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.

COMPETES Act: The House Science Committee’s Controversial Bill

Two weeks ago, the United States House Science Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), passed the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) along party lines. Originally authored by Bart Gordon (D-TN) in 2007 to improve the US’s competitiveness and innovation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it contributed substantial funding to research and activities in federal agencies including the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). (In a previous post, I was hopeful about the passage of an earlier version of the bill.) Its current version, however, includes contentious cuts to NSF and DOE research programs, and it now proceeds to the House floor.

Although the President’s Budget Request for fiscal year 2016 includes small increases for the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST, the new COMPETES Act, if passed in its current version, would shift funding away from research in the social sciences, geosciences, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and biological and environmental research. In other words, federally funded research in some science fields would gain more support at the expense of these fields, whose funding would be cut by 10-50%. In particular, the bill would severely narrow the scope of NSF research and scientific facilities in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) and geoscience (GEO) directorates and would reduce the DOE’s basic and applied research programs in climate change and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

I suppose it could be worse. Lamar Smith’s earlier version included attacks and interference in the NSF’s scientific peer-review process (which I discussed in
this post in March), and he made a small concession by removing such language from the bill.

Clearly not happy with the COMPETES Act, scientists of all stripes continue to voice their opposition. While the House Science Committee’s Republican majority rejected one Democratic amendment after another, 32 scientific agencies submitted official letters for the record describing their concerns. (These agencies include the American Physical Society and American Institute of Physics, of which I am a member.) Moreover, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—the US’s premier scientific society—submitted a letter as well, pointing out that H.R. 1806 violates its own Guiding Principles. The letter also states, “NSF is unique among federal agencies in that it supports a balanced portfolio of basic research in all disciplines, using the scientific peer review system as the foundation for awarding research grants based on merit.”

In my opinion, the COMPETES Reauthorization Act needs serious revision so that scientists in all fields, including the social sciences and geosciences, may continue their work at an internationally respected level. This would certainly make the US more competitive in science and would aid people seeking STEM careers. If the bill’s proponents will not allow these necessary improvements to be made, then the bill should be rejected.

For more information, check out this well-written article in Wired and detailed coverage in Science magazine and Inside Higher Ed.

Challenges of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Successor to Hubble

Everyone grows up eventually. It’s hard to believe, but the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which many astronomers and astronomy fans consider to be one of the most important telescopes of our generation, turns 25 this month. Hubble, built and funded by NASA and the European Space Agency, was launched on 24th April 1990, only a half year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its instruments produced numerous iconic images, including the spectacular ones below.

Everyone is celebrating this anniversary! Check out for more images, news, and information. The 2010 documentary, “Saving Hubble,” is now viewable for free. Plus, in a public lecture on 1st April as part of National Academies’ Space Science Week, Jason Kalirai (Space Telescope Science Institute) highlighted Hubble’s many scientific contributions.

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Crab Nebula (Credit: Hubble Space Telescope)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Galaxy M83 (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Ultra Deep Field (HST)

Now astronomers and the astronomy-loving public are anticipating and preparing for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, named after a former NASA administrator). Over its ambitious 5 to 10-year mission (a Star Trek-style time-scale!), its powerful cameras and spectrometers will focus on near- to mid-infrared wavelengths and will examine planetary systems in our galaxy as well as distant galaxies forming in the early universe, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. As you can see, it’s built with a folding segmented mirror and a deployable sunshield. It’s not servicable like Hubble was, as JWST will orbit one million miles from Earth.

Artist's impression of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

Artist’s impression of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

As I’ve written in previous posts, JWST’s gigantic budget has been contentious in the astronomical community. While astronomers believe that JWST will likely have a big scientific impact, especially on the fields of planetary physics and galaxy formation, others are unhappy that its cost inevitably results in smaller programs being cut. NASA officials prioritize the missions and programs the agency invests in, and it is simply not feasible to fund every exciting project astronomers propose. (JWST’s budget constituted nearly half of NASA’s astrophysics budget for FY 2015.) Based on my conversations with astronomers, the community remains divided about JWST, though many astronomers are excited about the telescope and note its importance for public outreach.

