US Astronomy Facing Severe Budget Cuts and Facility Closures

The US astronomy budget is facing unprecedented cuts with potential closures of several facilities. A new report by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences says that available funding for ground-based astronomy could undershoot projected budgets by as much as 50%. The report recommends the closure – called “divestment” in the new document — of iconic facilities such as the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and the Green Bank Radio Telescope, as well as shutting down four different telescopes at the Kitt Peak Observatory by 2017.

“Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community,” reads the AST Panel Review, Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges. “We must, however, consider the science tradeoff between divesting existing facilities and the risk of devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-­scale projects, and new initiatives.”

The National Science Foundation funds the majority of ground-based astronomy facilities and research in the US. Every ten years, the astronomy community puts out a “Decadal Review,” which reviews and identifies the highest priority research activities for astronomy and astrophysics in the next decade, recommending important science goals and facilities.

With the budget trouble the US has encountered since the 2010 decadal survey was released (called “New Worlds, New Horizons, (NWNH),” the money available through the NSF for astronomy is much less than hoped for. Experts say that the Fiscal Year 2012 astronomy budget is already $45 million below the NWNH model, and predictions say the gap may grow to $75 million to $100 million by 2014.

In response to these projections, the US astronomy community convened a new panel to go through NWNH to come up with a set of recommendations of how to live within the means of a smaller budget — basically what to cut and what to keep.

“The federal budget looks nothing like it did when NWNH was underway,” said Dr. Debra Elmegreen from Vassar College in New York, a member of the 2010 Decadal Review Committee, “and I really hope non-defense discretionary spending will not be slashed beyond repair. Congress needs to understand that the nation’s leadership in science is at risk if science funding is not maintained at an adequate level.”

But Elmegreen told Universe Today she was impressed with the new panel’s review.

“The committee faced a very difficult task in trying to allow implementation of the Decadal recommendations while maintaining the strong programs and facilities that NSF has been supporting, in the face of extremely bleak budget projections,” she said, “and I am impressed with their report. The committee seemed to take great care in considering what resources – grant programs, facilities, instrumentation, technological and computation development – would be necessary to achieve progress in each of the very exciting primary science drivers outlined in NWNH.”

The new panel came up with two possible scenarios to deal with the projected budget shortfalls. The more optimistic of the two scenarios, Scenario A, sees funding at the end of the decade at only 65% of what was expected by NWNH. The less optimistic scenario, B, predicts only 50% of projected funding.

Both scenarios recommend closure of “older” facilities: the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter telescope, the WIYN (Wisconsin Indiana Yale NOAO) 3.5 meter telescope, the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak telescope, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope – all at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, as well as the the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, and the Very Long Baseline Array. “We recommend that AST (NSF’s Astronomy Division) divest from these facilities before FY17” the report says. “We recommend that AST divest in a manner that is responsible to its fellow tenants at observatories and to its long-duration user programs.”

The panel looked to protect small grants for researchers and mid-scale programs, as well as projects already in place to attract and train new astronomers with undergraduate training and post-doc fellowships. But they were forced to keep the budgets of many of these programs relatively flat over the next several years. The panel also recommended no significant new initiatives be started over the next decade.

However, they recommended continued funding of newer and under-construction facilities such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST), Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT), and the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT).

“[These] are all powerful new facilities that promise major advances in the field,” the report reads. “However, they are expensive to construct and operate, and implementing them while protecting the very important (and heavily over-subscribed) small-grants and mid-scale programs implies that AST must find significant reductions elsewhere in the portfolio. This is an uncomfortable but necessary step.”

The panel said that with astronomy advancing very rapidly, investment in the latest facilities, technologies, and instruments is crucial or US astronomy would face a decline in their leadership of astronomical efforts worldwide.

“We have to judge the continuation of existing programs and facilities against the opportunities made possible by new investment,” the report reads. “However, we must also recognize that existing facilities offer secure, near-term science opportunities.”

However, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Associated Universities Inc. (AUI) issued a response to the possible closing of facilities, saying that “optimizing the United States’ astronomy portfolio should involve considerations beyond just the question of what can be cut from a particular funding agency’s budget to make room for something new in that same agency’s budget.”

