US astronomy crumbling ?

October 25, 2011

Many of us were rather perturbed to receive the latest edition of the NOAO newsletter, NOAO Currents, warning the community that KPNO or even CTIO as well might be forced into closure by the dire state of the NSF budget. They have started a community discussion. UK readers should bear in mind that unlike our situation, the operation and the funding is from two separate bodies (AURA and NSF) so the psycho-dynamics of lobbying is a little different.

NSF is indeed in a tight spot, as described in the talk by Jim Ulvestad at a recent meeting of the NSF A&A advisory committee. The Decadal Survey (aka NWNH) assumed 3% growth but actually NSF astro is taking a 4% cut this year. NSF as a whole is roughly flat cash The OMB is asking all agencies for 5-10% cuts next year. The current top priority is making a success of ALMA; the top priority new start, LSST, probably won’t have the funding faucet turned on until 2015; and whichever is chosen out of TMT and GMT won’t get NSF money until at least 2020. Jim doesn’t say “we will have to trash Kitt Peak” but NOAO ain’t stupid and are getting their groundswell started early.

I heard a rumour of a rumour that NSF are punishing astronomy because their budget cut was caused by the Senate putting JWST back in to the budget. But I don’t think this is correct. The NSF asked for $7.8bn; the House bill gave them NSF $6.9bn; the Senate bill gave them $6.7bn. So they are both suggesting fierce cuts regardless of the JWST thing. Maybe some US reader can explain how the reconciliation happens, but presumably they will end up with 6.8bn or thereabouts.

To fill in the picture, the House bill gave JWST zilch, and the Senate bill gave them $593M this year, with a capped total of $8.7bn. In that Senate bill, total NASA science is 5.1bn – thats Earth Sci 1.76; Planetary 1.50; Astrophysics 0.68; JWST 0.53; Heliophysics 0.62. The astro 680M includes HST at 98.3M, SOFIA at 84M, and NUSTAR at 11.9M. Interestingly, it looks like JWST hasn’t particularly damaged the rest of NASA astrophysics that much. The hit has come in other NASA programs. NASA as a whole is given $17.9bn, half a billion down from last year. So non-science programs are being hit hard.

Meanwhile, other gossip mongerers of my acquaintance are fretting over some of the words in the Senate bill. For example, it exhorts NSF to take a decision this year between TMT and GMT, but includes the words “… to develop that telescope on domestic soil …”. So. telescopes to be sited in Chile, as opposed to Hawaii, need not apply ? Hmm. ”Develop” ain’t the same as “built on”…

Enough of the paranoia I say ! Of course just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.


JWST cancellation proposed

July 6, 2011

Breaking news via old chum Suthers on Twitter  stating that JWST is on the brink of cancellation. There is a story at Space News, and a reaction posted by Bill Smith, president of AURA. Suthers wrote a rather prescient post on Skymania back in April. (Before updating I thought this post was new ! Sorry Paul.)

Its all tangled up with Obama versus the Republicans and the US budget deficit cap etc. Obama made a budget request for NASA of almost eighteen and a half billion. But the relevant House Appropriations Committee, for commerce, justice and science, has proposed a draft budget almost 2 billion less, and specifically proposed cutting JWST. The proposed budget gets formally voted on by the committee tomorrow.

Jeez. Who understands the system ? Whats the odds now ?


Update.

- Lots of Twitter activity

- Sarah K has also blogged it.

- The House Committee press release is here. If you are too lazy to click through, here is an extract :

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – NASA is funded at $16.8 billion in the bill, which is $1.6 billion below last year’s level and $1.9 billion below the President’s request. This funding includes:

  • $3.65 billion for Space Exploration which is $152 million below last year. This includes funding above the request for NASA to meet Congressionally mandated program deadlines for the newly authorized crew vehicle and launch system.
  • $4.1 billion for Space Operations which is $1.4 billion below last year’s level. The legislation will continue the closeout of the Space Shuttle program for a savings of $1 billion.
  • $4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year’s level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

National Science Foundation (NSF) – The legislation funds NSF at $6.9 billion, the same as last year’s level and $907 million below the President’s request. Within this funding, NSF’s core research is increased by $43 million to enhance basic research that is critical to innovation and U.S. economic competitiveness.


