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Senior Review Committee Recommendations for NSF's Astronomy Program

Call-In Program
November 3, 2006
National Science Foundation
Arlington, Virginia

On Nov. 3, NSF hosted a call-in program where the senior review committee presented its recommendations for NSF's astronomy programs. This is the transcript.

Jill: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you all for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode for today's conference. During the question and answer session, you will be prompted to press star-one on your touch tone phone. Today's conference is also being recorded, and if you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time. I would now like to turn today's conference over to Mr. Wayne Van Citters, division director for Astronomy with the National Science Foundation, and Roger Blandford. Gentlemen, you may begin.

Mr. Van Citters: Thank you, Jill. Good morning -- good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for calling in. An opportunity to ask questions of myself and Roger Blandford about The Senior Review which was reported to the MPS, the map and physical sciences advisory committee, this morning. What I'd like to do is give a very brief introduction.

Really just a reminder of the context and motivation for the Senior Review, and then let Roger address the process and recommendations. As I'm sure many of you are aware, the astronomical community has a very long history of looking at what's necessary to accomplish, a scientific program in let's say a ten-year period in a series of decadal reviews actually funded by ourselves and NASA run by the National Research Council. And at the last decadal review and subsequent studies, such as connecting quarks to the cosmos and so on, the community set a very ambitious program in front of the funding agencies. We have spent a couple of years working with the community to understand the implications of that program, and when we looked at the situation with the federal budget about two years ago, we realized that there was a considerable mismatch, perhaps, between the ambitions of the community, the cost of the programs and the phasing of these programs and our ability to respond in the kind of time scale that the community would like to see. So it seemed to us that it was a good time to undertake something that was actually recommended in the last decade survey, and that was a cross-disciplinary review of our national facilities and the balance of our program.

So we put together this Senior Review. It was in some sense made imperative by the budget outlook, by the ambitions of the community that were in front of us, and a little paradoxically by the divisions of budget growth over the past five or six years, which has been in terms of -- in Washington, really quite healthy. So we didn't feel that we had a very compelling case to go and ask for money for technology development programs, for instance, and that we really had to look at our own program and see what we could wring out of that in order to apply to new things. So in some very real sense, we asked the Senior Review to help us in the stewardship of ground-based astronomy, to look at the entire fabric of astronomy, both our facilities and our grant programs and our instrumentation programs, a lot of which are taken for granted by the community, and indeed, by ourselves. And see if we could find some, so to speak, free energy in that program. But also to be mindful of the fact that the fabric of how research is done in this country is a mixture of all of these. And it's a very complex fabric, and we wanted to make certain that the committee approached this from the point of view of pulling out a thread, perhaps, to free up some energy, but making certain that in pulling that thread, they didn't unravel the entire fabric of research in the country. We were very fortunate that Roger Blandford agreed to chair the committee. They have worked extremely hard over the past year, and I have to say they've been one of the best committees I've had the privilege to work with in my time at the National Science Foundation.

And with that short introduction, I'd like to introduce Roger from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, and have him make a few remarks about the study itself in advance of your questions. Roger?

Mr. Blandford: Thank you, Wayne. Wayne has given a very good introduction as to why this review was set up. Our charge is really to help balance the cost of running the existing facilities against a very ambitious new and exciting program. There's no question of the scientific excitement of what's proposed. The committee itself was a very broad committee. It was set up not with a view to representing constituencies, but to have people who would leave their constituencies outside the door, and look at the larger problem of balancing the astronomy program. They worked extremely hard at this; everybody on the committee put a lot of effort and thought into this and I'm speaking on behalf of this whole group. The charge that we were given called out one or two points.

Firstly, as Wayne said, we were asked to assume, that there would be no increase in the overall budget. We, of course, will be optimistic, as all astronomers or all scientists will be, that the budget can go up. But we took this as a given, and everything we say is in this context. We were also asked to target $30 million in savings overall while certain activities were regarded as exempt. One was the grants program, another was new facilities, and both of these exemptions would have been the committee's choice, had they not been required. In fact, we gave some additional advice to the Foundation, particularly on the grants program. The committee was also required to get input from the community, and this was taken very seriously. There were seven town meetings all across the country, and an e-mail site. The community responded to this. We had a large number of e-mails, not just from within the United States and there was a lot of vigorous discussion at the town meetings on what we should be doing. The committee also got a lot of input from management at the five observatories involved. They took very seriously their charge to prepare documents describing the five observatories, their plans for the future, and how they are organized at the present. We met with all of them. This was all very helpful and I think, the discussions were constructive. Wayne, can you think of anything else? No.

