Reminder: Help Uwingu Begin a New Way to Fund Space Exploration

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about Uwingu, a creative, out-of-the-box concept to help solve what appears to be a growing problem for researchers, scientists, educators and students: how to get funding for research and other ground-breaking space exploration and astronomy projects. Why are a group of individuals from the space and astronomy community taking matters into their own hands to do this?

Alan Stern one of the founders of Uwingu, and the Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, explained it quite well in today’s episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy.

“Well, it seems almost every year we have budget problems,” he said. “This year the planetary budget got cut 20%. Just last week a report came out cutting the National Science Foundation astronomy facilities, recommending those cuts. And every year it’s the economy or it’s an overrun with NASA, or it’s the President’s budget, or it’s something that happens in Congress. And in space research, in space education, unlike, for example, medical research or if you’re a weather researcher or many other fields, there really aren’t very many places to turn when NASA’s budget is cut or the NSF budget’s cut. That’s about it in terms of the funding portfolio. We like to say, you know, if you only own one stock, you probably deserve what you get when it goes down. We’re out to try and diversify that portfolio a little bit.”

UPDATE: Uwingu now has their own website!

The Uwingu team — and by the way, Uwingu means ‘sky’ in Swahili — has put out a new video about their project, and in doing so, reveal a little more about how they plan to create a new funding method. For two years, they’ve been designing and building software products that will be sold, and the proceeds will create the Uwingu Fund for space research, exploration and education.

Pamela Gay described their ideas as “so elegant that I can’t believe they haven’t already been done.”

Uwingu needs to raise about $75,000 to get their concept off the ground, and after that should be self-supporting, as well as supporting an impressive amount of other researchers every year.

So if you haven’t yet checked out Uwingu, here’s a little reminder to do so. Just head to their Indiegogo page and see what you think.

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

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.

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