Update: US Federal Science Budget for 2015

Last week, three months into the fiscal year, the US Congress avoided a government shutdown and finally passed a budget for 2015. Better late than never. As I wrote about during the time of the midterm election, the budget situation is particularly important for science research and development and for education and public outreach. The $1.1 trillion and 1,600 page omnibus bill includes many important non-science issues of course, such as provisions reducing financial regulations and others allowing larger campaign contributions to political parties, and the bill does not address funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which will be decided in February, but my focus here, as usual, is on the implications for science.

Many agencies will receive small budget increases for science and technology relative to FY 2014 and to the President’s initial budget request (but excluding his Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative). According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), federal research and development (R&D) would rise to $137.6 billion, which is a 1.7% increase from last year and consistent with inflation. This was not guaranteed, however, and scientists were braced for the worst. Under the current circumstances, the science budgets will fare rather well.

Importantly, note that the budget bill includes discretionary spending subject to the caps established by the Budget Control Act (“sequestration”) and modified last year. In addition, the cost of mandatory spending, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, continues to increase; without more revenue, these will take a larger share in coming years. The following figure shows federal R&D relative to GDP. It’s courtesy of AAAS, and if you want more details about budget issues, I recommend reading Matt Hourihan‘s writings there, which includes a breakdown by agency. Details can also be found at the American Institute of Physics science policy news.

15p Omnibus GDP graph


For specific agencies, let’s start with NASA. In the omnibus bill, NASA received a budget of $18.01B, a significant increase over the President’s request and slightly larger than the inflation rate. For NASA’s Astrophysics Division, most of the budget increase comes from rejecting the President’s proposal to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope mounted on a Boeing 747 aircraft that is funded at $70M. They will not have enough funding to implement all of the desired upgrades to the telescope though. The budget also includes $50M for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is expected to launch in the early 2020s. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is funded as expected (under its $8B total cost cap) and is on schedule for a 2018 launch. The Planetary and Heliophysics Divisions also saw budget increases over last year, including $100M for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa (which might harbor life) and at least $100M for the high-priority Mars 2020 rover mission. Nonetheless, NASA may not be able to advance its smaller Discovery-class space probes and New Frontiers missions as quickly as hoped.

For detailed coverage of NASA’s budget, check out Josh Shiode of the American Astronomical Society and Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.

National Science Foundation

The budget includes an increase of 2.4% ($172M) to the NSF’s budget, and according to Shiode, this is partly thanks to efforts by the retiring chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative Frank Wolf. There will be a 2.2% increase over current funding to research and related activities across the six directorates, while there will be flat funding for research equipment and facilities construction, including expected funding for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). I’m particularly looking forward to the LSST, which will be located in northern Chile and is planned to have “first light” in 2019. It will observe millions of galaxies and will be a successor to the very successful Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

Department of Energy

The DOE’s Office of Science received approximately flat funding at $5.1B in the budget bill. The Cosmic Frontier program, which includes dark matter and dark energy research, will see a $6.4M (6.5%) increase in its budget, however. The bill reverses potential cuts to nuclear fusion research, and it importantly threatens “to withhold the US contribution to ITER, the multibillion-euro international fusion consortium [based in southern France], if the beleaguered project, which is 11 years behind schedule, does not implement management changes,” according to an article in Nature.


The budget bill has multiple provisions affecting education. It includes legislation for a program that would allow students without a high school diploma to get federal student aid as long as they are enrolled in college-level career pathway programs. It also unfortunately includes a $303M cut in discretionary funding from the Pell Grant program this year, according to Inside Higher Ed. The budget will increase funding to $530M supporting institutions that serve percentages of minority and low-income students through Title III funding.

NASA will receive $42M for education and public outreach, but the agency may have to shuffle its education budget, which has traditionally funded education activities in conjunction with every scientific mission. The NSF will receive $866M for education and human resources, including funding for its Graduate Research Fellowships.

Environmental Protection Agency

I don’t have good news about the EPA, which will now be funded at $8.1B this year, its smallest budget since 1989 according to Scientific American. The bill also includes some environment-related riders in the EPA and other agencies such as the following: President Obama will not be allowed to fulfill his pledge to contribute $3B to the United Nations Green Climate Fund; the Export–Import Bank will lift its ban on loaning funds to companies to build coal-fired power plants overseas; and the Transportation Department will not be able to fund most of its current light-rail projects.

Other Agencies

Finally, there are a few other agencies with science-related budgets. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will receive essentially flat funding (0.3% increase). It will receive larger increases for cancer research, Alzheimer’s research, and the BRAIN Initiative on neuroscience. The bill also includes a multibillion dollar Ebola response that goes primarily to the NIH. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) will get flat funding, including full funding for its GOES-R and JPSS satellites for meteorological and polar research. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) received flat funding as well, and the US Geological Survey received a small increase.

