Philanthropists are Enabling and Influencing the Future of Astronomy

[This is a longer version of an op-ed I published in the San Jose Mercury News with the title “Tech moguls increasingly deciding what scientific research will be funded.” Thanks to Ed Clendaniel for help editing it.]

Billionaires and their foundations are both enabling and shaping scientific endeavors in the 21st century, raising questions that we as a society need to consider more seriously.

I have spoken to many astronomers, who consistently clamor for more reliable funding for scientific research and education. With broad public support, these scientists passionately explore the origins of life, the Milky Way, and the universe, and they naturally want to continue their research.

But what does it mean when private interests fund a growing fraction of scientific work? Can we be sure that limited resources are being directed toward the most important science?

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

Research & Development as a Fraction of Discretionary Spending, 1962-2014. (Source: Budget of the U.S. Government FY 2015; American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

After the Apollo program, federal funding for science and for astronomy in particular has never been a top priority, declining as a fraction of GDP. Since the Great Recession, science has received an increasingly narrow piece of the pie. Acrimonious budget debates perennially worry scientists that the mission or research program they’ve devoted their careers to might be cut.

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Trends in Federal Research & Development. (Source: National Science Foundation, AAAS.)

Perhaps as a result, philanthropic funding for scientific research has bloomed, increasing sharply relative to the federal government, according to the National Science Foundation. For example, the Palo Alto-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, built on the success of Intel, agreed to provide $200 million for the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, intended to study distant stars and galaxies. This summer, Yuri Milner and the Breakthrough Prize Foundation dedicated $100 million to research at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere to expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Because the federal role is more and more constrained, there is a real opportunity for private philanthropy to have a lot of influence on the way in which scientific research goes forward,” Robert Kirshner, head of the Moore Foundation’s science program, told me.

These laudable initiatives put personal wealth to good use. They enable important scientific research and technology development, and some scientists benefit from the philanthropists’ largesse. But they also transfer leadership from the scientific community and public interest to the hands of a few wealthy businesspeople and Silicon Valley tech moguls.

While philanthropists support leading scientists and valuable scientific research, they and their advisors decide what is “valuable.” If they desire, they could fund their favorite scientists or the elite university they attended. They have no obligation to appeal to the scientific community or to public interests.

Philanthropists sometimes go for attention-getting projects that gets their name or logo on a major telescope (like Keck or Sloan) or a research institute (like Kavli), which also happen to enable important science for many years.

For better and perhaps also for worse, private funding of science is here to stay. Although fears of billionaires controlling science might be overblown, we should ensure that we support a democratic and transparent national system, with scientists’ and the public’s priorities guiding decisions about which projects to pursue.

Public funding involves thorough review systems involving the community, and projects develop upon a strong base with considerable oversight and transparency. This takes time, but it’s worthwhile.

Government agencies and universities support “basic” science research, allowing scientists to focus on science for its own sake and to explore long-term projects. Private interests often ignore basic research, typically spending 80 cents of every research and development dollar on the latter. In response to this shortcoming, the Science Philanthropy Alliance formed recently near Stanford University to advise foundations about how to invest directly in fundamental scientific research.

“If you’re going to have an impact in the long run, then you should be supporting basic research, which is often where some of the biggest breakthroughs come from,” said Marc Kastner, its president, referring to the Internet and the human genome.

These well-intentioned efforts offer no guarantee, however. We should urge policy-makers to reliably fund science and consider it as sacrosanct as healthcare and social security, regardless of budget limits. At the same time, we should clearly delineate the role philanthropy and private industry will play.

High-Definition Space Telescope: Our Giant Glimpse of the Future?

Where do you see yourself in a decade? What is your vision for two decades from now? What could you accomplish if you had billions of dollars and infrastructure at your disposal? A consortium of astrophysicists attempt to answer these questions as they put forward their bold proposal for a giant high-resolution telescope for the next generation, which would observe numerous exoplanets, stars, galaxies and the distant universe in stunning detail.

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

Artist’s conception of proposed proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would have a giant segmented mirror and unprecedented resolution at optical and UV wavelengths. (NASA/GSFC)

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), an influential organization of astronomers from 39 mostly US-based institutions, which operates telescopes and observatories for NASA and the National Science Foundation, lays out its vision of High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST) in a new report this month. Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—veteran astronomers with impressive knowledge and experience with galactic and planetary science—led the committee who researched and wrote the 172-page report.

