With Proposed Cuts, Can the US Continue to be a Leader in Astronomy? Q & A with NOAO Director David Silva

Article written: 23 Aug , 2012
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015
by

The Kitt Peak Observatory

Last week, a report issued by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences suggested de-funding several ground-based observatories along with other money-saving strategies to help offset budget shortfalls in US astronomy which have been projected to be as much as 50%. The report recommended the closure 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.

Universe Today talked with the Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), Dr. David Silva for his reactions to the report.

Universe Today: What is your initial reaction to the STP portfolio review:

David Silva: “It’s disappointing, but not completely unexpected. I think the biggest challenge for the overall US community is they’re going to lose access to a lot of world-class, cutting-edge facilities. This is roughly somewhere between eight hundred to a thousand nights of open access time which is going to be defunded over the next three years or so. That’s a huge culture change for US astronomy.

UT: Do you see this affecting the researchers at smaller facilities and universities the most?

Silva: Definitely. Clearly, the situation is now that if you’re at an institution that has its own facility, everything should be OK. But if you’re at an institution that does not have access to its own facility, you’re in a bad situation. So that naturally segregates the bigger universities versus the smaller universities.

I should say there is a caveat, in that we are in an era now in professional astronomy where surveys are now becoming a much stronger component of what we do. Surveys are the big wide-field surveys both from space and from the ground which are producing massive datasets that are open to everyone. So, what’s really happening is this culture change from people having to compete for one or two nights a year on a telescope to potentially working on the big datasets. So, how that transition occurs remains to be seen. But the loss of all these open access nights will definitely be a shock to the system.

UT: Do you see the new report as being overly pessimistic or do you think it’s spot on of what’s actually going to be taking place in astronomy next few years, such as in one scenario which described that only 50% of projected funding will be available?

Silva: I have no opinion on that. That was a boundary condition that the report used, and if I could predict that I would be in a different industry!

UT: Do you see any potential silver lining here, that this kind of tight funding could streamline things, or could help in the “persistent mismatch between the production rate of Ph.D.s and the number of tenure-track faculty or long-term astronomy positions” that the report talked about?

Silva: No. I think the higher-level issue is that astronomy in the last 20 years has been a field where the number of people who are professional astronomers has grown in this country because of a fortuitous funding cycle from all three of the major funding agents, NASA, NSF and the Department of Energy. But we are now in a downward cycle in funding for astronomy at the federal level and there is going to be a squeeze now. I think that one of the choices we’re going face as there is this squeeze and people begin to leave the field, how do we make sure that the those who are still in the field — especially our younger colleagues – that they are given the mentoring and nurturing and support they need to have vital careers.

But there’s a growing mismatch between the numbers of people who want funding and the funding that is available, there’s no two ways about it.

UT: Any final thoughts or things that you think are people I’m important for people to know about?

Silva: One of the opportunities that it creates on Kitt Peak is the ability to continue to move forward on our BigBOSS collaboration, which is a proposal to put a 5,000 target, multi-object spectrograph on the 4-meter Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, which allows you to do a large dark energy characterization experiment. The instrument is also exceptionally powerful for doing a variety of other investigations like galactic archaeology to map out kinematics in the galaxy, the chemical composition and the motions of galaxies and stars, and other very large data projects like that.

This report was actually quite supportive of that project moving forward. So even though reports recommend the NSF divest funding in the Mayall Telescope as an open-access telescope, it suggests there are ways forward to convert it from an open access platform to a survey facility. And that’s, I think, a silver lining in this. It doesn’t solve that cultural issue, but it was does mean we can continue to do high impact science with that instrument.

But I do see this as a big cultural change. A key question perhaps is, does the US have strong national observatory or not? And this report is leaning in the direction of not.

You can read an initial statement from NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory) and AURA (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy) on the AST report here, and another following statement from AURA here.

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22 Responses

  1. kkt says

    Once you get into a war you don’t cut its budget until it’s over. The thing is not to get into wars if we can avoid it.

    It’s hard to find a silver lining. Maybe some of the smaller institutions or amateur groups could pool their money to continue to operate the some of the smaller telescopes at Kitt Peak or elsewhere.

    • SJStar says

      Your 110% right. Perhaps America might consider being just a little more cordial and a little less dictatorial.
      Your idea of amateur contributions is a good one but is flawed only because it cannot employ the pro astronomers. Budgets are not mostly on equipment but keep paying the costly careers astronomers.

    • zetetic elench says

      war was never declared. we are involved in ideological police actions that we can’t seem to disengage from.