They listed goals of having world class training facilities and preserving irreplaceable research facilities but said “None of these goals will be advanced by removing the GBT and VLBA from the portfolio of telescopes funded via the NSF; indeed, they will be hindered.”

The savings from divesting from the aforementioned facilities is projected at $20 million.

Another recommendation is to have yearly reviews of every facility to ensure the limited funds are being spent wisely.

“No matter how rosy budgets are you can’t continue to build new facilities without closing old ones or finding another steward to take them over,” said Michael Turner via email, a cosmologist from the University of Chicago and also a member of the NWNH committee. “NASA has realized this for years and blazed the trail with its regular Senior Reviews which this is modeled after. While the budgets ahead are uncertain at best and are unlikely to be as simple as either scenario considered, AST is now reviewing its portfolio on a regular basis and making the difficult decisions needed for good stewardship of the field. That is the big news.”

How are astronomers in the field responding to the new report? Posts on Twitter included expletives, outrage, disappointment and one response of “I want to cry.”

Katherine Mack, an astronomer who is originally from the US but now working abroad tried to take a comprehensive view.

“There’s just so little funding right now,” she said in an email. “As a cosmologist, I was sad to hear that NASA pulled its funding for LISA, a space-based gravitational-wave detector. But I’m even more surprised that now the NSF wants to pull funding from a number of highly productive ground-based projects, such as the Green Bank Telescope. It’s a sharp contrast to places like Australia and South Africa, where new investment in astronomy facilities seems to be very healthy and even increasing.”

Several astronomers posted on Twitter that perhaps the US astronomy community and the AST review panel needs to “think outside the box” more for solutions to problems that are known among those in the astronomy community, but not widely addressed or acknowledged. For example, in the section on “Career Support and Progression, the panel discussed issues relating to the astronomy career structure.

The report says, “Within astronomy, there are aspects of the postdoctoral situation that are unhealthy and unstable” and “there is a persistent mismatch between the production rate of Ph.D.s and the number of tenure-track faculty or long-term astronomy positions.”

“I think everyone in the astronomy community is aware that these problems exist, and it’s nice to see them spelled out, but there’s not much in the report to suggest solutions,” Mack said. “I would love to see a much bigger effort in this direction, thinking of ways to not just prioritize current funding models in a way that helps early-career researchers, but also ways to fundamentally change the funding models or to discourage the field from filling up with postdocs and soft-money astronomers who will never find permanent jobs.”

Astronomer Nicole Gugliucci wrote on the CosmoQuest blog that closures of facilities will not only mean loss of jobs for astronomers, but others as well. “We will lose these important telescopes AND jobs for scientists, engineers, software developers, education professionals, shop mechanics and more,” she said, adding that researchers at smaller universities that do not own their own telescopes, “will lose access to the sky…. and their associated education centers will be in danger and the brilliant projects done with high school and college students will GO AWAY.”

Elmegreen hopes that some of the facilities under threaten of closure will be able to continue their work through privatization. “There is simply no way that all worthy facilities can be kept operating on federal funds and still have any funds left for new starts,” she said, “and NWNH recognized that there would be tough choices ahead in the event of more pessimistic budgets than we had built our recommendations on. I believe the Portfolio report strives for a prudent balance among small, medium, and large efforts, and between existing and proposed facilities, in a way that can help maximize the realization of our astronomical goals.”

As bleak as the new review looks, Turner said there could be a silver lining in this dark cloud for astronomy.

“The toughness of the decisions and the clarity of the strategic thinking at an extraordinary time of discovery about our universe and our place within it … might give NSF reason to find ways to increase the astronomy budget by tightening the budget elsewhere,” he told Universe Today. “The Committee has certainly given the Division Director(James Ulvestad) powerful arguments for increasing funding for astronomy. Time will tell if he is able to put them to good use. I hope he can. This is a special time in astronomy and our quest to understand our place in the cosmos.”

A graph depicts the basic rundown of the two different funding scenarios recommended by the AST Panel Review:

Read the full report here.