As the HDST’s name suggests, its wide segmented mirror would give it much much higher resolution than any current or upcoming telescopes, allowing astronomers to focus on exoplanets up to 100 light-years away, resolve stars even in the Andromeda Galaxy, and image faraway galaxies dating back 10 billion years of cosmic time into our universe’s past.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

In the more recent past, the popular and outstandingly successful Hubble Space Telescope celebrated its 25th birthday a few months ago. Astronomers utilized Hubble and its instruments over the years to obtain the now iconic images of the Crab Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Ultra Deep Field, and many many others that captured the public imagination. Hubble continues to merrily float by in low-earth orbit and enables cutting-edge science. But the telescope required 20 years of planning, technological development, and budget allocations before it was launched in 1990.

For the newly proposed space telescope, some headlines describe it as NASA’s successor to Hubble, but it really constitutes a successor to a successor of Hubble, with other telescopes in between (such as the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope, WFIRST). If the astronomical community comes on board and if astronomers convince NASA and Congressional committees to fund it—two big “ifs” for big projects like this—it likely would be designed and constructed in the 2020s and then launched in the 2030s.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), proposed two decades ago by AURA and now finally reaching fruition and set for launching in 2018, could be considered the HDST’s predecessor. All of these major projects require many years of planning and research; Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say. James Webb scientists and engineers hope that, like Hubble, it will produce spectacular images with its infrared cameras, become a household name, and expand our understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, JWST has been plagued by a ballooning budget and numerous delays, and Congress nearly terminated it in 2011. When a few large-scale programs cost so many billions of dollars and years to develop, how do people weigh them against many smaller-scale ones that sometimes get sacrificed?

Approximately every ten years, members of the astronomical community get together and determine their set of priorities for the next decade, balancing large-, medium- and small-scale programs and ground- and space-based telescopes, given the budget realities and outlook. Back in 2001, they prioritized James Webb, and then a decade later they put WFIRST at the top of the list. For the next generation though, in the 2010 Decadal Survey (named “New Worlds, New Horizons”), they highlighted the need for a habitable (exo)planet imaging mission. Everyone loves planets, even dwarf planets, as revealed by the popularity of NASA’s missions exploring Pluto and Ceres this year.

Building on that report, NASA’s 2014 Astrophysics Roadmap (named “Enduring Quests, Daring Visons”) argued that much could be gained from a UV/optical/infrared surveyor with improved resolution, which could probe stars and galaxies with more precision than ever before. According to the AURA committee, the High-Definition Space Telescope would achieve both of these goals, taking planetary, stellar and galactic astronomy to the next level. Importantly, they also argued that astronomers should prioritize the telescope in the 2020 Decadal Survey, for which planning has already commenced.

How do scientists balance the need for different kinds and sizes of projects and missions, knowing that every good idea can’t be funded? Astronomers frequently disagree about how to best allocate funding—hence the need for periodic surveys of the community. They hope that what is best for science and the public will emerge, even if some scientists’ favorite projects ultimately aren’t successful. James Webb Space Telescope’s budget has been set to $8 billion, while the High-Definition Space Telescope would cost $10 billion or more, according to Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories. This is big money, but it’s small compared to the cost of bank bailouts and military expenditures, for example. While the scientific community assesses which programs to focus on, we as a society need to determine our own priorities and how space exploration, astrophysics research as well as education and outreach are important to us. In the meantime, HDST scientists will continue to make their case, including in an upcoming event at the SPIE Optics & Photonics conference in San Diego, which I will try to attend.

Scientists and journalists alike frequently talk about Big Science these days. The recently published and much reviewed book by Michael Hiltzik about the physicist Ernest Lawrence describes its history since the Manhattan Project and the advent of ever-bigger particle accelerators. Big Science is here to stay and we clearly have much to gain from it. Only some Big Science ideas can be prioritized and successfully make the most of the effort and investment people put in them. Hubble exceeded all expectations; the High-Definition Space Telescope has astronomical shoes to fill.

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!