Okay, so let me then cut to our bottom line recommendations. Obviously you have to read the whole report to understand the nuances. I think it's easiest to do this by grouping into three astronomical subfields -- optical infrared astronomy; radio, millimeter and submillimeter astronomy; and solar astronomy. We thought about the whole field in terms of just these three subfields. Under optical infrared astronomy, we should first go to the Gemini International Observatory. This is an international observatory. It is governed by international agreement, and in practice, we have no freedom of action here. We are admiring of the work that has been done so far by the two Gemini telescopes and we expect great things of it in the coming years. The program is the one that has been agreed to internationally and there's really no change that we can suggest at this point.

Next turn to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, here our recommendation is twofold. Firstly, we define a base program which concentrates on providing access to telescopes of size from one to ten meter in aperture at a level that is determined by competitive peer review in the traditional NSF manner. This may involve, providing additional instrumentation on smaller telescopes where the committee believes there are great opportunities for doing front-rank innovative science. These have not been as well exploited by NOAO in the recent past. The level of support has to be determined, as I emphasized, by comparison with other calls on AST resources. The bottom line is, NOAO should regard it as part of its mission to provide access to the community on telescopes from one to ten meters in aperture. There are many innovative ways that it should think about doing this, which we go through in some more detail in the report.

The second stage of the NOAO recommendation concerns the future program. In our charge, we were asked not to attempt to review the future program, and I don't think we would have wanted to do so, anyway. This has been seriously discussed in the NRC reports, and we take that as a given. The two major elements in front of NOAO are two telescope projects -- what is called generically a large survey telescope, and also generically a giant, segmented mirror telescope. At the federal level, there are, in each case, two defined proposals for these telescopes. Our recommendation is that NOAO's role in this activity has firstly to be regularized to accept the fact that there are these competitions, and that requires some actions in the shorter term, but also it should be paced by the investment that can be made in these projects, both at the federal and at the independent level. Here we're acknowledging that the leadership, particularly in the GSMT, has come from independent observatories, and especially by private supporters of optical astronomy, a very long tradition in this field.

As we move on to the radio, millimeter and submillimeter part, there are two major changes that are recommended, concerning the VLBA and Arecibo Observatory. The recommendation is that, after 2011, the funding of these facilities should either be shared with external contributors or they should be closed as a last resort. Again, we go into more detail as to what we think might be possible here so that the NSF astronomy contribution to these facilities is significantly reduced beyond 2011. Turning next to solar astronomy, the hope is that the NSF can proceed expeditiously, starting in 2009, with the advanced technology solar telescope with completion in 2014. The recommendation is that the solar facilities on Kitt Peak and Sacramento Peak should be closed down on this timescale with the exception of a relatively inexpensive facility SOLIS, which will probably relocate.

In addition, there are six solar telescopes that have been used to study solar oscillations called GONG. Withdrawal by NSF from the GONG program is also recommended, although it is hoped very much that external parties be able to take it over. In addition, there are various cost savings that the Senior Review committee believes are possible in terms of the administration, the scientific staff, the instrumentation programs and so on within these facilities. The Senior Review proposes observatory cost reviews to look at them in more detail and to try to flesh out the way in which these savings could be found. That in broad brush is where we are.

Mr. Van Citters: Thank you, Roger. Jill, if it's appropriate, we'd now like to open the line for questions.

Jill: Thank you. At this time, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star-one on your touch tone phone. Once again, please press star-one if you would like to ask a question or make a comment regarding our conference at this time. Our first question comes from Heidi Ledford with Nature. Ma'am, your line is open.

Ms. Ledford: Hi, guys. I was just wondering, we've got the recommendations here, so what happens to them next? When do we know if they're going to be approved or enacted?