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Credit: NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz

Large projects rarely stay on schedule and on budget in astrophysics, but JWST was perhaps an extreme case. A decade ago, JWST faced considerable criticism, such as in this Nature article by Lee Billings, because of its many delays and cost overruns. But after much pressure and threats from Congress to cancel the program, NASA officials rebaselined JWST’s budget and conducted a management overhaul in 2011. Since then, scientists have kept JWST within its new $8.8-billion budget and the telescope is on schedule for launch in 2018.

Last Tuesday, the House Science Committee held a hearing reviewing JWST’s progress, called “Searching for the Origins of the Universe: An Update on the Progress of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).” According to the American Institute of Physics, the committee’s Chair and Ranking Member, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), “expressed, as did other subcommittee members, great interest in and support for the telescope.” According to Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office, JWST has ten months of unused budget reserves, which will be more than enough as it moves into the integration and testing phase.

A few challenges remain. For example, technicians have had difficulty with a “cryocooler” component, which needs to operate at much colder temperatures than other such units in order to keep the Mid-Infrared Instrument sufficiently cool, but it is still scheduled to be delivered this summer. In any case, both John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and John Mather, JWST’s Senior Project Scientist, expressed confidence to the Committee that this observatory will launch in 2018. “Expect amazing discoveries,” Mather said.

For more coverage, take a look at these articles in Scientific American, Space News, and [Full disclosure: I am a member of the American Institute of Physics, and former colleagues at the University of Arizona helped design JWST’s NIRCam instrument.]

How Do Politics Interfere with the National Science Foundation and NASA?

Why do Congress members members keep getting involved in scientists’ work? Is it because they really love science? In my opinion, this interference impedes scientists’ communities from setting their own priorities and from continuing their work. (I argued as much when I spoke to Senator Feinstein’s staff at her San Diego office recently.) But first I’ll describe how Representatives in the House Science Committee seek to interfere with the National Science Foundation’s peer-review process and how a Subcommittee Chair in the Senate interferes with NASA’s scientific programs. As budget negotiations begin for FY 2016, these issues take on additional importance.

Suppose the scientist Dr. X wrote a paper about her findings and wants to publish it. She’d submit it to a journal, where it would go through the peer-review process: a peer reviewer would review the paper and assess whether it is publishable and appropriate for the journal. When Dr. X submits a proposal for a research grant with a federal agency, such as with the National Science Foundation (NSF), the process works sort of similarly. More is at stake though, and a panel of reviewers review many proposals and assess their scientific merits.


In the context of budget debates during the recession and ongoing “sequestration,” it’s natural that policy-makers would scrutinize agencies’ budgets. Nevertheless, in the federal R&D budgets by agency, the NSF’s is rather small—much smaller than the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, for example—and in any case, hasn’t the NSF been doing a good job? In spite of this, last year the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (“House Science Committee,” for short), chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), began “an unprecedented—and some say bizarre—intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants,” according to science policy analyst Jeffrey Mervis.

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX). Credit: Science Insider

In 1976, Senator William Proxmire (D–WI) attacked scientific research with the annual “Golden Fleece” Awards, the first of which went to the NSF. These awards and Proxmire’s grandstanding resulted in generating suspicion towards government spending on science. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) continued this legacy by criticizing primarily research grants in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) sciences. In response, a few years ago, a coalition of scientific groups started the Golden Goose Awards to highlight “examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”

Lamar Smith’s current attack goes further than the Golden Fleece Awards by investigating the NSF’s peer-review process itself, and scientists are concerned about whether the process will remain confidential. Moreover, Smith would like to ensure that every research grant funded by the NSF is in the “national interest;” any other research, according to him, constitutes “wasteful spending.” It seems that Smith’s mission is to attack research in the social sciences, and at the same time he threatens to “compromise the integrity of NSF’s merit review system as part of this campaign,” according to House Science Committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX). (For more coverage, see these excellent articles in Science, National Geographic, and LA Times.)

