To combat climate change, incremental change is not enough

Some people, including Andrew Revkin in the New York Times, argue that we can effectively mitigate climate change and keep greenhouse gas emissions in check with small policy changes here and there. But I think we no longer have that option; the window for solving this massive problem with incremental changes closed years ago.

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

(Credit: US Dept. of Energy)

Even while we brace ourselves for the incoming Trump administration, with numerous appointments on the transition team who deny basic scientific understanding about climate change and human activities driving it, we should not just defend current first steps in place, like the Clean Power Plan. If we are to combat climate change and if we are serious about avoiding worst-case scenarios, which would detrimentally affect millions of people worldwide, especially those living in coastal areas and low-lying islands, then we need to actively push for more.

In politics, people often talk of incremental changes, pushing for small reforms when the opportunity arises in the hopes that they somehow add up to bigger shifts over time. That might make sense for some policy goals, but as we reach so many “tipping points” with the climate, such as indicated by the horrible state of Arctic sea ice this year, we no longer have time for dilly-dallying. People and groups from very different political backgrounds have come together for big changes before—often for war—and now I hope that many will try to set aside their differences to try to realize a common goal.

The Clean Power Plan, developed under the Clean Air Act, goes after power plants, the country’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. It sets targets such that the national electricity sector’s emissions must drop by about 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. (Recall that 1990 was the original baseline, used by the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, but the Obama administration shifted it, possibly to make it seem like its reductions are larger than they actually are.) The result will be less of an emphasis on coal-fired power plants and more renewable energy as well as energy efficiency gains. We may see more use of natural gas or even nuclear power.

But the Clean Power Plan is not enough even to meet the country’s Paris Agreement commitments. Other beneficial policies make a difference as well, including California’s climate regulations—which include generating 50% of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030; reducing hydrofluorocarbons; and the EPA and Department of Transportation’s regulations on heavy-duty vehicles. If all of these things went according to plan, the US’s Paris pledges might be achievable.

Some people who should know better (such as the IPCC and US Democrats) include flawed or unproven technology, like carbon capture and storage in these policy frameworks. We should not depend on these or other so-called “negative-emission” technologies developing in the near future, as argued in this recent paper in Science by Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters.

Furthermore, even before Donald Trump takes office, the US is not on a path to meet its Paris Agreement pledges. This analysis in Nature Climate Change by Jeffery Greenblatt and Max Wei makes it clear that more has to be done. The Paris Agreement itself was supposed to be just a first step.

Even *if* the US and other major greenhouse gas-producing nations fulfill their Paris climate pledges, we’re still heading toward around 3 degrees of warming, far beyond what scientists warn is a safe threshold. When climate experts put together the Paris Agreement, they recommended 1.5 degrees warming as the threshold we should shoot for, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve that economically or practically. But perhaps with major policy shifts in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, 2 degrees might be achievable. Even that, however, could mean losing some island nations, more extreme flooding and droughts, numerous losses of species, suffering coral reefs, dwindling of some agricultural crops and fisheries, and shifting of ecosystems and growing deserts, among other disruptive and destructive impacts. In the US as well, economists and climate scientists are trying to estimate the “social cost of carbon,” which could cost this country billions or more in damage (though Trump’s transition team has tried to downplay these numbers so far).

The fact is, to mitigate climate change, we can’t emit much more greenhouse gas. The US has already burned through most of its carbon budget. Shifts from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, especially solar and wind, are already happening, and this trend would be tough to reverse by the incoming administration. Instead, it could be framed as a business opportunity, and perhaps Trump would be keen to back it in some way.

Lastly, let’s remember that, across the political spectrum, many people are in favor of major infrastructure projects. Investing in wind farms and solar power plants while upgrading public transportation systems, for example, could create millions of jobs, stimulate the economy and put us on a better path toward reigning in our toxic greenhouse gases.

My election polling coverage for Nature

Here’s a few stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature. If you’re interested in them, you can read the whole thing on Nature‘s website. (And if you quote or cite any of them, please give proper credit.) Special thanks go to my editors, Lauren Morello and Richard Monastersky. At the bottom of this, I’ve also posted a few other election-related articles from my colleagues.