This will be my last post until next year, so happy solstice (or Shabeh Yalda, as the Persians say) and happy holidays!

Thoughts on “Interstellar” and Questions it Raises

I finally went and saw Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar a couple days ago. It’s definitely an entertaining and thought-provoking movie, and it’s worth seeing in a theater. This post won’t really be a review of the film, but I’ll give you a few of my thoughts about it and implications of it for our role in the universe. I’m interested in hearing your response to the movie as well. It raised some big and important questions that we humans should explore further. (Note: this post includes a few “spoilers,” so consider yourself warned.)

First of all, if you haven’t seen 2001 or Contact already, then you should rectify that immediately! They’re both excellent, and Interstellar was made with many connections and homages to them…so turn off your computer or tablet or brain implant or whatever you’re reading this with, and go check out those movies! You can come back to this blog later.

Also, if you’re interested in checking out other astronomers’ responses to the movie, you can read the excessively critical review and mea culpa by Phil Plait, the interesting tweets and more tweets by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this article in Wired magazine by Adam Rogers (and thanks to Lynne Friedmann for giving it to me).


Why are astrophysicists discussing or questioning some aspects of the film? It’s because the filmmakers consulted Kip Thorne and did attempt to get the physics right, and because it’s the big space movie of the year, like Gravity was last year. In my opinion, they did do a pretty good job on many issues, though I wasn’t so sure about a couple others: for example, I’m not sure whether all the time dilation effects were calculated accurately (though their take on the “twin paradox” was interesting), and I’m skeptical about Matt McConaughey’s character’s experience in the black hole (which is the circular saw-shaped image above). And deGrasse Tyson made an accurate and important observation that bothered me too: “Mysteries of #Interstellar: Stars vastly outnumber Black Holes. Why is the best Earthlike planet one that orbits a Black Hole”?

I’m not going to get into these physics issues much here. (I’m happy to try to answer any questions you might have though—just post a comment or contact me on Twitter.) Instead, I’m more interested in exploring questions the movie raised. For example, how much of a priority is space exploration to us as a society? How difficult would it be to find another potentially habitable planet—and what are our criteria for “potentially habitable”? How would we traverse these great distances? How do we transport people (and necessary equipment and supplies) so that they can survive for long periods far from Earth—in spacecraft, space stations, or colonies? How vulnerable is our own planet and which vulnerabilities should we be trying to address? How might we eventually contact or even meet alien species, and what would we tell or ask them? Who would do the talking or asking? Will we behave with empathy or will we act like conquerors? What are own roles and responsibilities as Earthlings and citizens of the cosmos?

(We also learned a few fun things from the movie, such as: wormholes can be convenient; books get pushed off of shelves by space ghosts; NASA will survive even during the worst of times; and watch out if you land on an ice planet and find Matt Damon.)

It’s easy to become focused and fixated on short-term and local problems, as they can seem the most pressing. That’s totally understandable, but we as a society can’t forget the big long-term picture. What are our objectives and priorities as a global community? What do we want to achieve, and how can we work toward those goals and help future generations to realize them?

In the movie, a runaway Dust Bowl—presumably due to climate change—or some kind of “nuclear winter” devastates the world’s food supplies. Though this might seem far-fetched, it’s not out of the question for our planet. People had to struggle just to get through each day and to feed their families, such that exploration was the furthest from their minds and people started believe that the Apollo program was a hoax. But the drive to explore the unknown and see what’s out there is an inherently human trait. Carl Sagan once wrote, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” What are other planets, solar systems, or even other galaxies like, and what do their differences tell us about our own? Just today a Scientific American article came out, where the author discusses the thousands of exoplanets observed so far and argues that “Planets More Habitable than Earth may be Common in Our Galaxy.” These are issues we can’t stop thinking about.

One problem is that space is big. “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is” (to quote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Planets that support life are extremely rare, though we don’t know exactly how rare yet. It’s difficult to learn about planets far away, and it won’t be easy to find out which ones humans could visit or which ones might support alien life. Contacting those aliens is more complicated. And then visiting other planets and solar systems, or even setting up colonies on them is literally a multi-generational project. For example, Alpha Centauri is about 4.4 light years away. If astronauts could travel as fast as the Voyager spacecraft…it would take them 77,000 years to get there! They’d wake up from hibernation in their spaceship after all that time, and they wouldn’t even know whether other humans were still alive.

Finally, one of the main points I think we should take away from the movie is that we must take care of our own planet. Earth is rare, and it’s our home. We face many dangers and threats throughout the world, including global warming, drought, floods, famine, air pollution, natural disasters, pandemics, ozone depletion, killer asteroids, and war. We should note that these problems and their effects are related to poverty and inequality too, and that’s not to mention threats to other species on Earth. We might not survive for thousands of years—which is like a blink of an eye for our universe—but we have to try. We have to work together and plan for the future.