Finally, on a more positive note, it seems that Smith and NSF Director France Córdova may eventually resolve their disagreements. Following a hearing on the NSF’s grant making policies and procedures, Smith backed down from his previous position and appears to have endorsed the NSF’s peer review system. This is encouraging, but I fear that the battle isn’t over.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Credit: AP)

But it’s not just the NSF that has experienced politicians interfering in its work. NASA faces a somewhat similar situation. (The Environmental Protection Agency has also withstood attacks in recent weeks, but that’s another story.) Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, which oversees NASA, is getting involved in that agency’s work. At a budget hearing, Cruz questioned Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and NASA’s administrator, to explain NASA’s funding of earth sciences (also known as geosciences), which Cruz claimed are not “hard science.” Cruz argued that manned space exploration is NASA’s “core mission,” and earth sciences have nothing to do with that.

Bolden responded, “It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment, because this is the only place we have to live…We’ve got to take care of it. and the only way to take care of it is to know what’s happening.” Moreover, according to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Science magazine, one can’t decouple earth sciences and planetary sciences, which are inextricably linked. (For more coverage, also check out these articles in the Guardian, Slate, and Salon.)

Cruz is right that the proportion of NASA funding going to earth science research has increased over the past few years, but there is a reason for that. In my opinion, some people reporting on this in the news seem to focus on the misguided and ill-informed views of Senator Cruz when it comes to climate science in particular. But I think the issue here is that politicians shouldn’t generally interfere with scientists doing their work as best they can. Scientists in the space sciences (including earth sciences) periodically write reports known as Decadal Surveys, in which they set their short- and long-term priorities for investing funding and research. Though there could be more interaction and better communication between scientists and policy makers, especially when some research programs might have policy implications, that doesn’t mean that non-scientists know better when it comes to setting priorities for scientific research.

These debates don’t happen in a vacuum but are related to the larger context of federal budgets for science research, education, and public outreach. Negotiations for FY 2016 budgets are already underway, and just last week scientists and their allies advocated for a 5% increase to the NSF’s budget, primarily going to telescope construction projects and the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division, as well as an 11% increase to its education budget. The debates surely will continue, and I’ll keep you posted.

Science Policy at the American Astronomical Society: NASA, National Science Foundation, New Telescopes

Following my previous post, here I’ll write about some science policy-related talks, events, and news at the American Astronomical Society meeting two weeks ago.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

As we saw in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, NASA’s sending Scott Kelly to join Mikhail Kornienko for a 1-year mission at the International Space Station, where they and their crewmates will carry out numerous research experiments and work on technology development. This could help toward sending manned missions to Mars in the future, which would involve much longer periods in space. Of course, actually getting to Mars involves many other challenges too; and let’s remember that the ISS has an orbit height of about 431 km while the closest distance between Earth and Mars is 54.6 million km–about 100,000 times further away. Reaching Mars is clearly an ambitious goal, but it’s achievable in the long term. (For SOTU coverage, check out these articles in Science and Universe Today.) The new budget extends the life of the ISS until at least 2024, “which is essential to achieving the goals of sending humans to deep space destinations and returning benefits to humanity through research and technology development.” The ISS accounts for most of NASA’s space operations budget, but that only accounts for a few percent of NASA’s total budget, which includes many other activities and missions.

The NASA Town Hall began with with an update on its budget for 2015, and if you’re interested in the details, take a look at my previous post. One important change is that education will not take up 1% of every project as before; instead, the new budget requires that educational activities be centralized in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).