 

Pollsters struggle to explain failures of US presidential forecasts

Most surveys did not predict Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

What went wrong? That’s the question that many political pollsters in the United States are asking themselves in the aftermath of the 8 November presidential election. Republican Donald Trump won in an electoral landslide, but for months most polls forecast a victory for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Many types of polls, including randomized telephone polls and online polls that people opt into, tightened in the weeks leading up to the election — but still pointed to a Clinton win.

“The industry is definitely going to be spending a lot of time doing some soul-searching about what happened and where do we go from here,” says Chris Jackson, head of US public polling at Ipsos, a global market-research and polling firm based in Paris.

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

The most recent national polls — including those conducted by ABC/Washington Post, Ipsos, YouGov, and Fox News — all estimated a Clinton lead of 3 to 4% over Trump. Minor-party candidates, such as Gary Johnson of the Liberal Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, were forecast to win single-digit support. Yet as this article went to press, as the last votes were being counted, Clinton leads the popular vote by a razor-thin margin: just 0.2%. The majority of states have tipped for Trump, awarding him their valuable electoral-college votes and ensuring his victory.

Poll aggregators such as FiveThirtyEight and New York Times nonetheless forecast Clinton’s chances of victory at 71% or higher, while the Huffington Post predicted a Clinton landslide. This dramatic polling failure could have been due to factors such as poorly assessed likely voters, people misreporting their voting intentions, or pollsters poorly surveying some segments of the population.

“It’s a big surprise that such a wide variety of polls using such a wide variety of methodologies have all the errors fall in the same direction,”says Claudia Deane, vice president of research at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 9 November 2016.]

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California’s poised to become the first state to ban plastic bags

On the 8th of November, if California voters pass a referendum on the ballot known as Proposition 67, the state will become the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at groceries, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Considering that Californians go through some 10 to 20 billion plastic bags per year, each one in use for an average of 15 minutes, this could make a big difference.

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

I get it. Plastic bags are useful and convenient. But so were polystyrene-foam products, and we managed to abandon them in the 1990s because they were damaging the ozone layer. It’s time for us to adapt to the 21st century and be less wasteful with plastic. You can still pay 10 cents for a paper bag if you really need it.

Plastic bags pollute our oceans, coastlines and streets. A recent study found that one-fourth of fish sampled in California markets had plastic debris in them, and shellfish had even more. If we were to continue with business as usual, we could have more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050, according to a study last year. Another study found that 90% of seabirds worldwide swallow plastic, and sea turtles get tangled in or eat the bags too, unfortunately mistaking them for jellyfish.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, using the fossil fuels natural gas and petroleum. Only a few kinds are recyclable, and the others don’t decay. Well they do break down very very slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, during which time they may kill or poison untold numbers of seabirds and turtles.

San Diego, my home town, became the 150th municipality in the state with a ban. The majority of Californians have begun to adapt to the ban. But when the state legislature passed it in 2014 (Senate Bill 270), people opposed to it—including the plastic industry, libertarians, and a few others—collected petition signatures opposed to it. The governor, other leading policy-makers, Democrats and Greens, and numerous environmental groups support the bill.

Now the plastic bag ban is on the ballot, for everyone to decide. A “yes” vote on Prop 67 would make uphold the legislation, while a “no” would overturn it. Two years ago, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed broad support for a plastic ban, with nearly sixty percent of people supporting it and about a third opposed. A new poll may reveal a shift in public opinion, though I suspect that my fellow Californians will stick with the plastic bag ban.

And then we could see other states, like Massachusetts, follow suit. A few other state governments, in contrast, are trying to ban plastic bag bans, but if California is successful with their ban, maybe they’ll reconsider. Then a decade down the road…who knows, maybe the whole country will abandon plastic bags!

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.

The Return of Persian Science

Like many multiethnic multicultural people, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with my multifaceted yet fragmented identity. As a half-Iranian in the midst of Americans, I’ve lacked key cultural influences and a US-centric worldview, while in Iran I feel like an outsider at times.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit twice so far—once as a teenager and once more recently as a physicist. Each time, I’ve been very observant in the hopes of better understanding an important side of myself. I’ve explored its fascinatingly unique cities, including the massive capital, Tehran, and its huge bazaars; Esfahan, with its spectacular architecture and Jahan Square, a national landmark; and Shiraz, with its tombs of poet giants, Hafez and Saadi. I’ve also looked for signs of how the country appears to be changing as it becomes more open to the international community.

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

Me and Sohrab Rahvar outside the physics department of University of Sharif, May 13, 2008. (Photo: Forood Daneshbad.)