On that note, I’ll leave you with the ending of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Conference on Nearby Galaxies in Memory of Charles Engelbracht

I just returned from a small conference on “Observations of Dust in Nearby Galaxies” at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It honored Chad Engelbracht, an influential astronomer in the field who rather suddenly passed away in January, before his 44th birthday.


It was great to be back in Tucson! This was my first visit since I moved away in 2012. I worked as a postdoc at the University of Arizona—an internationally renowned center of theoretical, observational, and instrumental astronomy—for three years, and I spent much of that time working with Chad on research projects with the Key Insights on Nearby Galaxies: a Far-Infrared Survey with Herschel (KINGFISH) and Herschel Inventory of The Agents of Galaxy Evolution (HERITAGE) surveys. Chad has written numerous publications on extragalactic infrared astronomy, especially on the distributions of dust, stars, and gas within galaxies in the “local universe.” He was also the MIPS Instrument Scientist for the Spitzer telescope, which enabled a lot of excellent research by others.

As you may know, I’m trained in theoretical astrophysics, and my expertise is in the large-scale structure of the universe, dark matter, galaxy formation, and cosmology, and when I’ve used data, they’ve usually been in optical wavelengths. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to navigate in order to work on my infrared research, and Chad helped me up it. Chad was my friend and colleague, and I really enjoyed working with him. He was patient with me, had a great sense of humor, gave me insightful suggestions and feedback, and helped me produce interesting results. (The two main papers we wrote together are here and here.) If I continue with my academic career, he would be one of my role models.

Chad also liked beer, so we definitely got along well. While I worked at Steward Observatory, he and I and others in the “infrared wing” frequently went to 1702 for pizza and beer for lunch. The night before the conference, many of his old friends and I went back to 1702 for a few pints. Chad also liked to play the computer game Quake, where he was known as “Chuckles the clown.” During her opening remarks at the conference, Joannah Hinz said, “Since no one is admitting to have played Quake, it seems that Chad must have been playing it by himself!” Well, I’ll admit that Chad didn’t have to twist my arm much to convince me to play it when I was at Arizona, and when I’d gotten a new computer, his first task was to make sure that Quake ran on it well. The game made for a good afternoon break and a funny way to interact with people. (If you’re wondering, I played as The Tick.)

Many of Chad’s colleagues and collaborators attended and spoke at the conference, including Rob Kennicutt, Margaret Meixner, Bruce Draine, Maud Galametz, and Dennis Zaritsky. I was moved by all of the personal and astronomical tributes to Chad throughout the conference. It’s clear that he influenced, inspired, and was respected by many people. His legacy lives on.

Chad is survived by his parents and siblings, his wife Sue Dubuque, their three children (Max, Sydney, and Henry), and his numerous friends. He is missed.

A pretty good first year!

I can’t believe it’s already been a whole year! After many friends and colleagues encouraged me, I started this blog at the beginning of December in 2013. I didn’t know what to expect, but I think it’s been worthwhile, and I look forward to continuing with it.

For those of you who are interested, especially you regular readers of this blog, I’ll use this post to review and assess the blog so far. Most of all, I’d like to thank all of you readers and those of you who have shared my posts, gave me advice and feedback, helped me to improve posts, and had interesting discussions with me about the issues and events in them.

I wrote about one post per week, and I hope I’m continually getting better. My most popular blog posts included those about: gender and racial diversity issues in science; Rosetta and the comet; the solar flare that could have been much worse; fracking; climate change resilience; the academic job market; citizen science and Galaxy Zoo; an event about the multiverse; and debates and budgets for scientific research and STEM education. (See my list of blog posts.)

Considering that many of my posts, especially the science policy ones, are US-based, it’s not surprising that the majority of visitors to this site are from the US. Many people from the UK, Canada, Germany, Brazil, and other places visit it as well. People reach the site from Facebook, Twitter, search engines, my work website, and from other websites where I’ve published or posted articles.

For the next year, I’m not sure how regularly I’ll keep writing on the blog, but I’ll do my best. I’ll definitely keep writing about both science policy and astronomy/astrophysics news and events. Some will be more like science news stories and some will review the various issues and players involved. In the next couple months, I’ll write about the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in January and about the Citizen Science Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in February, all of which I’ll be attending (but traveling by train!). I’ll try writing a book review or two too, as I’m looking forward to reading books about Fukushima and environmental justice. I might review Interstellar as well, but I haven’t seen it yet, so don’t give me spoilers!

Please keep giving me your comments, questions, criticism, corrections, and feedback (either on the blog itself, on Twitter or Facebook, subspace communication, or in person). And please keep sharing the posts that you like or that interest you, and whenever you have more information or news relevant to something I’ve written, please let me know. Also, contact me if you have any interest in writing a guest post here some time.

Finally, as you may know or have guessed, I’m continuing to pursue work in scientific research and education as well as science writing/communication and science policy. As I learn more and improve in these fields, I may occasionally write about my challenges, tribulations, and successes as well.