Astronomy and Science Policy Address to the 199th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society

John Marburger, President’s Science Adviser and Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

In this era of
preoccupation with the small scale nature of things, it is easy to forget
how astronomy dominated attitudes toward science throughout most of human
history. Humankind, indeed, and much of our living environment, have
the rhythms of the heavens instilled in our very bones. The cycles
of the sky, day and night, months and years, penetrate evolved behavior
to a depth that is still being plumbed by modern biology. And the
ancient vocabulary of the heavens and the names of the gods who regulated
them are embedded in our language, especially in the terminology of time.
The stars were, until quite recently, essential for global navigation.
The planetary motions contained the key to Newton’s system of the world.
And it was in the light from the sun that the spectral lines of chemical
elements were first discovered. Astronomy was the first great observational
science, and the regularities of the heavens were the first sign to thoughtful
men and women that the apparent chaos of Nature might conceal enduring

Astronomy has
always employed, and challenged, the technologies of the day. Optics,
photography, infrared detection, maser technology, charge coupled devices,
wave-front correction schemes — you experts can name more than I — all
grew robust in the service of astronomy. In the century past that
most of us still regard as “ours,” astronomy was utterly transformed by
technology and by advances in other fields of science, particularly physics,
and computing, and electrical engineering, and the dawning conquest of
space. In 1900 we pictured the universe as a solar system moving
in stately order according to simple and eternal laws against a background
of fixed stars. It was a somewhat boring universe, but reassuring
in its eternal predictability. By century’s end, everything had come
alive — even time and space itself. Our universe today is filled
with cataclysmic change on the widest possible scales of energy and time.
Its laws are deeper than we suspected, and more full of mystery than any
other part of science except possibly for that which studies human consciousness.

Today astronomy
is on a new path in a new scientific context with new tools of extraordinary
power. This ancient field that ushered in Newtonian physics through
planetary observations, and the world of general relativity through observations
of stars and galaxies and the radio spectrum, now seems poised to bring
yet another vision of the universe to life. We know that gravity
alone cannot explain the motions of galaxies, and we know that the matter
of our ordinary experience does not suffice to explain the large scale
dynamical structure of what we can see of the universe. But the reach
of our earthbound instruments for discovering new forces and new kinds
of matter is at the limits of our grasp. The energies required to
explore the region beyond what we are calling the Standard Model of particle
physics require huge accelerators that even wealthy nations find difficult
to fund. And so it appears that the heavens themselves will be the
laboratory in which the final pieces of the puzzle, or at least the next
ones, will be found.

And so we come
full circle in the cycle of the discovery, from the stars and planets,
to the earth, and back again far beyond the horizon of unaided human senses.
This time our journey outward is impelled by powerful conceptual tools.
We have general relativity; we have quantum field theory; we have the Standard
Model and some clever new ideas beyond it; we have maps in space and time
from a rich century of astronomical observation; and we have revolutionary
improvements in technology and computing power.

What we do not
have is a link between the knowledge we expect to gain from this glorious
enterprise and the most obvious ills that plague the society who must pay
for it. That we worry about this at all signifies a change in the
relationship between humans and heavens that is nearly as great as the
changes in our understanding of the heavens themselves, and perhaps these
changes are related.

The heavens have
ever been a source of wonder to ordinary people. But for most of
history their systematic study was reserved to priests, or courts, or to
philosophers disdainful of the arts and crafts. Plato praised astronomy,
but as an abstract pursuit divorced from practical affairs. Governments
showed interest when it paid to do so, as for aids to navigation, or to
telling time, or longitude at sea. Organized support for astronomy,
as for the great expeditions to decide between the views of Newton and
Descartes regarding the shape of the earth, normally came from subscription
among wealthy donors, and that spirit is very much alive in astronomy today.
But much funding for astronomy now also comes from the federal government,
which is why I presume you have invited me here to speak.

During most of
the second half of the past century, federal support for science was strongly
influenced by the conditions of the Cold War. The physical sciences,
in particular, achieved immense prestige during World War II, and seem
to have been regarded through the entire Cold War period as indispensable
to national security. Congress tried to make the link more explicit
with the “Mansfield Amendment” in 1969, which required the Department of
Defense to limit its support to research that had “a direct and apparent
relationship to a specific military function or operation.” The dual
missions of basic research and national security inherited by the Atomic
Energy Commission laboratories, and subsequently by the Department of Energy,
also reinforced the link between physical science and security issues.
But when the Cold War came to an end in 1991, many political observers,
and Congress as well, began to question the assumptions underlying support
for basic science. It was clear at the time that science, and particularly
what I call discovery-oriented science, would have to make a new case for
continued federal support that relied less heavily than in the past upon
its military or national defense application.

During this period I watched from
the perspective of a university president trying to build research programs
at a young institution, as the chairman of the organization that operated
Fermilab and the SSC project for the Department of Energy, and more recently
as the director of Brookhaven National Laboratory. From those vantage
points, it seems to me that the process of re-evaluation that began a decade
ago has matured, and that we are entering its later stages. It is
particularly important for the astronomy community to be aware of this
evolving state of affairs, because many people view astronomy as having
even less relevance to societal needs than particle physics. The
fact that astronomy seems to be converging with particle physics encourages
us to compare the fields and assess their joint prospects.