Lead image caption: The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) located in Green Bank, West Virginia. This telescope is under threat of closure under the new recommendations of the AST Panel Review. Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

40 Replies to “US Astronomy Facing Severe Budget Cuts and Facility Closures”

  1. As usual, this is wrong thinking. Cutting the astronomy budget is necessary, as is almost all US Government programs, in that Americans have been living well beyond their means for far too long and need to bring the federal budget into line. I read this and feel absolutely no pity at all for the open bleating of the writer or twitter commentators here who “want to cry.” These measures do not go far enough, IMO.

    America really has to change its ways, otherwise it will not be able to pay back its trillions owed. Default, and the closure of astronomical facilities will be the least of your concerns, because you entire economy will be torn asunder – with foreclosures galore. Exoneration of these high bills will not be made until economic things are in control. Fix it and you can do anything you want to.

    Real austerity is now far more important at the moment than unfettered pride.

    Continue down the current path and the final ‘train wreck’ will be having no astronomical facilities at all. (Knowing the usual stubbornness and quite unreal attitudes / expectations of the American people, they will blame everything and anything, I.e. The Government, Wall Street, etc, but will refuse to take the responsibilities themselves!)

    Unless drastic measures, as eluded in this article are taken, which is the tip of the iceberg actually, the American ’empire’ will crumble and fall, just like the Russian USSR did in the 1990s. Don’t listen, the so be it!

    (At least astronomy will continue to grow in China, Europe, and places like Australia and South Africa, as mention in the article. Fortunately astronomy is a global endeavour, and your best astronomers will still have foreign facilities to use and do their research. They maybe smaller crumbs for work, but at least US astronomy still has a lifeline no matter what ever happens.)

    1. — Cutting the astronomy budget is necessary, as is almost all US
      Government programs, in that Americans have been living well beyond
      their means for far too long and need to bring the federal budget into

      What about buying one less war plane? That would have more effect than cutting science budgets.

    2. The American Empire, with it’s 700+ overseas military bases, is the main reason we’re broke. It only benefits the bankers and war profiteers and is paid for by everyone else and their descendants.

    3. You don’t actually “know” anything about current macro-economics, do you, SJ? You’re just a spouter like you claim the rest are. Hiding in a hole until the problem goes away is surprisingly, the LAST thing America needs to do and if you knew anything about how world economies work, you would know that. Thank Gawd your leaders have some inkling of what they’re doing so that we don’t follow your plan. Sorry, but taking “home economics” in high school does NOT qualify you to chime in on this debate.

  2. Humans are an odd species. Capable of a limited form of self-awareness, the have developed the intelligence and curiosity to explore the universe around them, reaching out into their solar system, and probing the most minute aspects of their reality.
    They are also more than capable of throwing it all away thru their obsession over the value of small pieces of paper with numbers and pictures of dead people on them. These pieces of paper are given an imaginary value, which is then somehow imbued with more importance than the rest of their tiny lives.
    Maybe they won’t be around for much longer. Their money might outlast them. That’s something, I guess.

  3. Say thanks to the Repulibans who stupidly blocked every initiative for budget compromise Obama tried with them simply because they want to think he’s the incarnated evil.

    So because of them, all the budgets went automatically cut.
    No chances they would tax religions.
    No chances they cut subsidies to oil companies.
    No chances they apply Buffet taxe.

    Anyway, repulibans hate science so much unless it bring them billion$.
    Look how religion retards have gained ground since Reagan’s neocons went to recruit the bigotted ones…

    Dark ages incoming.

    1. Really. What an ignorant response, and especially made worst by the many people who agree with this view. As usual, such ill-informed commentators blame everything they can think of, rather than instead of comprehending the dire situation and the desire to solve it. The whole issue here is nothing to do with religious ideology but is to do with economics and managing the economy.

      The whole solution here is so basic. You either cut services and programs to stop the haemorrhaging debt, raise taxes or work harder to earn monies to pay back the debt. (As usual, the blindly ignorant want to do none of these, except to spend even more money on risky venture capital that will only exacerbates the growing debt problem.)

      The argument here is to protect the astronomy budget, but I hear nothing substantial about what other government programs should be cut. The overall US political response here is mostly to modestly cut across the whole of US ancillary expenditure, by cutting back or removing old or redundant infrastructure and remodel how services can be streamlined. Furthermore, new programs are to be held back until the economic situation improves.

      America has only one option. Fix the economy or face the abyss.

