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AST Portfolio Review

The 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Report, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH), made its recommendations to NSF in the context of a projected budget that would double in ten years, but this optimistic projection has not materialized. NWNH explicitly noted (p. 240) that "If the realized budget is truly flat in FY2010 dollars … there is no possibility of implementing any of the recommended program this decade – without achieving significant savings through enacting the recommendations of the first 2006 Senior Review process and/or implementing a second more drastic senior review before mid-decade." Reviews of this sort are necessary periodically to carry out stewardship of the overall ground-based astronomy program and ensure the best scientific return within an allocated budget. To enable the continuation of U.S. scientific leadership in astronomy, and to make the best progress toward answering the central science questions posed by the Astronomy and Astrophysics and Planetary Science decadal surveys, NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) commissioned a Portfolio Review of all AST-supported facilities, programs, and other activities. The Review was carried out from September 2011 to August 2012 by a 17-member committee chaired by Prof. Daniel Eisenstein.

Portfolio Review Report

Full text of the report: Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges

The full text of the Charge to the Portfolio Review Committee contains the details on the review process, context, and boundary conditions.

AST Division Response to the Report

The Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the Portfolio Review Committee for the Committee’s diligent efforts on behalf of the U.S. astronomy community. The recommendations of the Committee’s report clearly are derived from the National Academy decadal survey priorities, and portray a robust scientific program even in the face of significant budget challenges. AST understands that decisive actions are crucial for ensuring the future health of the ground-based astronomy enterprise in the United States, so that U.S. scientists can continue as leaders at the forefront of astronomy through the next decade. Thus AST intends to respond to the recommendations of the report as diligently and expeditiously as possible. An initial response to the report is linked immediately below. A more detailed plan, with the capacity to evolve over time in response to changing conditions, is under development. AST will keep the community informed as implementation evolves.

AST Response to the Portfolio Review Report, 31 August 2012

Frequently Asked Questions

What was NSF’s role in the Review?
NSF defined the Charge and appointed the Portfolio Review Committee, supplied budget scenarios, informed the committee of constraints (e.g., signed international agreements), and discussed estimated costs of various choices that the Committee considered. NSF helped the Committee obtain information, especially from the community and national observatories, and facilitated meeting logistics and organization. Beyond that, NSF’s primary role was to check the report for factual accuracy, completeness, and the presence of clear justifications. The Committee defined its own guiding principles, set its own priorities, developed its own recommendations, and wrote the entire report.

Was the Committee told to put decadal survey recommendations ahead of existing facilities?
No; the Committee was told that the relative ordering of decadal survey recommendations should not be changed, but not how each of those recommendations should be prioritized in comparison with existing facilities and programs. The Committee was explicitly instructed that its job was to make its own assessment of the proper balance in the prioritization of current and new activities.

Aren’t these budget assumptions far too pessimistic?
The Committee worked with two different budget scenarios that were estimated to bracket the likely possibilities for the next decade. The more pessimistic is an AST division budget that decreases slightly from 2012 to 2014, then flattens out and eventually rises at a rate slightly higher than inflation. The assumed AST budget decrease from 2012 to 2014 is the same as the average rate of decrease from 2010 to 2012. The more optimistic budget begins to rise much sooner, and goes up at a rate of 5% per year in the latter half of the decade. Given current economic conditions, it is hard to imagine the division budget rising substantially in the next several years, or reaching an average rate of increase that is more than 5%/yr.

Why doesn’t AST just ask for more money?
Budget allocation for the entire United States government and NSF is a complicated process that cannot be reduced to such a simple statement. All parts of the NSF science community have aspirations and abilities to pursue more scientific avenues than can possibly be funded. The NSF budget results from government-wide decisions about the mix of programs to be supported, and not primarily from bottom-up budget requests from individual divisions.

