US astronomy crumbling ?

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.

16 Responses to US astronomy crumbling ?

  1. Rob Ivison says:

    so ESO have an open goal, with the E-ELT decision due shortly. all the ducks are lined up and they have a very real opportunity to steal a march.

    will they slot it away, or “do a Torres”? with apologies to those that don’t follow football, and to those trying to pretend it doesn’t exist (e.g. Blackburn fans).

    • Perhaps, although focus of fundraising of US-led large telescope is on private donations rather than public funds.. e.g. $35m from George Mitchell for GMT Still, some other nations currently involved with GMT/TMT might just be tempted to jump ship across to E-ELT..

    • andyxl says:

      Of course none of those 30-40m projects, including e-ELT, have yet identified all the money yet. So maybe people will vote for the cheapest …

      • MatthewH says:

        The funding (or lack thereof) is what prompted my guess that the “…on domestic soil…” line in the bill was a politically nice way of saying “…and don’t you dare saddle us with a joint agreement with the Europeans again…”.

        I had a quick look through the NSF slides. The “optimistic” AST budget corresponds to 20% less than expectations over the next 5 years, which unfortunately seems to be the sweet spot for cuts/flat cash in most places.

        One other thing: They’re not talking of closing the sites, just removing the substantial NSF funding that grants open access for US researchers. Presumably the sites would still be run (at a reduced level) by university consortia (similar to LBT or Magellan), but this would of course mean that the high impact science from the decadal survey will only be available to those whose departments can afford to pay for it.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Interesting thought re: not joining again with the smelly Euros (of which I am one, lest offence be taken).

        That said, which partnership with the Euros would they be objecting to: ALMA? From where I sit (and it’s a long way from the project), ALMA seems to be going pretty well overall, no?

        I had read it more along the lines of “if we’re going to drop a billion on a giant telescope, it had better be on US soil to ensure that all the money is spent at home where my voters live”.

        Could be both, of course.

        In any case, from a sky coverage perspective, an E-ELT on Armazonas and a US-ELT on Mauna Kea wouldn’t be a bad outcome, would it?

      • andyxl says:

        Mark – I refrain of course from listing which States the members of the Senate appropriations committee are from. Re Smelly Euros, I assumed MH was thinking of Gemini.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Hmmm, of course: says something about my career history and its geographical distribution that Gemini didn’t even cross my mind. Never really has, to be honest … 😉

        That said, I do recall a conversation on a subway more than a decade ago with a gentleman with a name linked to small white and brown dogs, who said the the UK was all sorted with the US on Gemini, and that the VLT was a disaster the UK was well advised to steer well clear of. Where’s he these days, then?

        And there was that bloke with a rather imposing topographical name who told me at another meeting slightly later that yes, yes, the VLT was all very nice, but Gemini would blow it away when it came online with full AO at first light? I think he’s taken the scoundrel’s way out of having to deal with AO by removing the atmosphere in front of his telescope, hasn’t he?

        (All tongue in cheek, lads, honest … 😉

      • MatthewH says:

        Although it wasn’t the only thing I had in mind, Gemini would be the obvious comparison if both sides of the Atlantic decided they didn’t have quite enough money and decided on further technology sharing (TMT and E-ELT already use the same mirror segment blanks, right?).

        You could go all modern and call it 2emini.

    • telescoper says:

      Perhaps it would be more topical to mention the difficulty of Northern hemisphere rugby players had in kicking points in the Southern hemisphere during the World Cup? Will the same thing happen with ESO?

  2. jd says:

    I bet the “domestic soil” bit is more about successful lobbying by TMT folks of powerful Hawaiian senators, than concerns about European involvement. If you’re trying to win the down-select between GMT and TMT, and one of them is supposed to be built in Chile, then getting “domestic soil” language in there is serious leverage for the other.

  3. Martin E. says:

    brown & white dogs? beagles??

  4. pligg says:


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