At the invitation of Sohrab Rahvar, physics professor at the University of Sharif, I gave two seminars, one there and another at the University of Tehran. I presented postdoctoral research I was doing at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, investigating connections between observations of galaxies and theories of dark matter.

I introduced myself in Farsi and gave the talks in English—the usual second language there. I had learned Farsi from my mother in the US, and I had a pretty good accent too, but I lacked the vocabulary to communicate astrophysics in the language. I found out though that, for example, like in English, Iranians use the same word for a “cluster of galaxies” and a “cluster of grapes”.

After my presentations, the students asked challenging questions about my work—both in English and Farsi. One student asked me for advice, as she was preparing a job application for the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, near Nuremberg.

For all their talent and promise, students and scientists like her face many difficulties under the tough nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Iran. Many have a hard time traveling to conferences, obtaining student visas, or meeting with international colleagues. Even the Iranian physicists who played an integral role in the CERN Large Hadron Collider collaboration ran into restrictions. Obtaining professional journals and lab equipment can be prohibitively expensive for Iranian scientists too. Perhaps for these reasons, many scientists shifted to theoretical rather than experimental work; for example, I met surprisingly many string theory researchers there.

Science, medicine and mathematics have a long and glorious history in Iran and Persia. Six centuries before Galileo, the physicist Biruni was the first scientist to propose that the speed of light is finite. Ibn al-Haytham developed the field of optics, Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) made important contributions to medicine and philosophy, and the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam—author of The Rubaiyat—also happened to figure out the principles of algebra and devised an accurate solar calendar. Observatories proliferated throughout Persia then, and precise planetary records collected at Maragheh observatory, in what is now northwestern Iran, likely influenced Copernicus’s hypothesis that the Earth revolves around the sun.

A thousand years later, Iran is a nation of 78 million people, almost as populous as Germany. More than half the population is under the age of 35—many of them politically active—and male and female young adults have a literacy rate of 97 percent. According to the Institute of International Education, 10,200 Iranian students and nearly 1,400 scholars studied at US colleges and universities, making it the 12th leading country to send students to the US. In 1979, however, more than 51,000 students enrolled in U.S. universities—the biggest source of overseas students. The large Iranian diaspora have been known for their accomplished work in science and other fields, but according to the International Monetary Fund, this has fueled the highest “brain drain” among developing and developed countries, with 150,000 to 180,000 educated people emigrating every year. But now that may change.

As the international sanctions will be gradually lifted, students and scientists in Iran and their colleagues abroad have much to look forward to. As part of the historic nuclear deal, the uranium enrichment facility in Fordo, between Tehran and Esfahan, will be converted into an international nuclear physics and technology center.

Iranians have other plans in the works too. Within the next 4 or 5 years, astronomers are working on building a new observatory, a 3.4-meter optical telescope, on a 12,000-foot peak in central Iran at a site comparable to Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Once it’s completed, the international community will be invited to use up to 70 percent of the observing time to study planets outside the solar system, gamma-ray bursts, distant galaxies and elusive dark matter. I hope to see the telescope the next time I travel there.

In addition, Iranian physicists plan to construct an ambitious $300 million “synchrotron” particle accelerator. Like the telescope, it would be difficult to complete on schedule, if at all, were the sanctions not removed. Iranian scientists and their international partners excitedly anticipate new experiments on a wide range of subjects, from research on biological molecules to advanced materials. “Big Science” is not limited to the West.

Other sciences also look forward to a changing environment, as described in a Science special issue on science in Iran.

Rahvar seems optimistic about the post-sanctions situation. “We hope to reestablish our previous scientific relations and make new collaborations,” he says. It will take time, but the prospect of an improving research climate in Iran could herald a new era of scientific achievements in the country, especially in the physical sciences.

I think that a more open political environment in Iran won’t just invigorate science in the country and in the international community; with time, it will stimulate a more open exchange of ideas and cultural understanding. I’m proud of my Iranian blood, and I excitedly await Iran’s renewal and resurgence.

[I’m cross-posting this from the Last Word on Nothing blog, where this was originally published. Thanks to Jessa Gamble and other LWON members for their editing assistance and helpful advice.]

Nuclear Risk Reduction After the Iran Deal: Take Nukes Off Hair-Trigger Alert

By Ramin Skibba and Stephen Young

Following weeks of intense debate in the United States, the international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supported by all California Senators and Bay Area Representatives, will go forward. It is an historic arrangement that demonstrates the world’s resolve to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, it will not solve all the nuclear threats that face the world.