The National Academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, organize a massive effort every decade for leaders in the astronomy and astrophysics community to prioritize their goals and challenges and to make recommendations about what kinds of large-, medium-, and small-scale projects should have funding and resources invested in them. The Decadal Survey for 2010-2020, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics”, is detailed and well-organized, and you can view it online. It’s complementary to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Cosmic Visions” programme for 2015-2025. Astronomers have produced these surveys since the 1970s, and other fields are catching on too; for example, the 2015-2025 decadal survey of ocean sciences just came out today.

The NASA spokesperson pointed out that previous Decadal Survey missions—Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer—have now become household names, and the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope will too. JWST will be great for astronomy and for outreach, but it is nonetheless extremely expensive and over budget, which implies that some smaller projects won’t be funded. According to this detailed article by Lee Billings, JWST is taking an ever-increasing fraction of NASA’s astrophysics budget, and based on the presentation at the town hall, it looks like that will continue for the next few years. In the meantime, WFIRST’s budget will start ramping up soon too.

In other news, at the AAS meeting we also heard updates about research grants in 2014 through NASA’s funding of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) funding. The Astrophysics Data Analysis Program (ADAP) was funded at $7.5M last year with a 21% proposal success rate, and the Astrophysics Theory Program (ATP) was funded at $3.5M with a 11% success rate. I didn’t catch the stats for the other programs, such as those involving exoplanet research and instrumentation. Grant funding levels have been pretty flat for the past four fiscal years, but because of the increasing number proposals, the selection rate keeps decreasing. Theoretical astrophysicists will be dismayed that no ATP proposals will be solicited in 2015, but they say that there has been no reduction in funding, just a delay.


There were also interesting sessions about education and public outreach (E/PO) and Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) too, and I suggest checking out those links if you want more information and resources.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

I also attended the NSF town hall, and similar to the NASA one, was primarily about budget issues. The NSF budget fared alright for fiscal year 2015 and appears to be between the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios they envisioned. NSF is pursuing partnerships with universities, other institutions, and federal agencies on some projects, such as a NASA-NSF partnership on exoplanet research. NSF analysts expect an approximately flat budget out to 2019, but that could change. They’re already preparing for FY 2016, and the President’s Budget Request will come out in the near future.

For the division of astronomical sciences (AST), NSF research grant proposals had a success rate of 15-16% for both 2013 and 2014. Nonetheless, as with NASA, there appears to be a long-term decreasing trend; in 2002, the success rate was 38%. And as with NASA, this is mostly due to increasing numbers of proposals, and they’re starting to restrict the number of proposals submitted per investigator and per institution. They’re also developing strategies in case success rates drop below 10%, which would be a dire situation. I’ve been funded by NSF grants myself, and it’s stressful for faculty, research scientists, and grad students when proposals are rejected so often.

The NSF spokesperson briefly mentioned NSF “rotator” positions, which are temporary program directors who work at the NSF and collaborate with many people on a variety of policy and budget issues. The astronomical sciences has such a program, and if you want more information about it, look here.

The NSF also funds major telescopes, including the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also in Chile. As you may know, scientists are making progress with ALMA and have obtained interesting results already (see below). DKIST is under construction, and construction will begin on LSST later this year. In NSF’s budget, existing facilities account for about 1/3 of it, individual and mid-scale programs are another third, and the rest of the budget goes to ALMA, DKIST, and LSST.

AAS Science Policy & Advocacy

Joel Parriott, the AAS’s director of public policy, and Josh Shiode, the public policy fellow, organized a great session on science policy and the AAS’s advocacy efforts. They gave an informative presentation about how budgets are determined and about the current budget situation for basic and applied research in the astronomical sciences. I didn’t know that the US currently funds 37% of the world’s R&D, but China is expected to overtake the US in the early 2020s.

Shiode also spoke about the importance of cross-cultural communication between scientists and policy-makers. As a scientist and as a constituent, there are many ways that you can influence your Congress members, and nothing beats interacting with them in person. If you’re an astronomer, I strongly encourage you to participate in the Congressional Visits Day. I participated in it last year (see my blog post about it), and I really enjoyed it. You can find more information here, and note the deadline on 3 February.