Mr. Van Citters: I'll take that one, Heidi. The recommendations, of course, were accepted by the MPS advisory committee this morning at their meeting and are hence transmitted to the directorate as advice. The astronomy division will be considering these recommendations over the next month. We've already started some actions to put into place the cost reviews that Roger's committee has recommended that we undertake, some other studies that are necessary. I expect that we will be working out the implementation of what recommendations we can act on probably over the next six months to a year. Some of them, clearly, by their very nature, will take several years to undertake if we do. We will be working very closely with the rest of NSF, and we will have a series of town meetings, much like the ones that Roger referred to in the process of actually carrying out the review to take the recommendations to the community and discuss them with them so that we fully understand all the implications and explain carefully to the community what we are doing to implement those that we can.

Ms. Ledford: Okay, thanks.

Jill: Our next question comes from Mohi Kumar with the American Geophysical Union. Ma'am, your line is open.

Ms. Kumar: Thank you. I am interested in how this affects science bound within our solar system, the sun, planets, and those kinds of things. A couple questions. Physically, the cuts to the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico, I know that NSF's Atmospheric Division is funding part of it. How will that interplay if it does go out, and it's asked to shut down? Also, you had mentioned in the report about deep-seated divisions in astronomy daytime versus nighttime observations -- planets or deep space. How will these recommendations affect those kinds of divisions?

Mr. Van Citters: I'll take the first one. We have worked, of course, kept our atmospheric sciences colleagues closely informed about the process, and indeed, about the recommendations, and we'll be working closely with them over the next -- I would expect over the next year -- to see exactly how the interplay of the recommendations for astronomical science use of Arecibo affect and what the stance of the atmospheric sciences division is about how this will affect our ionosphere research at the same facility. They clearly are connected. I think Roger's remark about divisions within the community were made in a -- and certainly in the report itself, looking carefully through section seven -- were made in a very positive light in the sense that the committee felt that, in order to realize the kind of excitement that Roger referred to in extragalactic and galactic and planetary science and stellar research over the coming decade, the community has got to pull together and work as a unit and dissolve any of the divisions that one might see in the community at the present time. Roger, you may want to comment.

Mr. Blandford: No, I think that's fine. I think the actual divisions you cited were not quite those we identified. We did comment on a scientific disconnect between solar astronomy and astronomy beyond the heliosphere. However, this is not antagonistic. People in both communities take a vicarious pleasure in the great progress in the other field. It's just that there's not as much learning from each other's scientific results as there could be. The sun has much to teach us about the cosmos at large, and the cosmos at large is extending the domains that are investigated on the surface of the sun. There's a great opportunity, perhaps, for younger people to work in the interface between traditional solar physics and traditional astronomy.

Ms. Kumar: All right, thank you.

Jill: Our next question comes from John Fleck with the "Albuquerque Journal." Sir, your line is open.

Mr. Fleck: Wayne, if I could just follow up on the process question, do I infer correctly from your answer that we're not going to see the first results of NSF's implementation of this in the fiscal year 2008 budget request?

Mr. Van Citters: Yeah, I think that's right, John. We'll be looking -- as I said, the first budget request that you would see major changes in would probably be the fiscal year '09 request. And that's one of the reasons we would like to do the cost reviews and so forth over about the next six months. Because that would then mesh with the beginnings of the '09 planning here at NSF.

Mr. Fleck: Thanks.

Jill: Our next question comes from Dan Sorenson with the "Arizona Daily Star." Mr. Sorenson, your line is open.

Mr. Sorenson: Yeah, I understand there's going to be some more town meetings. What kind of weight do the comments that are made in these meetings -- what will they carry in this round?

Mr. Van Citters: I should say that the committee listened very carefully to the community in the seven town meetings that started out the process. And we intend here at NSF to listen extremely carefully to the community and their reaction to and input to our own implementation plan as we consider these recommendations. So they will be given very heavy weight. I would say quite honestly that they will not -- that they can't -- change the recommendations. The recommendations are in front of us, but they certainly can influence the pace and nature of our implementation.

Mr. Sorenson: Thank you.

Jill: Our next question comes from Toni Feder with "Physics Today." Your line is open.