And the science budget debates continue…

Senator Coburn (R-OK) doesn’t like political science. (Is that why he’s retiring from politics this year? I doubt it.) In fact, he doesn’t seem to like the social sciences in general and would prefer to eliminate their funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). His recent attempt at an amendment that would restrict political science funding was defeated, but we can’t always count on that happening, especially considering Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a few others share his views. Science budgets can fluctuate year by year, which has real consequences for scientists who depend on that funding and who have students and long-term projects that require consistent funding.

A couple months ago, I participated in the Congressional Visit Day with colleagues from the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Our goal was to talk to our Congress members about the importance of stable funding and investment in scientific research, telescopes, education, and outreach, and to encourage them to make these a priority. We focused on astronomy and astrophysics funding from the NSF and NASA, though there are other relevant agencies and departments, such as the Department of Energy. Although most Congress members and their staff seemed receptive to our message (including Coburn’s staff, who had nothing against the physical sciences), unfortunately the spending restrictions and numerous budget priorities make this a particularly complicated situation. This year’s story begins with the president’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget, which leaves many agencies with sub-inflation budgets (without the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative), so how will the story end? What’s a scientist to do?

Since we can agree that investing in science is critically important, we should follow the process in which these budgets are put together and negotiated. To do so though, we need to look into how the proverbial sausage is made—and it’s really more of a dubious hot dog than a gourmet bratwurst. The budget negotiation process is seemingly transparent, but to me it seems opaque in some ways and rather precarious—a good idea can get shot down and an unfortunate amendment could get stuck in the draft, for example. It’s kind of scary that the state of science in this country (and the fate of many scientists and their research programs) depends on so many unpredictable and capricious factors, though we can hope that the important issues are ironed out by the time a budget is finalized. We’re also affected by prior budget constraints, especially from the spending caps due to the Budget Control Act (which gave us the universally reviled “sequestration”).


I’ll give a brief description of the current state of affairs, but if you want more information, I refer you to the experts, especially Matt Hourihan (director of R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS) and Josh Shiode (Public Policy Fellow of AAS). And if you’re interested in seeing how our R&D funding compares to other countries, it shows total R&D (circle size) and as a function of GDP (x-axis) (the figure is taken from this).


First, we started with the Obama administration’s proposed FY 2015 budget request (PBR). At that point, the budget had to be negotiated by the House Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, which included a “markup” process. The bill that emerged included increases to NASA and NSF’s budgets relative to the PBR and FY 2015 as well as smaller increases to education and human resources. The NSF budget certainly could have been worse, since there were lower funding levels in the controversial Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST Act)—previously passed by the same committee—which was strongly opposed by university and science groups. The CJS bill also included small decreases to the budgets of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) relative to the inflation rate. (More details are here.)

The budget then went to the House floor in May, and a modified budget was passed at the end of the month. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA, who was defeated in a primary election) and House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) narrowly passed an amendment that reduced funding to the NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics (SBE). In another development, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ, one of the only scientists in Congress), tried to restore funding for NOAA climate research that was cut by the Appropriations Committee, but this amendment failed. (For more details about the House budget bill, look here and here.)

The Appropriations bill also included an amendment proposed by Rep. Alan Grayson’s (D-FL) that would provide protection for journalists against compulsory disclosure of their confidential sources. “That right is recognized in 49 states, but it’s not codified at the federal level,” Grayson said. The amendment passed by a vote of 225-183.

current status

The Senate Appropriations Committee produced a modified budget bill last week and a series of reports about individual agencies. This article describes the budget differences for NASA in the Senate bill vs the House bill and vs the previous year (FY 2014). Although the total NASA budget are similar in the Senate and House bills, the Senate allocates funding within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) differently: the Senate bill includes more for exploration and less for aeronautics, space technology, and space operations. Unfortunately, both bills have decreased funding for education, though the funding levels are not as low as in the Obama Administration’s PBR.

Fortunately, both bills rejected the President’s proposal to cut the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The allocated funding would be enough for NASA to continue to cover its share of the operating costs. The Senate committee also provided funding for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is planned to launch in the mid-2020s.


This article describes the Senate vs House budget differences for the NSF. Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave the NSF a lower funding level by 2.1% than the House, but it’s possible that this may change. I’ll also mention that a couple months ago the Senate confirmed France Córdova as the new director of the NSF. She said that better communicating the importance of the basic research that the NSF supports is one of her priorities. Córdova is an astrophysicist, the former president of Purdue University, and now the second women to head the agency.