There are other ways to get involves as well. You can also call or write to your Representative or Senators as well as write letters to the editor or op-eds for your local newspaper. Note that some Congress members will be receptive to different messages or to different ways of framing scientists’ and educators’ concerns. One concern scientists have these days is that some members of Congress are interfering with the peer-review process in the NSF and NIH.


The AAS meeting also included a session on ALMA, a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) open house, and a JWST town hall, as well as one for Hubble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this spring. (I wasn’t able to attend all of these sessions, unfortunately.)

Al Wootten (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) gave a nice talk about science that is being done with ALMA so far. It’s an array of 66 12-meter and 7-meter radio telescopes, and after three decades of planning/construction, ALMA is now approaching full science operations. The US is part of a large international collaboration consisting of a partnership between North America, Europe, and East Asia. Wootten presented interesting results about observations of gas in Milky Way-like galaxies in the distant universe and of gas kinematics in protostars and protoplanetary disks. ALMA had a conference in Tokyo in December, and the proceedings will be published in a few months.

The TMT and JWST are upcoming telescopes that much of the astronomical community and the science-loving public are looking forward to. The TMT is one of the giant telescopes I’ve written about before, and it will have “first light” in 2022. JWST is scheduled to launch in 2018.

[This is my second post in a series about the American Astronomical Society meeting.]

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!

Rosetta and the Time-scale of Science

Over the past couple weeks, you have surely seen Rosetta and its dusty comet all over the internet, in the news, or on Twitter and other social media sites. It has definitely captured the public imagination. But where did Rosetta come from? How did scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) manage to accomplish the feat of putting a lander on the surface of a comet hurtling through space? The answer: through a lot of hard work by many people and investment of many resources for many years.

#CometLanding may have been the meme of the week, but it was decades in the making. After Halley’s Comet (1P/Halley) flew by the Earth and was studied by ESA’s Giotto probe, scientists there and at NASA realized that more ambitious missions would be necessary to obtain more detailed information about comets, which contain water and organic materials and could have influenced the origin of life on Earth. ESA’s Science Programme Committee approved the Rosetta mission in November 1993, about 21 years ago. Design and construction took teams of scientists a decade to complete, and then they launched the €1.3 billion flagship spacecraft in 2005 (which was a few months before NASA’s Deep Impact mission sent a probe to collide with a different comet). Following four gravity assists, slingshotting once by Mars and three times by Earth, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this year. After orbiting for two months, Rosetta was in a position and trajectory to eject Philae, which successfully landed on the comet and made history on 12th November. (See my recent post for more.)

To give another example, for my astrophysics research, I have frequently used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an optical telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The SDSS was first planned in the 1980s, and data collection finally began in 2000. Some have
described the SDSS as one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy, as it has observed millions of galaxies and quasars, transforming many fields of research, including work on cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe. It also witnessed the rise of Galaxy Zoo, which with more than 250,000 active “citizen scientists,” has become perhaps the greatest mass participation project ever conceived. Now we prepare for the successors to the SDSS, including ESA’s Euclid mission and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which are expected to have “first light” in the 2020s.

Scientific research operates on a long time-scale, sometimes longer than the careers of scientists themselves. Scientists make mistakes sometimes, and some projects, large and small, may fail or produce inaccurate results. At times, it may take awhile for scientists to abandon a theory or interpretation insufficiently supported by evidence, and it can be difficult to determine which investigations to pursue that could yield new and fruitful research. Nevertheless, over many years the “self-correcting” nature of the scientific enterprise tends to prevail.

In addition, while the US Congress makes decisions about federal budgets every fiscal year, American scientists depend on predictable stable funding over longer periods in order to successfully complete their research programs. Moreover, school and university students depend on funding and resources for their education. Quality scientific education helps people to become scientifically literate and critical thinkers; as Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “center line of science literacy…is how you think.” Plus, some students will be inspired by Rosetta and other achievements to pursue careers in science, and we should give them every opportunity to do so.

