Sequestration’s Impact on Astronomy

From international travel to interplanetary probes, the U.S. budget cuts are having impacts on both ground- and space-based astronomy.

Update: On July 31st, organizers announced that, despite ongoing problems with federal funding, the Kepler Science Conference II (described below) will convene in early November as planned.

Vinoth Chandar/flickr
In early May, a brief announcement appeared on the website of NASA’s Kepler mission. It read, in full: “The Kepler Science Conference originally scheduled for fall 2013 has been cancelled.” Left unsaid was the reason why, which could have been even briefer: “Due to sequestration.”

Astronomers took to Twitter to voice their dismay as word spread. “Arguably one of NASA’s most successful recent missions finding Earth-sized planets, and scientists can’t get together to discuss,” tweeted Caltech’s Peter Plavchan. The conference would have brought hundreds of astronomers to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to present and discuss the satellite’s most recent results. Instead, it became the latest sign of how U.S. astronomy and space science will suffer from the federal sequestration cuts.

The abrupt, mandatory reductions fall against the backdrop of an already turbulent fiscal scenario, and unless it is lifted, it will turn the budget screws even tighter on the two largest U.S. government funding agencies for astronomy: the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA. If left unchecked, scientists and administrators warn of dire consequences for the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness.

NSF Researchers Will Feel Cuts

NSF funding forms the public backbone of U.S. ground-based astronomy, underwriting national facilities open to all U.S. astronomers and awarding about $80 million in research grants in fiscal year 2012. Sequestration cut NSF's FY 2013 overall budget by approximately 5%, and although this was partially offset by a last-minute increase in the FY 2013 budget passed by Congress in late March, the net result is still a 2.1% cut relative to FY 2012.

It’s not yet known how exactly it will fall across its science divisions, but James Ulvestad, director of the agency’s astronomy division says, “The most immediate impact will be on our small- and mid-scale research grants programs.” All existing grants will be honored in full, but Ulvestad estimates that the number of new grants awarded, already heavily oversubscribed, will fall by about 15 to 30% in FY 2013. Not only will established researchers suffer, but also “fewer graduate students will get support, and fewer postdoctoral fellows will get support,” says Joel Parriott, director of public policy for the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

If sequestration were to remain in effect indefinitely, Ulvestad anticipates a laundry list of dangerous effects. The lack of research grants might cede the most exciting discoveries on its own facilities to researchers elsewhere. A shortfall of infrastructure funding might threaten the construction of the large facilities recommended by U.S. astronomers’ 2010, once-a-decade roadmap, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. And the NSF cuts are only part of the broader federal science budget, “reducing a position of world leadership and imperiling the training of a new generation of STEM professionals.”

Sequester Curtails NASA’s Outreach, Conferences

One of NASA’s first responses to its mandatory 5% cut was the March suspension of education and public-outreach activities. This prompted an outcry from the educators and writers employed by NASA missions to relate their findings to the taxpaying public. The situation was somewhat eased by the announcement of wide-ranging exemptions, though many say it only muddled the issue further, making it difficult to estimate the reduction’s true impact. (Read a sampling of the responses here.)

Attendees at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory exhibit booth at the January 2013 meeting of American Astronomical Society in Long Beach.The June 2013 meeting, held in Indianapolis, will be affected by the sequestration cuts to the U.S. budget.
Mark Zastrow
Perfectly evident, however, are the effects of the restrictions on conference-related travel that followed, eliminating international travel and preventing more than 50 NASA personnel from attending any single conference. Next week’s meeting of the American Astronomical Society is just one conference that has shrunk in the absence of NASA scientists and exhibitors. The effects multiply: Attending scientists who would normally be at their peers’ talks will instead have to multitask by staffing exhibits, according to Debbie Kovalsky, AAS’s exhibits coordinator. And commercial vendors whose clients will no longer be there have decided to skip it or downsize their presence as well.

NASA managers have further announced a string of cancelled conferences aside from December’s Kepler Science Conference, including a data calibration meeting for Hubble results and the annual Sagan Exoplanet Summer Workshop.

“Conferences are where part of the scientific process happens,” says Peter Plavchan, who has authored four papers using Kepler data. “Canceling this conference will slow down the process of discovery, and taxpayers won’t get the most new discoveries for their dollar as a result.”

“NASA spends $98M a year to operate Hubble,” noted the scientists on the astrophysics subcommittee of NASA’s Advisory Council in an April letter. “Canceling a Hubble science conference saves only $50K, but diminishes the science impact of Hubble. This is simply not cost effective.”

Planetary Science Fights for Funds

Perhaps the most politically embroiled impact of sequestration on space science has been the budget figure for NASA’s solar-system division, responsible for successes like the Cassini probe at Saturn and the recent run of rovers on Mars. Planetary science has weathered severe cuts in recent years caused in part by cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), prompting what Nature News described as “internecine warfare” between supporters of astrophysics and planetary missions.

The Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget request slashed planetary funding by more than 20%, to less than $1.2 billion. But a bipartisan group of supporters in Congress countered by inserting an additional $222 million into its FY 2013 appropriations bill, which President Obama signed in March.

However, sequestration offered NASA an opportunity to reshape its appropriations internally. Instead of spreading the cuts across all divisions equally, NASA’s operating plan for the rest of FY 2013 singles out planetary science for a 15% cut, according to a copy obtained by Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute. The result wipes out all but $3.7 million of the additional $222 million allocated by Congress.

In other words, says Sykes, the Obama administration and NASA used the sequestration cuts as a means to evade Congressional intent. “To come in and sweep away more than 98% of the funds added by Congress and signed into law was very surprising,” Sykes told me. “I thought it was disdainful.” Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society did little to hide his shock in a blog post titled, “NASA Robs Planetary Science.”

NASA’s plan did retain good news for some planetary scientists — $66 million in funds for studies of a potential flagship mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, whose subsurface ocean is one of the most enticing places to search for extraterrestrial life. However, instead of using the money that Congress had allocated for it, NASA and the administration effectively took it out of other programs, dropping them below the President’s proposed FY 2013 levels, including competitive research grants and smaller missions under the Discovery and New Frontiers programs. “Rob Peter to pay Paul, is what it is,” Sykes lamented. While he’s not opposed to a Europa mission, “additional studies should be funded by additional monies — not at the expense of research, Discovery, or New Frontiers.”

This challenging fiscal environment shows no sign of abating: in the President’s FY 2014 request, planetary science again came up $200 million short of the FY 2013 level allocated by Congress in March. In what educators say is a further attack on science education, it also proposes removing all NASA-related education and outreach from the space agency’s purview and reconstituting it under the Department of Education and the Smithsonian. The goal is to improve efficiency, but many say it would destroy the existing networks between educators and scientists and even backfire. “This will likely necessitate new layers of personnel to interface between NASA scientists and educational professionals,” noted NASA’s astrophysics advisory subcommittee. Altogether, these developments paint a bleak picture for many. “I’m not sure what the administration’s plans for the future are,” says Sykes. “But if it involves decimating our capability [as a nation], I think they’re taking the right steps.”

NSF Divestment Continues

kitt peak national observatory
The 4-meter Mayall Telescope dominates the skyline of the Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Govert Schilling
One thing the sequester will not affect, says James Ulvestad, is NSF’s ongoing plan to divest its interests in several ground-based facilities, including the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, and three optical telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona. (This is a result of a 2012 portfolio review assessing NSF Astronomy’s long-term financial picture.) “That timescale was set up to provide a reasonable (but not excessive) period of time to enable new partnerships and new operations models to develop,” says Ulvestad.

At Kitt Peak, where NSF acts as the observatory’s landlord, the Department of Energy and the University of California-Berkeley are currently interested in such a partnership to use the Mayall 4-meter telescope to conduct an all-sky dark-energy survey. A private grant will fund the construction of the instrument, but ultimately, the decision to fund the project remains with DOE. “Optimism for the future is considerably higher today than it was a year ago,” says KPNO’s director, Timothy Beers. “But if you ask me today, ‘Will Kitt Peak be a living, viable observatory doing astronomical research 10 years from now?’, I will know better in a year or two … I can’t say what the path toward that is.”

16 thoughts on “Sequestration’s Impact on Astronomy

  1. Dan

    If you ran your household like the federal government operates, you spouse would never know whether to by oatmeal or lobster! And, a reduction in the budgeted increase planned to be spent is not the same as a "cut". How do a bunch of science reporters fall into this trap, foisted on them by the administration’s flacks?

    Dan

  2. Dean Johnson

    Stick to astronomy, not politics. The U.S. is nearly $17 trillion in debt. What part about debt don’t you understand?
    What do you think is going to happen when the 2d Great Depression hits?

    Quit whining and get your telescope out. That doesn’t cost much money.

  3. Anthony Barreiro

    It is very troubling to read about the effects of federal budget sequestration on NSF and NASA, especially the proposed elimination of public outreach and education. It is even more sobering to remember that these cuts are just one small part of an across-the-board reduction in every discretionary federal program except military salaries and air traffic control. Sequestration was supposed to be a sword of Damocles that would motivate congressional Republicans and Democrats to agree to spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit. But because of the obstinancy of the tea party wing of the Republican party with their "no new taxes!" monomania, the sword has descended and cut off essential government services. The corrosive effects will be felt for years to come.

  4. Karren

    I appreciate S&T for the enlightened science they bring, not one sided political complaining. More material like this might lead me to consider sequestering my subscription.

  5. StarGazer

    A 5% budget cut will result in "dire consequences for the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness"?