Now the “minibus” (as opposed to “omnibus”) bill heads to the Senate floor this week, so the next steps depend on these 100 people:
(Note that the various budget bills are being considered separately; for example, Labor, Health and Human Services bill, which funds the Affordable Care Act, will be more controversial and likely will take more time.) We may see important changes and amendments in the near future, and I will try to keep this page updated. The differences between the House and Senate budget bills will need to be resolved, and that can be a contentious process. We hope that the Senate will be less stingy with NSF funding and that it will continue with the Appropriations Committee’s funding levels for NOAA and NIST. There was some disagreement about the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research’s work on climate research and ocean acidification, and these will have to be resolved as well. To be continued…

My Experience with the Congressional Visit Day

[A previous version of this first appeared as a Guest Post on the AAS Policy Blog.]

Last week, I participated in the Congressional Visit Day (CVD) with the American Astronomical Society (AAS). I was just one member in a group of eighteen AAS members—a diverse group from around the country involved in many different subspecialties of astronomical research, as well as various teaching and outreach programs. Below, is a nice photo of us is (and I’m the guy wearing a hat). Our AAS delegation was part of a larger group of scientists, engineers, and business leaders involved in a few dozen organizations participating in the CVD, which was sponsored by the Science-Engineering-Technology Work Group. Go here for a further description of our program.


As scientists and members of the AAS, we had a few primary goals. We argued first and foremost for the importance of investing in scientific research (as well as education and outreach) through funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and science in particular departments (especially the Depts. of Energy and Defense). If you’re interested, you can see our handout here. We also encouraged our Representatives to sign two “Dear Colleague” letters that are currently passing through the House: the first letter is by Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) and is asking for a 3% increase to NSF’s FY 2015 budget to $7.5 billion, and the second letter is by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), and Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) and is asking the appropriators to “make strong and sustained funding for the DOE Office of Science one of your highest priorities in fiscal year 2015.”

We also told our Congress members about our personal experiences. In my case, I have been funded by NASA grants in the past and am currently funded by a NSF grant. I am applying for additional research grants, but it’s not easy when there is enough funding available only for a small fraction of submitted grant proposals. In the past, I have also benefited from projects and telescopes that were made possible by NASA and the NSF, and I plan to become involved in new telescopes and missions such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and possibly the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope). Also, if a NSF grant I’ve submitted is successful (fingers crossed!), I will be able to participate more actively in public outreach programs especially in the San Diego area in addition to continuing my research.

Not only did we explain the importance of stable funding for basic research, we also talked with our legislators about how astronomy is a “gateway science” that draws people in and inspires them to learn more, become more involved, and even potentially become scientists themselves.

We talked about the importance of improving science and math literacy, which also improves US competitiveness with respect to other countries, and about how investment in science spurs innovation in industry and leads to new and sometimes unexpected developments in computing, robotics, optics, imaging, radar, you name it. Since “all politics is local,” as they say, we also emphasized that these investments in scientific research are important for strong local, as well as national, economies. As we were visiting shortly after the introduction for the President’s Budget Request (PBR) for FY 2015, we also expressed our concern that the proposed budget reduces funding for NASA’s education and outreach activities within the Science Mission Directorate by two-thirds, and would require mothballing the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) outside of the well-established senior review process.

My Congress members are Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, whose staff we met, and Representative Susan Davis (CA-53), with whom we met personally (along with a member of her staff). We had a quick photo-op too, right before she had to get back to the House chamber for a vote. I was in a group with two other astronomers who were from Oklahoma and Illinois, and we met with their respective Congress members as well. Our larger group was split into teams of three to four for the days visits, and each met with the representatives and senators of all team members.

photo 4

Senators and Representatives serve on different committees and subcommittees, each with a specific jurisdiction over parts of the federal government. For example, Sen. Boxer is on the Science & Space Subcommittee of Senate’s Commerce Committee and is the chair of the Committee on Environment & Public Works. Sen. Feinstein is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy & Water, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Energy (among many other things). The appropriations committee is responsible for writing legislation that grants federal agencies the ability to spend money, that is, they appropriate the budgets for the agencies under their jurisdiction. Rep. Davis is a member of the House Education & Workforce Committee and has done a lot of work on educational reform, promoting youth mentoring, and civic education.