Events can change rapidly in the 24-hour news cycle, but science and scientists work over years to produce big results like the comet landing. Future missions and ambitious projects for the next few decades are being planned now and need continued support. And to ensure more scientific advancements after that, we need to keep investing in the education of our students—the next generation of scientists.

[Note that this op-ed-like piece is adapted from an assignment I wrote for a science writing class with Lynne Friedmann at UC San Diego.]

Rep. Rush Holt, Physicist, to Lead American Association for the Advancement of Science

Can you imagine what would happen if we had a PhD physicist in the US Congress? We actually already have one there, Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), who has done a lot of excellent work in that role over the past sixteen years. Bumper stickers saying “My Congressman IS a Rocket Scientist” are popular in his central New Jersey district. In Congress since 1999, Holt has been a consistently strong advocate for science and science communication and for increasing funding for scientific research and education in federal budgets. Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency that provided Congress with comprehensive and authoritative analysis of scientific and technical issues, and was terminated in 1995. He’s also an inspiring speaker; I saw him give a great speech when I participated in a Congressional Visit Day with the American Astronomical Society.


Now Rep. Holt is retiring from the House of Representatives. Considering the frequent attacks on science, such as on National Science Foundation research grants, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and on the EPA’s scientific advisers—to give just a few examples—we’ll need more people like him. In an interview with Scientific American, he said that if there is one issue that nags from his terms in Congress, it’s

…science and international affairs. That means bringing good scientific thinking to matters of arms control and intelligence and war and peace. I think we would all benefit from thinking like scientists, and those are important areas. Also, in areas of environmental protection and public health we need more scientific thinking. Most recently, I think we would benefit if more people thought like scientists in confronting Ebola. We would benefit if more people thought like scientists in facing climate change.

Fortunately, I have good news! Holt will continue his service by succeeding Alan Leshner as the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, of which I’m a member). According to the AAAS, “Efforts to advance science, promote public engagement with science and technology, and ensure that accurate scientific information informs policy decisions—core AAAS activities—have also been central to Holt’s long record of public service.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Holt said that he didn’t have an agenda, but he offered a general thought about the AAAS’s mission, saying that it needs to “look after the health of science in America—the entire science enterprise.”

Holt’s first responsibilities as the new CEO of AAAS will include oversight of a transformation initiative to enhance AAAS’s engagement with its members and to better utilize the Science journals for science communication, which also involves transitioning from a print-centric to a digital-first publishing environment. He will also oversee next year’s launch of a new open-access journal, Science Advances. I’m sure there will be more plans for the future at the AAAS’s annual meeting in February, and I’ll be there and will report on any new developments.

Implications of the Midterm Election for Science

Just to be clear, I should distinguish between my statements as a scientist and my views on “science policy” and politics. This post is more about the latter, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts and views about these issues too.

The US midterm elections never receive as much media attention and as high turnouts as presidential ones. For family reasons or work reasons (because Election Day is not a holiday in the US) or because of disillusionment or apathy or other reasons, typically more than 60% of eligible voters do not vote during midterm elections.

The midterms on Tuesday (November 4th) are nonetheless important. In particular, science-related issues—especially climate change and Ebola—are playing significant roles in political campaigns and referenda on ballots around the country. In addition, the next (114th) Congress will shape federal budgets for basic and applied research in science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and public outreach, as well as setting budget priorities that could remain in place for years to come.

The Budget Situation

Developing and implementing federal budgets take considerable time and effort. The President and Office of Management and Budget first propose a budget for the next fiscal year (FY), then Congressional appropriations committees negotiate to develop their own budget bills, and then the final bill is executed by the federal agencies. Annual budgets for agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can fluctuate throughout the budget-making process. For example, the House gave the NSF a 2.1% higher budget than the Senate Appropriations Committee, while both chambers rejected the President’s proposal to cut the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) through NASA. The House and Senate appropriators also have different funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which include possible cuts to climate research. Note that federal science budgets also include the social and political sciences, which are funded through the NSF. It took forty years since the establishment of the NSF to include them under its aegis, and this is still contentious; an attempt in the House Science Committee to reduce their funding levels with an amendment earlier this year failed to pass.

