From international travel to interplanetary probes, the U.S. budget cuts are having impacts on both ground- and space-based astronomy.
|Update: On July 31st, organizers announced that, despite ongoing problems with federal funding, the Kepler Science Conference II (described below) will convene in early November as planned.|
Astronomers took to Twitter to voice their dismay as word spread. “Arguably one of NASA’s most successful recent missions finding Earth-sized planets, and scientists can’t get together to discuss,” tweeted Caltech’s Peter Plavchan. The conference would have brought hundreds of astronomers to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to present and discuss the satellite’s most recent results. Instead, it became the latest sign of how U.S. astronomy and space science will suffer from the federal sequestration cuts.
The abrupt, mandatory reductions fall against the backdrop of an already turbulent fiscal scenario, and unless it is lifted, it will turn the budget screws even tighter on the two largest U.S. government funding agencies for astronomy: the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. If left unchecked, scientists and administrators warn of dire consequences for the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness.
NSF Researchers Will Feel Cuts
NSF funding forms the public backbone of U.S. ground-based astronomy, underwriting national facilities open to all U.S. astronomers and awarding about $80 million in research grants in fiscal year 2012. Sequestration cut NSF's FY 2013 overall budget by approximately 5%, and although this was partially offset by a last-minute increase in the FY 2013 budget passed by Congress in late March, the net result is still a 2.1% cut relative to FY 2012.
It’s not yet known how exactly it will fall across its science divisions, but James Ulvestad, director of the agency’s astronomy division says, “The most immediate impact will be on our small- and mid-scale research grants programs.” All existing grants will be honored in full, but Ulvestad estimates that the number of new grants awarded, already heavily oversubscribed, will fall by about 15 to 30% in FY 2013. Not only will established researchers suffer, but also “fewer graduate students will get support, and fewer postdoctoral fellows will get support,” says Joel Parriott, director of public policy for the American Astronomical Society (AAS).
If sequestration were to remain in effect indefinitely, Ulvestad anticipates a laundry list of dangerous effects. The lack of research grants might cede the most exciting discoveries on its own facilities to researchers elsewhere. A shortfall of infrastructure funding might threaten the construction of the large facilities recommended by U.S. astronomers’ 2010, once-a-decade roadmap, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. And the NSF cuts are only part of the broader federal science budget, “reducing a position of world leadership and imperiling the training of a new generation of STEM professionals.”
Sequester Curtails NASA’s Outreach, Conferences
One of NASA’s first responses to its mandatory 5% cut was the March suspension of education and public-outreach activities. This prompted an outcry from the educators and writers employed by NASA missions to relate their findings to the taxpaying public. The situation was somewhat eased by the announcement of wide-ranging exemptions, though many say it only muddled the issue further, making it difficult to estimate the reduction’s true impact. (Read a sampling of the responses here.)
Perfectly evident, however, are the effects of the restrictions on conference-related travel that followed, eliminating international travel and preventing more than 50 NASA personnel from attending any single conference. Next week’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society is just one conference that has shrunk in the absence of NASA scientists and exhibitors. The effects multiply: Attending scientists who would normally be at their peers’ talks will instead have to multitask by staffing exhibits, according to Debbie Kovalsky, AAS’s exhibits coordinator. And commercial vendors whose clients will no longer be there have decided to skip it or downsize their presence as well.
NASA managers have further announced a string of cancelled conferences aside from December’s Kepler Science Conference, including a data calibration meeting for Hubble results and the annual Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop.
“Conferences are where part of the scientific process happens,” says Peter Plavchan, who has authored four papers using Kepler data. “Canceling this conference will slow down the process of discovery, and taxpayers won’t get the most new discoveries for their dollar as a result.”
“NASA spends $98M a year to operate Hubble,” noted the scientists on the astrophysics subcommittee of NASA’s Advisory Council in an April letter. “Canceling a Hubble science conference saves only $50K, but diminishes the science impact of Hubble. This is simply not cost effective.”
Planetary Science Fights for Funds
Perhaps the most politically embroiled impact of sequestration on space science has been the budget figure for NASA’s solar-system division, responsible for successes like the Cassini probe at Saturn and the recent run of rovers on Mars. Planetary science has weathered severe cuts in recent years caused in part by cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), prompting what Nature News described as “internecine warfare” between supporters of astrophysics and planetary missions.
The Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget request slashed planetary funding by more than 20%, to less than $1.2 billion. But a bipartisan group of supporters in Congress countered by inserting an additional $222 million into its FY 2013 appropriations bill, which President Obama signed in March.
However, sequestration offered NASA an opportunity to reshape its appropriations internally. Instead of spreading the cuts across all divisions equally, NASA’s operating plan for the rest of FY 2013 singles out planetary science for a 15% cut, according to a copy obtained by Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute. The result wipes out all but $3.7 million of the additional $222 million allocated by Congress.
In other words, says Sykes, the Obama administration and NASA used the sequestration cuts as a means to evade Congressional intent. “To come in and sweep away more than 98% of the funds added by Congress and signed into law was very surprising,” Sykes told me. “I thought it was disdainful.” Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society did little to hide his shock in a blog post titled, “NASA Robs Planetary Science.”
NASA’s plan did retain good news for some planetary scientists — $66 million in funds for studies of a potential flagship mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, whose subsurface ocean is one of the most enticing places to search for extraterrestrial life. However, instead of using the money that Congress had allocated for it, NASA and the administration effectively took it out of other programs, dropping them below the President’s proposed FY 2013 levels, including competitive research grants and smaller missions under the Discovery and New Frontiers programs. “Rob Peter to pay Paul, is what it is,” Sykes lamented. While he’s not opposed to a Europa mission, “additional studies should be funded by additional monies — not at the expense of research, Discovery, or New Frontiers.”
This challenging fiscal environment shows no sign of abating: in the President’s FY 2014 request, planetary science again came up $200 million short of the FY 2013 level allocated by Congress in March. In what educators say is a further attack on science education, it also proposes removing all NASA-related education and outreach from the space agency’s purview and reconstituting it under the Department of Education and the Smithsonian. The goal is to improve efficiency, but many say it would destroy the existing networks between educators and scientists and even backfire. “This will likely necessitate new layers of personnel to interface between NASA scientists and educational professionals,” noted NASA’s astrophysics advisory subcommittee. Altogether, these developments paint a bleak picture for many. “I’m not sure what the administration’s plans for the future are,” says Sykes. “But if it involves decimating our capability [as a nation], I think they’re taking the right steps.”
NSF Divestment Continues
One thing the sequester will not affect, says James Ulvestad, is NSF’s ongoing plan to divest its interests in several ground-based facilities, including the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, and three optical telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona. (This is a result of a 2012 portfolio review assessing NSF Astronomy’s long-term financial picture.) “That timescale was set up to provide a reasonable (but not excessive) period of time to enable new partnerships and new operations models to develop,” says Ulvestad.
At Kitt Peak, where NSF acts as the observatory’s landlord, the Department of Energy and the University of California-Berkeley are currently interested in such a partnership to use the Mayall 4-meter telescope to conduct an all-sky dark-energy survey. A private grant will fund the construction of the instrument, but ultimately, the decision to fund the project remains with DOE. “Optimism for the future is considerably higher today than it was a year ago,” says KPNO’s director, Timothy Beers. “But if you ask me today, ‘Will Kitt Peak be a living, viable observatory doing astronomical research 10 years from now?’, I will know better in a year or two … I can’t say what the path toward that is.”