I think that we received a largely positive responsive from our congressional representatives. My three Congress members were very supportive and in agreement with our message. Some of the other members we met with, while generally positive about our message, left me with the impression that they approved of our “hard sciences” but didn’t want as much funding going to social sciences, climate science, and other particular fields. It seems to me that we must get ourselves out of this highly constrained budget environment, in which discretionary programs like those funding the sciences are capped each year; we need to either find additional sources of revenue (e.g., reducing tax breaks) or make other changes to current law.

In my previous blog post, I talked about the proposed budget and the negotiations taking place in Congressional committees. We also need to consider the current political situation with the upcoming mid-term elections. Once a budget (which may be significantly different than the PBR) is passed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, it will be considered by the House and Senate, which are currently controlled by Republicans and Democrats (who have 53 seats plus 2 independents who caucus with them). However, it appears possible that Republicans may retake the Senate in the 114th Congress, and in that case their leadership may resist even small additions to the current budget request and may attempt to simply pass a “continuing resolution” instead.

On the same day as our CVD (26th March), Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren appeared before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where there were considerable disagreements among the committee members about STEM education, SOFIA, and other issues. (Note that the committee is particularly polarized and has been criticized for its excessive partisanship and industry influence.) Fortunately, on the following day, a hearing before House appropriators on the NSF budget request fared better. This is encouraging, but in any case it will be a difficult struggle to produce a good budget (that is, good for science) within a short time-scale.

The Proposed Fiscal Year 2015 Budget: Thoughts on its Implications for Science

I’d like to make a few comments on the proposed US federal budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15, which starts in October), especially on its implications for science research and education in this country. First, I’ll acknowledge articles and blogs by Matt Hourihan (at the American Association for the Advancement for Science) and Josh Shiode (at the American Astronomical Society), which I’ve used for some of the information and figures below. I’m responsible though if I’ve misstated any facts or numbers, and as usual, any opinions I express about the current state of affairs are my own. I look forward to discussing these issues with scientists and other interested people, and as usual, you’re welcome to write or send me comments.

President Obama’s administration officially released its President’s Budget Request (PBR, but not the beer!) on 4th March, and the details are available on the White House’s website. The PBR is formulated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and it soon be evaluated and revised by the Appropriations Committees in Congress. The White House’s Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) plays a role in developing the budget, but naturally there are many other considerations involved as well, such as ensuring national security, strengthening the economy, maintaining healthcare and education programs, etc. Nonetheless, from the perspective of science research and education, the budget certainly could be better.

15p R&D Pie_AAAS

Unfortunately, the Budget Control Act puts spending caps on support for research and development (R&D). Assuming little to no additional revenue, there is not much room in the discretionary budget above FY 2014 levels. With three-quarters of the post-sequester spending reductions still in place (see my previous blog post), many agency R&D budgets are stagnant. The $3.901 trillion budget includes $136.5 billion for R&D, which is a 0.5% increase over FY 2014 but that doesn’t account for the 1.7% inflation rate. The divisions by agency are described by the above pie chart (courtesy: AAAS) and in this article. Funding for the physical sciences largely comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and other agencies and departments. Total research funding (basic+applied research) has dropped 1.9% below FY 2014 levels, which is only slightly above FY 2013 post-sequester levels.


The President has also proposed additional $56B of funding through the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OSGI), which would help the situation for many agencies, but it appears that Congress won’t have the stomach for it. As can be seen in the figure above (courtesy: Washington Post), an additional difficulty comes from differences between the revenue projections of the President and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); the former assumes revenue increases from some reduced tax breaks for wealthy Americans, to which Congress likely won’t agree. In that case, we may be headed back toward sequestration funding levels in FY 2016.


The Association of American Universities (AAU) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS, of which I’m a member) have expressed some criticism of the proposed budget: while they acknowledge the caps on discretionary spending, they argue that basic research and education could receive higher priority. A surprising cut that was proposed was to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is an aircraft telescope. The axing of SOFIA in 2015 is particularly vexing for astronomers because it occurred outside the established review process. The FY 2014 budget proposed a controversial government-wide reorganization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs, and this year’s budget includes a surprising cut (by 2/3!) to the STEM education budget within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Time will tell how education programs adapt to these changes, but cuts like these potentially hurt US competitiveness relative to Europe and East Asia as well as efforts toward improving science and math literacy.