Another update : post on Nature News blog summarises the situation well. There are several more stages to go, so don’t panic yet. But gird your loins.


Space scariness

April 8, 2011

Anyhoo. Enough of this moral philosophy. I think next time I see Tom S in the pub we will be in a for a several pint session. So. No change there then.

I’m orff ski-ing in the morning so no posts for a bit. Let me leave you depressed. You probably just read Telescoper’s post about NASA bailing out of LISA. That is indeed particularly distressing news for Cardiff. But its bigger and worse than this. I strongly recommend you read the post at Dynamics of Cats. Stein is always worth reading : regularly tickles the funny bone. But not this one. The plug is also pulled on IXO. Now, LISA and IXO are two out of the three L-class missions in ESA’s Cosmic Visions programme… what the hell happens now ?

Comment No. 22 on Stein’s post is interesting … it states that rather than NASA unilaterally pulling out, they did so because ESA pushed … they knew NASA was going to have trouble coughing up so they said they would continue studies alone. Anybody got more gen on this ?

It might get worse. Stein points out that JWST has been taken out of the Astrophysics budget and put in as its very own line item. Maybe this gives it super-high status. But as the US government shuts down because they can’t agree a budget (my Smithsonian chums are on furlough), JWST looks scarily exposed. Don’t think its too far down the road to stop. The US government has proved itself capable of cutting losses.

Remember the Alamo SSC.


Scariness continued

November 11, 2010

Apologies for radio silence. Somehow I foolishly agreed to teach two new courses simultaneously without noticing the load would peak about the same time as Astronomy Grants Panel Business, and just before finishing a major EU proposal. AAAGGGHHH.

I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there.

Instead, I will alert you to a depressing news article from the New York Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements creep as Nature had reported. The new report seems to confirm this. Management cock-up is the theory of the day.

As Mark also said, cancelling JWST at this stage would be a bad idea. We would not get the money for something else in astronomy instead. Instead, we maybe just have to let the over-runs eat about half the clear blue water that the Decadal Survey identified as available for a nice new Explorer programme etc. Talk about rock and hard place.

But could it happen ? Worryingly, the splashing of over-runs maybe increases the likelihood of cancellation, because the sunk costs are now a smaller fraction of the total… about 1/3, similar to the state of SSC when the plug was pulled in 1993.

I guess we shouldn’t be smug in Europe. Our Big Thing is ELT, for which the currrent level of ESO subscription will cover about a third. Ahh, but … then we get Brazil to join, which is a fair bit more, and then we ask everybody to just ever so slightly increase their subscriptions, and then … umm… then… national agencies pay for more stuff inside their own countries, and then… err… good lord, is that the time ?

Time share in TMT anyone ?


Three scary stories

October 28, 2010

Comments are still dribbling along on my previous post, but drifting somewhat. Folks are determined to talk about ESO. Meanwhile I have been writing lecture notes and going to a workshop on sky survey data management. So here is a brief restart.

Just as we thought the groves of academe had gotten off lightly, we start to learn the awful truth. Following the Twitter trail yesterday (where would I be without Paul Crowther ?) led to three scary stories.

Scary story number one : teaching budget timing. A few days back that nice Mr Clegg told us he still had some principles and wouldn’t allow infinite fees, just much bigger fees. We should probably should have guessed something because the announced cut was 40% not 80%. But now it seems the cuts will come in before universities are allowed to raise their fees, leading to a temporary but huge shortfall. Only places with big reserves will survive. Of course this makes the “err… what will happen in Scotland ?” question even more complicated than ever.

Scary story number two. Spiralling JWST costs. Nature News call JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy”. Don’t hold your breath for that exciting new WFIRST. Maybe 2022 if you are lucky. One of the odd things is that the graph in that article seems to show the US astrophysics budget rising to a massive peak during the Bush years. Shome mishtake shurely ? I showed this to some Arizona colleagues last night and they were mystified.

Scary story number three. Capital problems. So “we” only get cut 10%. But…. MRC seem to be promised flat funding in real terms, and thats a big slice. And…. capital budgets will fall by 44%. But…. the new medical centre thingy and Diamond upgrade will go ahead, so even less left. And…. subscriptions come partly out of capital budgets. Its worth quoting Nature here :

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.

Gulp.


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