      Not only does US prosperity depend on it, so do many western trading nations who are also dependant on the US economic prosperity in a global market. America goes down, so do many others.

      1. No, it’s about ideology, not economics. If it was about rational decisions, taxes would increase on those who could most afford them–those with the most disposable income (including the multitudes of corporations which enjoy an effective tax-rate of just 9%, any corporation that is paying the full 35% just isn’t big enough to affect tax policy in their favour), not on the middle-class and the poor. US prosperity depends upon having enough cash flowing through the base of the economy, not through just the top 10% of it. Enough said.

      2. You realize we would not currently have a balanced budget even if all earners of 1 million or more per year were paying income taxes at 50% or higher?
        So no, it is not about ideology, it is entirely about economics and the fact that to much money is getting thrown about like we were drunken sailors.
        Frankly, pushing great thinkers and minds out of government funded cushy jobs and out into the free market could indeed do great things for the economy. Oh the new businesses that may well be started by unleashing these briliant creative minds !!!

      3. Nope. You are wrong. We should have been either taxing religious institutions up the wazoo all along, or we should be ignoring them. We are doing neither. religion has too much say in our government. It needs to stop, or they need to help pay. Period.

    2. Taxing religions would require a constitutional amendment, and there’s no way that’s going to happen.

      A good start would be repealing the Bush tax cuts. No spending cuts were made to pay for them, and instead we got into two wars and added a large prescription drug benefit to social security. Those tax cuts need to be repealed (for everyone, not just people earning over $200K a year).

  4. Sheesh… Now I’m angry! It appears that those who promote worry, fear and stupidity as part of their egocentric and economic greediness are wholly involved in an attempt to destroy all that is forward thinking and good in mankind. The politicians and religious fanatics who promote their self righteous goals might be the end of science and even mankind’s future… if they have their way? Grrrr… You know who they are.. They deny global warming, they promote the ‘status qua’. Their archaic belief systems harken back to the ‘dark’ ages. Frickin control freaks! I include in this list those who walk the line and accept half truths, thereby allowing continued confusion and denial. These are believers in crap circles, astrology and the military industrial complex. BAD BRAINS!

    We REALLY need to do something about this! The time for compromise is over. It’s literally time to stand up for what you believe in.. or perish.

    Grrrr.. (Maybe I shouldn’t drink beer when I blog? ~@; )

  5. Trillions are spent during the presidential election cycle and billions during midterms. After spending these incredible amounts on popularity contests, the politicians give little more than lip service to education and scientific research. Imagine what could be accomplished with an election sized budget! I know election funds are not government funds – if only the same effort was put into funding our science and education programs…

  6. What a bad joke this is, that science and astronomy funding should be cut, to “help” the economy, a science budget so small in the greater picture, that can’t be of much “help”, while leaving other out-of-proportion areas of federal spending as is. What a bad joke indeed. It leaves such a bad taste in your mouth that is appalling.

    The downward spiral of a sad decline.

  7. It’s a shame politicians across the globe are spending taxpayer money on rubbish pseudo-science (don’t want to start an off topic debate, but you know what i’m referring too) and cutting back funding of science that actually develops new technologies and explores our place in the universe.

  8. May be , if you let them continue, these installations might pick up Incoming Alien Warships in 2017…so gotta cut the funding….

    1. Yea, all the money for defense spending and the real threat is an alien invasion that we can totally not be caught with our pants down. How can they be so stupid as to maybe risk our national security.

  9. That is what they get for failing to share the knowledge, gained thru their exclusive access to the instruments and facilities, provided by the US tax payer, while creeps like Carl Sagan were enlisted to add to the dumb down.

    And the much vaunted Hubble Space Telescope, went into orbit with an incorrectly ground primary mirror, all to a chorus of silence from professional circles, while astronomical publications presented shots that were decades old, and used terms like “weird,” to describe fundamental space physics!

    Then look at hundreds of abandoned observatories, in remote places in the Chilean desert, and on Hawaiian mountaintops, that were established and built as tax havens, that were never used to anywhere near their full potential.

    While the “dumb down” got into full swing, and trillions of taxpayers dollars went on fix-it missions to Hubble, which was unfixable, else they were gonna regrind the primary mirror while in orbit .. the entire Space Program, right up to this latest Mars Rover fiasco.