Budget negotiations for FY 2015 were not completed when the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on the appropriations bills this summer. With the election approaching, Congress passed a three-month stopgap measure starting in September known as a continuing resolution (CR) to avert another government shutdown. The shutdown in 2013 had a disruptive impact on scientific researchers, students, and agency employees. For example, 99% of NSF’s workforce was furloughed, NASA sent 98% of its employees home without pay or access to their work, and NIH put 73% of its employees on enforced leave and suspended new clinical trials. Fortunately, this experience was not repeated.

Nevertheless, FY 2015 has just begun, and the CR means that the budgets continue on autopilot until December, and scientists hope that by then the new Congress will successfully finalize a budget bill for the rest of the fiscal year. Until a budget is passed, agencies continue to fund their programs at FY 2014 levels, which has the result that “sequestration” spending reductions from the Budget Control Act of 2011 will remain in place. If Congress does not make an agreement to reduce or remove these budget constraints, discretionary spending will return to sequester levels in FY 2016 and will remain there for the rest of the decade, meaning continued challenges for investment in science and technology. Considering that mandatory spending, which includes Social Security and Medicare, will continue to grow relative to the discretionary budget (see this CBO report), future budget negotiations will become even more difficult to resolve.


STEM education and public outreach will be affected by the post-election Congress’s priorities as well. A couple months ago, Sen. J. Rockefeller (D-WV), introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. According to the Association of American Universities, the bill calls for “robust but sustainable funding increases for the [NSF] and National Institute for Standards and Technology” (NIST), and it supports each agency’s effort to improve education of future STEM professionals. However, support for the bill has not been sufficiently bipartisan to reauthorize it yet. Depending on the post-election environment, the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, introduced by Sen. T. Harkin (IA) might be more likely to pass. The HEA governs federal student aid, and considering that at least 70% of US university graduates are burdened with debt, this is clearly important. The bill would provide some relief for students by increasing state contributions to public universities and thereby reducing tuition fees, supporting community colleges, and expanding programs that allow high school students to earn college credits.

Election Campaigns and Ballot Measures

In addition to these science research and education issues, science policy is also relevant in many midterm election campaigns and ballot measures. Climate change, energy policies, and the environment are the most prominent science policy issues and are playing a big role in campaign ads. With increased flooding in the eastern US and the ongoing drought and wildfire conditions in the southwest—motivating a $7.5 billion water bond in California (see this PPIC post for info)—global warming concerns many voters. However, a partisan divide persists, depending how poll questions are framed. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the Keystone XL remain controversial as well, and anti-fracking measures were nearly included on Colorado and Michigan’s ballots. In addition, in another science policy issue, voters in Colorado and Oregon will decide on the labeling of foods containing genetically modified crops (GMOs).

Moreover, climate change is a major campaign issue in the race between Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52), and Carl DeMaio in San Diego County. This tossup race has gained national attention, and though both candidates acknowledge the science behind climate change, DeMaio has stated that more research is needed. (Both candidates recently visited us at UC San Diego.) Importantly, Peters serves on the House Science Committee, and committee members Alan Grayson (FL-9) and Ami Bera (CA-7) are in close races as well. The post-election House Science Committee could change shape. Climate change also plays a role in the election between Sen. Mark Udall (CO) and Rep. Cory Gardner and in the one between Gov. Rick Scott (FL) and Charlie Crist.

In any case, science policy issues are clearly important in this election, which will have important implications for investment in science research and education.

[Note that part of this post was adapted from an op-ed that I submitted last month to the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.]