    The NSF budget for 2012 was $7.03 billion dollars.
    The NSF budget for 2013 was supposed to be $7.4 billion, a 5% increase. So if you take 5% away, they didn’t get an increase this year. Guess what? I didn’t get an increase this year either.

    This is utterly ridiculous and lazy journalism.

  6. George Paquin

    Thanks for assembling little bits of information into a meaningful bigger picture that is not always easily visible. From the reader comments, you’ve touched a political nerve. Good journalism can do that! Well done!

    Science funding creates meaningful long-term jobs across the country producing income for everyone from Post-Doc researchers to chambermaids and waiters. A 15% cut in NASA’s planetary science funding is significant economic news! It is not political carping! Clearly a strong country can afford strong science funding.

    IMHO it is pretty silly for adults to think that across the board decreases in funding applied like peanut butter and without much opportunity for management discretion will not affect already reduced science funding and science productivity over time. I appreciate your reporting how this is taking place.

    The political question if there is one in this article about these economic decisions is what to say to your congressional representative about this. It’s likely not "Attaboy" or "Well done" or "Good job"!

    I hope to see you someday reporting on strong increases in science funding instead of death by paper cuts.

  7. tom jirak

    The headlline "Sequestration Affects Astronomy" is not so alarming. I support astronomical research but have no problems with slowing the increase in funding in ALL areas of government spending. The headline I miss seeing is "No layoffs at White House due to Sequestration" or "Congress’ free haircuts unaffected by Sequestration".

  8. Karren

    If the above poster were to donate a large fortune of his to science, then he’ll get his wish of seeing "strong increases in science funding."

    Of course the issue of other people’s money is political. And I think S&T is doing a good thing by addressing this topic. I think this is a great venue for citizens who are interested in science to become more cognizant of the fact that science can’t be for free. This is a legitimate issue and I appreciate both sides. But I hope, because I like S&T, that S&T will limit the editorials they publish to ones they perceive not to be so heavily slanted and assuming of their audiences being half-wits.

    Apparently however, this is too much to ask of "scientists and administrators" who "warn of dire consequences for the nation’s scientific and economic competitiveness."

  9. David Peters

    I have chaired many techincal conferences for ASCE and WEF and they all made money by getting corporate sponsors to pay the bills from their exhibit fees. Conference cancelations due to budget constraints make no common sense at all. Do your conference right and it can help sponsor your programs. What are these agency managers smoking?

  10. Robert

    "The Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget request slashed planetary funding by more than 20%, to less than $1.2 billion."

    Because Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, and we are wowing the world with our planetary science.

  11. Robert

    "The Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget request slashed planetary funding by more than 20%, to less than $1.2 billion."

    Because Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, and we are wowing the world with our planetary science.

  12. dusanmal

    Here is what a serious reporter interested in facts alone would have presented:

    Sequestration reduced anticipated rate of growth for Astronomy related Government spending through NSF. While 2012 NSF budget was 7.03 billion dollars, 2013 will be 7.4 billion dollars, growing 5% slower than anticipated. One would expect that Government would react by finding inefficiencies, waste and fraud and that Science funding would not be impacted in any serious way. However, present Administration have decided to make the most visible and painful cuts for a political purpose of making their objections the most visible to the public in general and Scientific/Astronomy community in particular. Someone have chosen conference travel and planetary science. Who? Why? Why different cuts and efficiencies have not been chosen? Where are whistle-blowers to point to existing waste, fraud and abuse?

    Personally, this reminds me on Los Alamos National Lab’ situation in 1990’s when managers who were brought in to resolve poorly managed economic problems there decided that one of first efficiencies and cuts would be to close the Library…

  13. Lee

    The biggest problem in NASA funding is the JWST. Even at the original cost, the project as specified did not pass the sanity test. Now the cost continues year after year out of control and it’s eating up the funds for the other programs.

    If they had specced the HST successor reasonably from the beginning, emphasizing science return instead of bleeding-dege R&D that carries enormous cost and risk, then all would be (relatively) well. That’s NASA’s fault, not anyone else’s.

    I can understand supporting and promoting NASA’s work, but not to the point of blindness.

  14. Mark Zastrow

    Thank you, everyone, for your passionate comments. I only want to clarify one detail regarding NSF’s FY 2013 budget cut mentioned in the article.

    $7.4b is the total amount listed for NSF in Congress’ 2013 budget, but it is not the actual figure appropriated by Congress, as the bill also contained a 1.877% rescission on NSF and NASA’s figures. That brings NSF’s actual amount to $7.26b. Take out the 5% sequestration cut on top of that, and NSF’s actual FY 2013 budget is just under $6.9b, which represents a 2.1% cut from the $7.03b in FY 2012.

    The text of HR 993 is here (pdf): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr933enr/pdf/BILLS-113hr933enr.pdf
    NSF’s figures are here: http://www.nsf.gov/about/congress/113/highlights/cu13_0409.jsp

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