With the Iran agreement now entering its implementation phase, it’s important to ask what other steps can be made to reduce the still considerable risks posed by nuclear weapons. The place to start is with countries already possessing nuclear weapons, pressing them to reduce the threat that their massive stockpiles still represent. Removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert” would be an important first step.

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

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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.

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).

photo

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.

cost-big

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.

photo(1)

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.

Telescopes

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

NASA

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.

Education

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!

Innovating Regulatory and Business Models in the Electric Industry (because climate change)

At a Climate and Energy Law Symposium at the University of San Diego on Friday (7th November), scientists, policy experts, lawyers, and business leaders gathered to discuss trends driving changes in the electric industry and regulatory and business responses to them. It was a rather sunny and hot day for southern California in November, perhaps highlighting ongoing climate change and the need to adapt the regulatory framework, market rules, and interactions between electric utilities and customers. The symposium was titled, “Innovative Regulatory and Business Models in a Changing Electric Industry.”

The symposium seemed to lean more on the business and legal side of things rather than the policy and science side, so I was out of my element, but I’ll try to write about some of the interesting things I learned there. USD also publishes the San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law, if you’d like to read more about related topics.

Solar-on-roof

In one of the morning sessions, Jamie van Nostrand from West Virginia University spoke about drivers of electric industry innovations including climate change mitigation and adaptation—for example following the experience of Superstorm Sandy. The electric industry is adapting to the rapid expansion of photovoltaics and solar panels in recent years and is preparing for the growth of “distributed energy” stored in small, decentralized grid-connected devices. (These images of rooftop solar and smart-grid technology are courtesy of NREL and DOE.)

OE-SmartGrid_Hero2

These were common themes throughout the day, especially the growth of solar and the proliferation of distributed energy resources. Although Sky Stanfield (at Keyes, Fox, & Wiedman LLP) stated that the increasing number of grid-connected solar installations has been mostly in the residential sector, as you can see from this recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, solar PV is growing exponentially in residential as well as commercial and large-scale sectors in the US.

UCSreport_Fig5

Of course, some countries, such as Germany, have surpassed these levels. Germany now generates as much as ~30% of its electricity from renewables, mostly from solar and wind power. The government’s goal is to double that amount by 2035, and they’re on track to successfully do so. However, in the meantime, they need to address issues of adapting the electrical grid and constructing new grid-storage capacity—issues also faced by the US electric industry.

Distributed energy, such as with rooftop solar panels, has the potential to allow individuals and communities to have more power (no pun intended) and influence with respect to utilities. Distributed generation could not just decentralize but also even democratize electricity systems, although that seems a little overoptimistic to me (see this article in Grist). Some states have witnessed opposition to distributed generation and to “net metering,” in which an electricity consumer who generates on-site electric energy (such as with solar panels) can offset part of their electricity bill. Some people have portrayed that as “free riding,” and Troy Rule (Arizona State Law School) showed this anti-net metering advert, which is ridiculous and funny as propaganda.

So what’s next? Kevin Jones (Vermont Law School) talked about five environmental pathways for an improved electric grid in his book, “A Smarter, Greener Grid,” including things like distributed energy technologies and optimization, electric vehicles, and areas to improve energy efficiency. Dian Grueneich, a former Public Utilities Commissioner, outlined proposals for “California’s Electricity Policy Future: Beyond 2020.” This included updated net-metering policies so that individuals and communities could more easily share a solar project’s electricity output. More importantly, she argued for a inter-agency policymaking structure that integrates electricity with climate, water, air quality, and transportation goals.

For all their talk of “innovation” (or even “disruptive innovation”!), I can’t say I left feeling like these people are transforming the electric industry in a fundamental way; they’re just gradually adapting to worsening climate change, which means more people with solar panels and making grids less vulnerable to Sandy-like storms. They’ll have to adapt to much more than that, judging from the conclusions of the newest IPCC report.

But what do Californians, industries, and policy-makers really need to do to mitigate, and not just adapt to, climate change? The symposium, which included speakers from and was sponsored by San Diego Gas & Electric, made inroads but only touched the surface of this question. The final person to ask a question during the final Q&A period referred to this issue, but her question remained unanswered and was postponed to the reception, where alcohol would be served.