NSF starts slicing

August 17, 2012

Scary times for our US chums. The dreaded NSF Portfolio Review finally did its thing. The news is pretty bad in places, but to be honest I think its less to do with our austere times than it is to do with historic overheating and the “funding wall” problem.

You can find the full report at this web page here . Stein Siggywatsit at Dynamics of Cats has already digested the report and written a nice commentary . Under the harsher but probably realistic “Scenario B”, here are the headlines :

  • ALMA, Gemini, EVLA, Blanco, and grants protected
  • LSST and ATST get a go ahead;
  • GSMT, CCAT will maybe get some peanuts
  • Mayall, KP 21.m, WIYN, GBT, VLBA out

I skimmed the report and found two figures illuminating. The first figure shows the evolution of the NSF Astronomy budget.

Budget scenariosIgnore the impressive temporary spike due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The story is not one of massive decline; the real budget will be pretty much the same as 2001, and about 7% less than most of this decade. The Decadal Survey (NWNH) wish list required a large expansion. Well, it was worth trying. So how can there be a problem ? Well, look at this next figure.

Budget squueze

This shows what it costs to just keep all the current commitments running. The boxes labelled LSST, CCAT, GSMT are the likely operating cost contributions, not the construction costs.

So basically what you see is that the US has done such wonderful things in the past, that if we keep them all going – especially the very newest things like ALMA – that uses up all the money forever. You want LSST, ATST, CCAT ? OK. What are you chopping ? Thats it.

The trouble with Big Science is that it is only ever worth doing things that are much better than before. The squeeze is ineluctable.


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.