The Portfolio Review report uses the phrase “recommend AST divest from X.” Exactly what does “divest” mean?
Divestment of Telescope X means that funding for operations of Telescope X would be removed from the AST budget. In implementing this type of recommendation, AST would first seek other sources of funding for that telescope before moving toward possible closure.

When is AST going to implement the Committee report?
The report is a set of recommendations to AST, not an implementation plan. AST understands the Committee’s recommendation that decisive actions are crucial for ensuring the future health of the ground-based astronomy enterprise in the United States, so that U.S. scientists can continue as leaders at the forefront of astronomy through the next decade. Thus AST intends to respond to the recommendations of the report as diligently and expeditiously as possible. An initial response to the report will be made public shortly after its release. A more detailed plan, with the capacity to evolve over time in response to changing conditions, is under development. Given the complex nature of the implementation of facilities-related recommendations, the many stakeholders involved, and the relation to the embargoed budget process for Fiscal Year 2014 (FY 2014), it is not possible to make a more detailed plan for implementing facilities recommendations available now; such a plan probably will not be available until after the President’s FY 2014 budget request is released in February 2013. AST will keep the community informed as implementation evolves.

There wasn’t adequate representation of X on the Committee, so how can the community be expected to accept the report?
The members of the community who served on the Committee were invited to do so primarily because of their broad view of the field, not to advocate on behalf of particular constituencies. NSF made every effort to convene a committee with representative balance across scientific and demographic dimensions, but it would have been impossible to represent every specialty or concern on a committee of manageable size. The committee report demonstrates considerable breadth of vision in evaluating the elements of the AST portfolio and how they provide critical capabilities to the community.

How do I provide input on the Portfolio Review report and whether AST should do something different?
The entire Portfolio Review report was based on the community priorities as reflected in the decadal survey. The community had the opportunity to submit additional input as part of the Portfolio Review process, and the national facilities provided multiple items, including updated long-range plans and vision statements. This input was considered carefully by the committee in its deliberations, and the input period was closed in a timely way to enable committee deliberations. Now that the report has been delivered, AST will make plans for responding to the report recommendations and will report to the community periodically on its actions.

Portolio Review Status

2012 October 25 – Webinar Slides Posted

2012 October 23 – Community Webinar Briefing

2012 October 16 – Community Briefing at AAS DPS Meeting Agency Night

2012 August 31 – Initial AST Response to the Report

2012 August 16 – Portfolio Review Report Released


2012 January 23 – AAS Town Hall Slides Posted

2012 January 12-14 – Portfolio Review Committee Second Face-to-Face Meeting

2012 January 5 – Introduction to the Portfolio Review Informational Materials Released

2011 October 26 – Community Input Invited

2011 October 21-23 – Portfolio Review Committee First Face-to-Face Meeting

2011 October 19 - Committee Membership Announced

2011 July 17 - Nominations for Committee Membership and Chair Closed

2011 June 13 - Call for Community Input - Nominations for the Portfolio Review Committee Membership and Committee Chair

2011 May 24 - AAS Town Hall

Portfolio Review Committee

    Daniel Eisenstein (Chair) Harvard University
    Joe Miller (Vice-Chair) Lick Observatory
    Marcel Agueros Columbia University
    Gary Bernstein University of Pennsylvania
    Geoff Blake California Institute of Technology
    John Feldmeier Youngstown State University
    Debra Fischer Yale University
    Chris Impey University of Arizona
    Cornelia Lang University of Iowa
    Amy Lovell Agnes Scott College
    Melissa McGrath NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
    Michael Norman University of California San Diego
    Angela Olinto KICP, University of Chicago
    Michael Skrutskie University of Virginia
    Karel Schrijver Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center
    Juri Toomre University of Colorado
    Rene Walterbos New Mexico State University

Informational Materials

2012 Oct 23 Community Webinar – Slides Only

2012 January AAS Town Hall Presentation

Report of the 2006 Senior Review

2011 AAS Town Hall Presentation

Introduction to the Portfolio Review

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