    Made plenty of money for the contractors, which is the whole key to government spending, thus you lobby politicians, who vote money to build such high cost items as Hubble, and to participate in equally high cost Moon exploration,

    You shoot a footage in a studio for a few hundred bucks, and pass it off as something else, and make model spaceships and rovers, whereas no one ever said how the rovers got to the Moon, during the fake Apollo Moon landings program!

    Then you pay spammers, and get a few useless eaters off of welfare to play the parts .. bingo you have a pipeline to the US Treasury, all good and glorious for the contractors, builders (Masons??), and suppliers who get legitimate incomes .. while no science filters into US classrooms at any time!

    1. Latest Mars rover fiasco? Are showing giving up yourself as example of being dumb down?

      No one have shown how the lunar rover went to the moon? Are you that dumb?
      It was an autobot that was folded flat like at the side of the lunar lander.

  10. You can bet your last $ 3 that not a single nickel of funding for ANY spook system will be touched. It’s only the folks and them damned scientists that actually want to learn something more to indoctrinate our children…… To hell with that! Use them big-ols dishes to guide them predator bombs on all them Islamic bombers..

    1. well the spooks did give two telescopes to NASA. the basic problem is lobbying by industry. they should be paid when they deliver, not paying to deliver.

  11. Science is too good for Humanity.
    Perhaps the robots we leave behind after we destroy our species will pick up the task after we are gone.

  12. The good news is theres more money than ever. It’s always bemusing to see uber rich politicians pulling out the empty pockets. Our priorities are the problem. When your trying to pull the rug out from everybody without a trust fund theres going to be some collateral damage. If only we could move mass and think up stuff without dependence on the blessing of money from these tightwad politicians; Albeit with forign bank deposits to avoid contributing to the country they want to lead. Just saying. Yah, science isn’t free. Yet it shouldn’t be too expensive for a country such as ours. How tight fisted the bucks are is a monetary decision, as much as the fallout of policy decisions that astronomy isn’t important. These policy decisions have been made by leaders that we continue to elect into lifetime careers, and then their children. We get what we deserve, How elegant. If you create hardships for working people, yes create, then it will effect even you.

  13. I come here to read articles about science. Politics is friggin boring (I studied enough of that in University). I seem to recall a video a while back on this site about National priorities comparing Science spending with defence spending. The bar for science was about 1% and the bar for defence above 99% in proportion. Maybe a few less JSF’s could allow our (USA and in a greater sense humanity’s) brilliant science to continue? Feed the humans. Power the robots.

    1. Also thanks to this website and the authors – as painful and annoying as this news is, it is important to get the word out – I hope enough people clambor for rightful change of policy to keep our brilliant, important and inspirational sciences funded. One has to look no further than recent successes such as the MSL mission for an example.

  14. It could be worth it if we are able to remove Robert “KKK” Byrd’s name from Green Bank Telescope when it is sold… er, uh ‘divested’.

  15. My wife is an astronomer at Apache Point. APO houses a 3.5 meter which I believe is basically a twin of the WIYN that is facing shutdown. Fortunately APO’s 3.5 meter is owned by a consortium of observatories and is fairly safe from Congressional funding whims. Not so APO’s second telescope, the 2.5 meter known as the Sloan or SDSS, their funding is sometimes a bit capricious.

    I’m specifically concerned with losing the Mayall: I believe that’s the facility that houses the vacuum chamber that is used to re-aluminize both of APO’s primary mirrors. I’m sure the maintenance facilities will continue to be available, but how long until they succeed in closing the entire mountain top? At that point a lot of private facilities will be greatly affected.

    But what we’re seeing, no pun intended, is Congress trying to give themselves the appearance of cutting spending by continuing to try to whack small programs that don’t represent a significant portion of the Federal budget, some might even say an insignificant fraction of the budget, and these programs employ people and produce science that inspires further people and more science. There’s a lot of waste that can be cut, this should not be one such.

  16. I have to add that reading this report is seems bizarre that in 2010 the Decadal Survey Report projected that the astronomy budget would double over the next decade. How could they look at the national budget and thought that was likely or even possible? It would take an upheaval on the level of the launch of Sputnik to change that many legislative priorities.

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