  2. ClayCampbell says

    I’m starting to think that agencies such as NOAO and NASA should look at crowdfunding initiatives in order to raise the funds that they need. It has been a fairly successful in other industries for getting projects funded. They may not get the billions it takes to launch a high profile mission or sustain long-term funding but i think it could help them supplement there heavily-cut budgets. I believe that many people (myself included) would jump at the opportunity to donate to space exploration, especially if the offered cool incentives. ie. Pledge a certain amount and they will name a newly discovered exoplanet after you, send your picture or personal message along with a probe or lander etc.

  3. kkt says

    Telescopes have used naming rights since forever.

    Naming rights to spacecraft? The Bill and Melinda Gates Mars Rover, maybe?

  4. PolishBear says

    Meanwhile the bloated defense budget is absolutely, 100% untouchable.

    • SJStar says

      I disagree. Protection and defence of the US is really paramount when you’ve made or created so many enemies through war and your often monopolistic economic influences on other countries. Also much of your monies are also being spent on security networks like the CIA drain much on the America budget.

  5. Why not let other countries carry the load sometimes, there are plenty of highly educated folks
    out there.
    We share the things that are learned so why can’t others
    do the same . . ..
    Seems we are pretty far into the red, I am surprised we have any space programs at all . . .

    • SJStar says

      Boo. They already do take on the load, and arguably there are dozen of nations who do. Astronomy is THE universal science done throughout the world and is shared across the board by everyone. If there was one subject in our world embraces and agrees to do as a whole to it is astronomy. It has mostly been this way since the 1950s.
      America here is a partner among many others and I disagree in this case that it ‘leads’ anyone. Argue that and pride might change the funding strategy.

  6. SJStar says

    I found this quote about the perceived decline of Italian astronomy which appears equally relevant to the discussion here. Written by about seventy of the main Italian astronomers in 2010, they say in the conclusion to this letter/paper
    (http://arxiv.org/abs/1007.1455)

    These are very difficult times. 80 million citizens in Europe currently live below the relative poverty line according to EU statistics (10 per cent of the population in Italy). Explaining how this happened goes beyond the aims of this letter (and the competences of its authors). It is, however, our opinion that the budget currently invested in science and research is not among the causes of the current situation, in Italy or anywhere else. Instead, it is our firm belief (which seems to be shared by most countries) that investing in the future of education and research is a top priority, and that this becomes even more important in times of economic crisis. Research and education do have mid and long-term positive effects on the economical, technological and industrial situation of a country. Curiosity-driven research has itself an important value, being perhaps the only real driver for significant and long term progress (also in economical terms: e.g. the web has been invented by particle physicists!). Cutting on education and research means cutting on the future. As scientists, before than as Italians, we cannot but express our dismay and deep worry that the decisions currently being taken are inevitably leading to a further cultural and economical impoverishment of our country.

    The usefulness of basic, intermediate, and high education, as well as of research, is being questioned in Italy, mainly because they do not produce quick and easy money. We realize that, unfortunately, this approach and way of thinking is not limited to our country (although Italy probably represents a dire example of cultural decay). As scientists, we cannot turn aside from fighting this way of thinking, that we consider blind, foul, and irresponsible. It is not these principles that we want to hand on to future generations of astronomers, Italians, and citizens of this world.

    This applies equally to the US as it does elsewhere. The core issue is naturally the circumstances of continued economic viability to be able tot do the science, and then the being willing to take chances with what can only be labelled as venture capital.

    Another is a report produced in 2010 by Canada, states the opposite view (http://www.casca.ca/lrp2010/Draft.v4.4.2.web_sm.pdf)

    “As astronomy answers deeper questions, its research tools demand new capabilities and technologies. In response to this challenge, astronomical research has become more collaborative and international. Spectacular new facilities dubbed “World Observatories”, of which ALMA, JWST, the TMT and SKA are examples, are destined to lead the way in astronomical research for the foreseeable future. Yet in this new global landscape Canada will play a leading role because Canadian astronomy is, by any measure, outstanding. In standard impact analyses it ranks number 1 in the G8. Remarkably, these results have been achieved despite a notably lower relative investment than other countries. Within Canada, astronomy has a higher world impact than any other science or engineering research area. When compared to other natural sciences the field has also garnered twice as many Canada Research Chairs as would be expected, and received a disproportionately high number of NSERC prize fellowships. Astronomy is as much a true Canadian success story as Olympic gold medals in hockey.

    This remarkable achievement has been driven by access to powerful and agile facilities, by a careful selection of science strategies, and through the training of exceptional and talented researchers.”

