process, so much so that my project in the last decadal survey was ranked number four in one panel and didn’t make it to the end—so I got to be chopped. And I still think this is the right process. I think we need to always prioritize based on the available resources and also the available technology to be able to be always successful. We don’t want to waste anybody’s money.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, agreed, noting the process’s importance in NASA’s mission planning:

By following the decadal survey, we are assured that we are realizing the highest priorities of the science community in addressing the broadest possible range of science.

Edwards then asked Ulvestad to discuss challenges involved in predicting future budgetary requirements. Ulvestad noted that the 2010 Decadal Survey had already provided flexibility in responding to the constrained budgetary environment following the 2008 financial crisis, observing:

A really important part of the decadal surveys is that they not give us a laundry list, but that they give us priorities. That way we’re able to adjust to circumstances that are not exactly what they assumed. Decadal surveys should always be aspirational.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) predicted that lawmakers would continue to respect the process: “In the committee we will certainly continue to follow the recommendations of the decadal survey.”

Community strong, but grant funding and diversity are problems

Committee and panel members paid significant attention to the size, capabilities, and diversity of the astrophysical sciences workforce. In response to a question from Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) about the present and future state of the astronomy and astrophysics community and its facilities, Olinto remarked, “It’s really wonderful times, and the number of students and interest is just growing.” However, she stressed that the funding requirements for large facilities along with flat budgets are affecting the funding available for grants and mid-scale programs, which, she pointed out, is “where the new ideas and the new people get formed.”

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) followed up on this point, asking about the consequences of lower success rates of project proposals. Olinto replied,

It’s difficult in many respects, especially because [the success rate] used to be 30 percent and now it’s 20. … Folks that had support stop having support, and new folks coming in will then have to fight even harder.

As a consequence, she explained, even many top-rated proposals are rejected, leaving no funding for ones that were strong but somewhat riskier. “And that’s not how science should be done,” Olinto urged. “We should really gain from a little bit of high-risk investment.” She suggested that, traditionally, 30 percent acceptance rates were “a very healthy way to keep excellent and very good science.”

NSF/AST Awards and Success Rate by Fiscal YearTonko also asked about the position of women and underrepresented minorities in astronomy and astrophysics. Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory astrophysicist Christine Jones, the president of AAS, replied, “The numbers are growing but the numbers are still very small. Having three of us here [on the panel] does not represent that there are a large number of women in astronomy.”

Jones and Ulvestad reported that gender disparities are decreasing, especially at the undergraduate level, and that there has been less success in increasing the number of students from minority groups. Both pointed to the importance of NSF student programs for fostering diversity. Ulvestad remarked that engaging women and minority students before college, and sustaining their interest through graduate school, remains a problem.

Renewed interest in SETI, resources remain scarce

University of California San Diego professor Shelley Wright, representing the Breakthrough Listen initiative, fielded several questions on SETI research. In her opening statement, she noted that the field of astrobiology was undergoing a “dramatic paradigm shift,” with the discovery of exoplanets and abundant interstellar organic molecules, and with the expansion of the search to additional wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. While lamenting the lack of resources dedicated to the field, she expressed optimism that “former concerns about the value of SETI research no longer apply.”

Lucas did show some skepticism about the field, but Smith expressed enthusiasm, calling the detection of optical-wavelength transmissions from other worlds “one of the most promising fields of discovery right now.” When Smith asked Hertz about the subject, Hertz deferred, indicating NASA did no work in the area. “I regret NASA is not pursuing it,” Smith replied.

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