Good Times, Bad Times for Astronomy

Astronomy is not a static enterprise. To continue the advancement of human knowledge about our universe, we need to continue developing new and better telescopes, instruments, technologies, and facilities. And while astronomers should respect and cherish their history, astronomy is about the future, not the past. Astronomers are also keenly aware that building new observatories costs money, and that they do not have unlimited resources with which to accomplish all of their dreams.

It was probably with these thoughts in mind that the National Science Foundation (NSF), in October 2005, established a Senior Review Committee of 13 prominent astronomers in diverse fields. The NSF is an independent government agency and a major funding source for national ground-based observatories. It charged the Senior Review with the task of coming up with recommendations for redistributing 15% of the NSF's annual $200 million astronomy budget in the coming years, when researchers' aspirations will far outpace the level of federal funding.

The committee, chaired by Roger Blandford (Stanford University), has spent the past year reviewing the costs and scientific productivity of current observatories and consulting with the community to see how assets can be freed for next-generation telescopes. On November 3, 2006, the Senior Review released its report, which is available at the NSF website.

The report calls for big changes and inevitable sacrifices. Among them are recommendations to curtail or discontinue future NSF support for several astronomical powerhouses, including the radio telescopes of the Arecibo Observatory and Very Long Baseline Array, and almost all of the solar telescopes on Kitt Peak and Sacramento Peak. If these recommendations are followed, major facilities will eventually be shut down unless new funding partners emerge. The Senior Review also calls for staff reductions and improved efficiencies in several areas of research.

I have read the report, listened to a press conference about it, and interviewed NSF astronomy director Wayne Van Citters. I have also read numerous press statements issued by groups within the astronomical community who will be significantly affected if the committee's recommendations are implemented.

While I am not an expert in the politics of astronomy funding, I applaud the Senior Review for a thorough analysis, and for engaging in a thoughtful and ongoing dialog with the astronomical community. From what I can see, this was done the right way, even if not everyone is happy with all of the committee's recommendations. I would hate to see facilities such as Arecibo closed down, and I hope new funding partners emerge if the NSF moves its support to new facilities. For example, Arecibo has made an immeasurable contribution to astronomy through its discoveries of pulsars, pulsar planets, interstellar molecules … this list could go on and on.

But I am even more excited about the future, and want to see money freed up to build observatories such as the Square Kilometre Array, the Expanded Very Large Array, and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, to name just a few. The discovery potential of these instruments is breathtaking, and they will keep astronomy alive and well deep into the 21st century. Let's hope that someday these observatories will have to be shut down to build even better instruments, since that's what astronomy is all about.