According to Jack Burns (U. of Colorado, Boulder), “by lowering overall spending on the astronomical sciences, the Administration threatens the health of our technical workforce and the education and training of the next generation of space scientists. This is hard to swallow at a time when other countries are increasing their investments in science and technology.” Similarly, in Science magazine, William Press argues that, “it appears that [nations] who spend close to 3% of their GDP on R&D are the ones that compete most successfully. The United States is in that club now. We don’t want to fall out of it.”

I’m most interested in astronomy/astrophysics, because it’s my field, but other fields are affected as well. For example, the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) only received a sub-inflationary increase (like most agencies), and the proposed budget includes a substantial cut to fusion energy research and to the US contribution to the International Fusion Experiment (ITER), though funding for energy efficiency and renewables would increase. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would also receive a cut in this budget.


Finally, as this bar graph shows, the budget prospects for nondefense discretionary spending will likely worsen in the coming years. “Mandatory spending” is controlled by different mechanisms than discretionary spending, and it includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, which are large programs, as well as food stamps, unemployment compensation, and other smaller ones. As a fraction of GDP, we can expect mandatory spending to continue increasing. On this point, I’ll first say that in my personal view, I’m wary of those who criticize these programs (or who refer to them pejoratively as “entitlements”), because such criticisms give space for extreme conservatives who would rather gut these programs and let the poor, ill, hungry, and elderly suffer on their own. Nonetheless, it appears that, the way that they are currently funded, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid programs is growing at an unsustainable rate (faster than inflation). The Affordable Care Act is helping, but it’s probably insufficient to resolve this situation, especially as more baby boomers draw on retirement and health care benefits. Long-term fiscal problems remain.

We also need to consider the current political situation in Congress. I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the AAS this week, and I’ll soon write my next blog post about that.

On the US federal budget

I’d like to briefly comment on the budget(s) being negotiated in Congress.  In particular, I’ll try to focus on the impact on investment in science, though there are other important issues as well, such as the unemployment benefits that apparently won’t be extended and the cuts on military retirees’ benefits.  The budget plan led by Rep. Paul Ryan (who is a questionable choice for the job) and Sen. Patty Murray has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate later today.

Budget negotiations are often boring but are nonetheless important.  The current two-year budget plan has advantages and disadvantages.  The first and most ridiculous “advantage” is that a budget deal would avoid a government shutdown.  Such is the state of affairs in US politics.  The shutdown harmed many sectors of the government: clinical trials at the NIH were suspended; inspections and other work was suspended at the FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission; staff at the CDC and EPA were put on furlough; key tests for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to Hubble) were suspended; the National Science Foundation canceled its Antarctic research program; and three of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s telescopes were shut down, resulting in a substantial loss of data.  Ultimately, this considerably hurts US competitiveness in science: according to the OECD, the US is ranked 21st and 26th in science and math, below a few developing countries such as Vietnam.

An important advantage of the current budget bill is that it eases some of the across-the-board spending cuts due to the “sequestration”.  These cuts were extremely harmful on basic scientific research, which already receives less than 1% of the federal budget, as opposed to at least 20% to the military.  Earlier this year, more than fifty Nobel laureates wrote to Congress, urging them to remove these cuts to science investment.  Scientific research will be affected for years to come, and research funded by the NIH, NSF, NASA, and the DOE’s Office of Science are particularly affected.  Federally funded agencies and universities have attempted to sustain their research programs and avoid laying off scientists, but some may no longer be able to continue doing so.  Science and engineering education at colleges and universities have been affected as well.

Under the Ryan/Murray deal, approximately 75% of the spending reduction under sequestration will remain in place.  According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the deal may result in a restoration of roughly $8 billion in R&D funding above sequester levels over the next two years, though the final allocations for FY 2014 are now up to appropriators.

Though the budget deal may be better than no deal at all, it seems possible that congressional lawmakers could come up with and pass a better budget.  Science research and education should be spared the sequestration’s cuts.