Astronomy throughout
its long history was never linked to national security, but it has wide
popular appeal. Amateur observers sweep the sky for new comets, and
families flock to planetariums. Some of these, like the Hayden Planetarium
in the new Rose Center at New York’s American Museum of Natural History,
are immensely popular. Private benefactors continue to contribute
substantially to the expense of modern astronomy, the outstanding current
example being the twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Although
the underlying theoretical context for astronomical discoveries is deep
and complicated, the visual imagery of the raw data is often strikingly
beautiful and appealing. Particle physics possesses none of these
attributes, although its discoveries arguably match in mystery and grandeur
those of astronomy during the past half century.

Particle physics
is a phenomenon of the twentieth century, and existed only in a weak form
before World War II. Its huge accelerators exploited the war-time
radar technology, and thereafter multiplied within the national laboratory
complex that sprang from the facilities of the Manhattan Project.
After the war, private funding for the field was negligible. From
time to time the discoveries of new particles and new symmetries in nature
have made headlines, but they never fascinated the public the way supernovas,
black holes, and pulsars did. The theoretical basis of particle physics
is less visualizable than the astronomical action of gravity, even when
gravity is dressed in its sophisticated garb of general relativity.
And the flower-like bursts of tracks in particle detectors are more abstract
and less emotionally compelling than the breathtaking photographs of, dust-clouds,
say, illuminated by a nearby supernova.

These two fields,
so dissimilar in many outward respects, nevertheless resemble each other
in their remoteness from practical affairs and in their need for technology
of ever larger scale to explore unknown regions of the largest and smallest
things in nature.

I want to state
clearly at this point that, despite its apparent impracticality, the administration
values discovery-oriented science, and aims to continue to support the
grand quest for knowledge about the universe at the largest and the smallest
scales. But it also understands that the same technology that makes
this quest so exciting today has created unprecedented opportunities for
nearly every other field of science. Advances in instrumentation
and computing power have given us control of matter at the atomic level,
which has staggering consequences for life science and materials science,
and for their applications to medicine and nanotechnology. These
advances have opened access to a new scientific territory which is best
described as the frontier of complexity. Our nation cannot fail to
take advantage of the leadership at this frontier that previous investments
in basic science have made possible.

In view of this
embarrassment of scientific riches, the processes of choice are paramount.
Pushing back the ubiquitous frontier of complexity costs considerably less
than similar progress at the receding frontiers of the large and the small.
Consequently those who rely on big facilities like particle accelerators
and space-borne telescopes bear a heavy responsibility to choose carefully,
manage wisely, and maximize the quotient of discovery versus dollars.

Both particle
physics and astronomy do in fact have excellent planning and prioritization
processes. The recent “Decadal Survey” of astronomy and astrophysics
sets forth a vision of “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium”
that includes clear priorities and rationales for future projects.
The forthcoming report of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel subpanel
on long range planning similarly promises to lay out priorities and a “roadmap”
to future discovery. Moreover HEPAP guides program planning in both
the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, as does the
comparable advisory committee for nuclear physics. Such cross agency
planning and coordination is increasingly important for astronomy and astrophysics
as well, as the programs of NASA and NSF bear increasingly on the same
science. The coordinated management of these fields has been a matter
of concern to the administration, but I believe satisfactory new mechanisms
can be developed that will address the issues. The success of HEPAP
and NSAC in coordinating their fields across agencies suggests that a similar
National Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee can, and should,
help to optimize programs within NASA and NSF.

Both fields are
also becoming increasingly international. Teams building and operating
the great detectors at national accelerator facilities have always had
strong international collaborations. The United States is participating
in the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider as well as in its ATLAS
detector. Future accelerator projects will be of such large scale
that international cooperation will be essential. Many examples also
exist of international cooperation in astronomy, both for space-based and
ground-based observations. This administration values international
collaborations that serve the mutual interests of the partners, and are
based on sound approaches to the management of their work.

Strong management
is essential to the successful completion and operation of large facilities
as well as to the effective utilization of funds for smaller programs.
This administration strongly emphasizes good management for all Federal
agencies, and The President’s Management Agenda will be applied to science
as well as to other federally funded operations. The Agenda includes
the principle that performance is an important basis for funding allocations,
which implies that measures of performance are essential ingredients in
the budget process. Some investigators have expressed alarm at the
idea of measuring basic research performance, but I believe it is an inevitable
as well as an essential aspect of the post-Cold War relation between science
and the federal government. In view of its long history of making
difficult choices, the astronomy community could provide leadership to
other fields in making its criteria for choice explicit.

In these brief remarks, I have dwelled
upon the part of astronomy closest to physics, because that is the part
I know best. Other parts of the field have also become exciting and
deserve continued support. The direct observation of a planet circling
another star than ours is a tremendous feat, and a preview of the capabilities
of space-based astronomy yet to be exploited. NASA has also planned
continuing exploration of our own solar system with a series of projects
that will undoubtedly sustain popular interest in planetary science.
The importance of such interest for recruiting young minds to the joyful
pursuit of knowledge cannot be overestimated. The strength and security
of our nation depends on the quality of the mental skill we can bring to
bear on the increasingly technical infrastructure of daily life.
A more than superficial understanding of technical matters requires hard
work that many young people find difficult to justify based on their perception
of its rewards. This audience, more than most, knows how deeply satisfying
the labor of discovery can be. And more than most fields, astronomy
has been a leader in public education and in the enrichment of undergraduate
curricula in the universities. This good work deserves praise and

I thank the organizers
of this meeting for inviting me to speak about these broad issues, and
I thank you who have produced such beautiful results for the vast and intelligent
effort that you have invested in this exciting field of science.