Ms. Feder: Thanks, hi. Are the recommended cuts that are in the report -- are they sufficient to allow you to go ahead with the key projects, or do you have some PLT for kilometer array and so on? And what are the most painful recommendations and the most controversial, and what happens if the community actually objects?

Mr. Van Citters: Well, the -- I have to say, that as we said repeatedly during our town meetings, the target that we had set for the committee was a notional $30 million per year of free energy, so to speak, in our program. And as we stress many times, this is only a down payment on the total demand that we see in front of us. So it will allow progress on the new -- on new capabilities. And in the short term, reinvestment in some of the things that the committee has recommended. But it won't solve the problem. It is certainly a good faith effort on the part of the community to scrub the program and, so to speak, get its house in order to move forward in the future. Perhaps the other part of your question Roger will take.

Mr. Blandford: Okay, let me just add one thing to what Wayne just said. One of the things we realized early on, was that just saying simply "get x dollars in form of cuts" is a very ambiguous request. It depends very strongly on the context in which you ask that question as to what you consider a cut and our recommendations, if implemented, can get you a whole range of figures. In addition, there are contingencies because obviously we ultimately save more if, as we hope is not the case, Arecibo and VLBA are completely closed down relative to if they are able to raise external funding. The committees spend a lot of time trying to understand the idiosyncratic management and budgets of the different observatories. They really are complicated organizations and it really requires a team going into the observatories and looking in more detail in order to see whether our recommendations are viable. They may find more in the way of savings. They may find less.

The second part of your question, is which of these cuts was the most painful, I cannot answer that question because they were all extremely painful. What we're dealing with here is a set of telescopes that are all productive. They are all good for another decade or so to do front rank science, and that was where we're cutting. It's not the first time that telescopes have been shut down. They have been shut down as a result of the cessation of external funding many times over the past 40 years. And this is entirely proper in any organization. Now it is very hard because, as I said, you're looking at highly productive facilities with strong user communities doing great science. And yet, you have to make a value judgment and say that somebody else is doing something that's even more exciting and even more promising. And that was a terribly hard thing for us to do, so they were all painful.

Ms. Feder: Thanks.

Jill: At this time, we have one more question. I'd just like to remind parties to please press star-one if you would like to ask a question or make a comment. Our last call -- excuse me, our last question at this time comes form Heidi Ledford, once again, with Nature. Ma'am, your line is re-opened.

Ms. Ledford: Hello, I have a question related to the presentation we saw this morning, just something I missed. I saw, for example, for Arecibo, you said there could be a savings of $6 million or $10 million, and I wanted to know what the condition of "or" is there. And also, I had another question, in terms of external funding, you mentioned that you would be willing to share. I think this may be related to my first question, but how much are you willing to share? How much is NSF going to contribute to sharing?

Mr. Blandford: Perhaps I should take that, Heidi, and give the committee's recommendation. Basically, the AST contribution to the Arecibo budget is $10 million. They have contributions from outside, of course. The committee's recommendation is firstly that that the NSF contribution ramp down to $8 million in fairly short order by streamlining the observing procedures and concentrating more on doing surveys, which are cheaper. And then secondly, in 2011, to plan to halve the AST contribution to $4 million. On the presumption that it still takes $8 million to run Arecibo, would require them to raise $4 million. Now, there are some unknowns. Some of those will, I think, be settled in the cost review. Others will be obviously a matter for Wayne and his colleagues to look at over the next few years.

Ms. Ledford: Okay, thank you.

Jill: We've had a couple more questions come in, gentlemen. Our next question comes from Jeff Hecht with "New Scientist" magazine. Sir, your line is open.

Mr. Hecht: Thank you. Following up with Arecibo, there's been an ongoing asteroid radar project going on there to make observations of numerous asteroids. What would happen to those kinds of programs were Arecibo to shut down? Could those be used to fund Arecibo more completely?

Mr. Van Citters: There has been a planetary radar program at Arecibo for many years, Jeff. This was in previous years funded by NASA. They ceased funding it about five years ago, and it's been running under our funding since. We don't, of course, have a full implementation plan from Cornell, but I would guess at the reduced level of funding, there would be some serious impact on that program. It is a, as far as I'm aware, a unique capability in the sense that you could not simply move that program somewhere else because of the sensitivity of the Arecibo antenna. So that is something that we'll have to be discussing in the near future.