    Their vision is summed up as;

    Ten years later, a new plan for the next decade of discovery is urgently needed; this document is a response to that need. The plan builds around three pillars of astronomy research success: state-of-the-art facilities, highly qualified personnel and operational support. Only if attention is paid to all three of these critical areas will the community prosper and rise to its ultimate potential.

    This summarise well the way forward.

    Fix the economy folks, and you will not failure or fall in between the extremes.

    [Note: This clear negates the view like Gina Rossillini in letting “other countries take the load. They do.]

  7. SJStar says

    Hey! You deleted my last post. It was relevant. Why?

    Shame on you Universe Today!

    • SJStar says

      Read, without comment by me;

      1) “Unveiling the Cosmos: A Vision for Canadian Astronomy 2010-2020” @ http://www.casca.ca/lrp2010/Draft.v4.4.2.web_sm.pdf

      2) “A decline and fall in the future of Italian Astronomy? ” @ http://arxiv.org/abs/1007.1455 ; and especially pg.6 “Conclusions.”

      It explains well about David Silva views stated here.

      • SJStar says

        I found this quote about the perceived decline of Italian astronomy which appears equally relevant to the discussion here. Written by about seventy of the main Italian astronomers in 2010, they say in the conclusion to this letter/paper (http://arxiv.org/abs/1007.1455)

        These are very difficult times. 80 million citizens in Europe currently live below the relative poverty line according to EU statistics (10 per cent of the population in Italy). Explaining how this happened goes beyond the aims of this letter (and the competences of its authors). It is, however, our opinion that the budget currently invested in science and research is not among the causes of the current situation, in Italy or anywhere else. Instead, it is our firm belief (which seems to be shared by most countries) that investing in the future of education and research is a top priority, and that this becomes even more important in times of economic crisis. Research and education do have mid and long-term positive effects on the economical, technological and industrial situation of a country. Curiosity-driven research has itself an important value, being perhaps the only real driver for significant and long term progress (also in economical terms: e.g. the web has been invented by particle physicists!). Cutting on education and research means cutting on the future. As scientists, before than as Italians, we cannot but express our dismay and deep worry that the decisions currently being taken are inevitably leading to a further cultural and economical impoverishment of our country.

        The usefulness of basic, intermediate, and high education, as well as of research, is being questioned in Italy, mainly because they do not produce quick and easy money. We realize that, unfortunately, this approach and way of thinking is not limited to our country (although Italy probably represents a dire example of cultural decay). As scientists, we cannot turn aside from fighting this way of thinking, that we consider blind, foul, and irresponsible. It is not these principles that we want to hand on to future generations of astronomers, Italians, and citizens of this world.

        This applies equally to the US as it does elsewhere. The core issue is naturally the circumstances of continued economic viability to be able tot do the science, and then being willing to take chances with what can only be labelled as venture capital.

    • Member
      IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

      Your comment was not deleted; it was caught by the Disqus spam filter due to its length – 4478 characters long! I’ve approved it this time, but in future, please keep your rants comments to within 3000 characters.

      Brevity is the sister of talent – Anton Chekhov

  8. SJStar says

    As President Obama once said in 2010. “…we are destined to fulfil Kennedy’s prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended.”
    Also as said by Mark Murray (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38996574/ns/politics/#.UDcqUI6fva4)”61 percent say the United States is headed in the wrong direction; 65 percent believe the nation is in a state of decline; and 66 percent say they’re not confident that life for their children’s generation will be better than it is now.”
    Imperial hubris, as is the bemoaning the decline of US astronomy, just proves my point.

    (I once had some sympathy of US astronomy plight, but no more. Thanks for that Nancy!)

  9. Bioth says

    “Can the US Continue to be a Leader in Astronomy?”
    It is clearly ESO who is the current leader in ground-based astronomy, and with future plans like the E-ELT and others they will certainly stay ahead of the field in the future. Just saying.

  10. Chris Langan-Fox says

    From an Oz view of the here and near. First, one particular country does not always have to need to lead as though there were no room for simply contributing as every other country tries.
    Secondly, Astronomers can always argue against the rorts of the environmentalists, especially the Global Warmists, and have the public monies directed properly instead of it being assigned to new-age religious bodies with an updated apocolypse fantasy.
    Thirdly, your President is hell bent on dragging America down to third-world status. He is no Kennedy. He is as much use to Astronomy as one would expect of a ‘community organiser’ with no experience and marxist mentors. Whilest many recognise that there are fine minds in America, few of them seem to vote sensibly.

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