Mr. Hecht: Thank you.

Jill: We have a follow-up question from Mohi Kumar with American Geophysical Union. Ma'am, your line is re-opened.

Ms. Kumar: Thank you. I noticed that the town meetings that you referred to in the future, one is scheduled for Seattle, Washington, in January. I was just wondering, how long will that period of town meetings take place, and then will that cease? By when would you have to make a decision on all this information?

Mr. Van Citters: That January meeting will probably be our first one, and as I said, we're planning five or perhaps more across the country. My guess is that that would go into late spring, given our schedules and the schedules of the community in trying to put such things in place. And as I said earlier, I think that the decisions, the full decisions on the advice that's been given to us will probably take until the end of this coming calendar year to get to a point where we have a 90% complete implantation plan. Obviously, some of the decisions, we'll have to wait four or five years to see whether partnerships can be developed and so forth.

Ms. Kumar: Thank you.

Jill: And we have one more follow-up question. Once again, I'd just like to remind parties to please press star-one if they would like to ask a question at this time. Our last follow-up question right now is from Toni Feder with "Physics Today." Your line is reopened.

Ms. Feder: Thanks, hi. I was going to check, what does the recommendation about NOAO really mean? Because it's already supposed to be, you know, giving access to the astronomy community. Is this really an affirmation of this role, or is it a change?

Mr. Blandford: It's an affirmation of its historic role. However, the NOAO plan involved, I think, a further divestiture of the smaller telescopes to enable it to concentrate on the development of LST and GSMT. The recommendation of the Senior Review was that access to telescopes of all sizes, to enable the community to do front rank science, should be continued to be part of its mission. This is its base program.

Ms. Feder: Okay, thank you.

Jill: Once again, please press star-one if you'd like to ask a question at this time.

Mr. Van Citters: Jill?

Jill: Yes, sir. We have no further questions at this time, gentlemen.

Mr. Van Citters: Okay, I wonder -- I'd like to sort of make a closing remark here to call everyone's attention to the context in which NSF will be approaching this over the next year -- actually, the next several years. And that is to remind everyone that the idea of this exercise -- although we've talked a lot this afternoon about cuts and closing and so forth -- but the idea of the exercise was to put us in a good position to move forward with a very exciting scientific program. And what we will be doing in addition to talking to the community about the impact of reductions in capability, perhaps, in certain areas of the observatories or possibly closings, we'll also be working closely with the community about what to do with the money that we do identify in the coming months. That's the reason we went into this, and formulating that program is the first step in realizing the aspirations that are in the decade survey, and I think, works with the cosmos and so forth. So I think we have to look at it. Although in the short term, there may be some dislocations in various places. In the long term, we have to look at it as a very positive step towards a bright future for the astronomical sciences.

Mr. Blandford: Thank you, Wayne. Perhaps I can just supplement that by drawing your attention to the findings at the end of this document that we produced where we in some sense went a little bit beyond the charge to make some observations on the future program. Our first finding is a ringing endorsement of all the excitement that we, as astronomers, feel for the opportunities that are in front of us now. This has been a time of unparalleled discovery, and remarkably, it remains so and will be for the foreseeable future, simply because of the new technology that can be applied to the problem of exploring the universe. Our final finding says that this process of renewal, whereby one rebalances the existing program against the resources needed to implement the future program must continue. And in fact, it's the only way that we can proceed to grasp the opportunities that are in front of us.

Mr. Van Citters: Thank you, Roger.

Jill: Gentlemen, we still have no further questions.

Mr. Van Citters: Okay, Jill, thank you. Thank you, all of you on the line. And if you have any further questions, please contact Joshua Chamot here at NSF, and his coordinates are located on the NSF webpage.

Jill: That does conclude today's conference call. Thank you all for participating and have a great afternoon.

Mr. Blandford: Thank you.

Mr. Van Citters: Thank you, Jill.

Jill: You're welcome.

Return to the audio.

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