A Return on America’s Investment


While the United States is reeling from an uncertain economy and questions about how and when it might improve, one certainty is that an investment in fundamental science research pays big dividends. Federal prioritization for science funding is vital for the health of our country, as emphasized in the prescient forecast and recommendations of the 2005 National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” produced by a panel led by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norm Augustine. The federal support for science is handled by several agencies, in particular NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As we count down to the end of federal funding for fiscal 2011 and look to the future, the astronomical community anxiously awaits word on how its corner of the universe will fare.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), as the Hubble Space Telescope heir-apparent, has received a lot of attention recently because the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee zeroed its line out, in part to force NASA to get its house in order with a realistic budget and revised management strategies, as urged in the report of the Independent Comprehensive Review Panel led by John Casani of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Meanwhile, it is encouraging that the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee proposed to restore and augment the JWST line to a level consistent with a goal of meeting a 2018 launch, and we appreciate Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s efforts in this regard.

Few people doubt the transformational science that JWST promises, from probing the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe by looking into distant space, to helping understand the formation of planetary systems. JWST will have a hundredfold improvement on what the much-admired Hubble Space Telescope has brought the world. As the top priority in the 2001 National Research Council decadal survey, JWST has the consensus support of the astronomy and astrophysics community. At the same time, many astronomers are nervous about the restoration of the JWST line, for fear of compromising other worthy and highly ranked projects in other fields.

JWST Program Director Rick Howard noted in a Sept. 21 webinar at the Space Telescope Science Institute that half of the funding for JWST, now an agency-wide priority, could come from the Science Mission Directorate and half from Cross-Agency Support. The NASA budget proposed in the Senate has an increase in the Planetary Science Division and Astrophysics Division, while the Heliophysics Division would remain flat, but the proposal sets a decrease in NASA’s overall budget of $509 million from the fiscal 2011 enacted levels. In the House bill, besides the JWST loss, the NASA budget further decreases. The astronomical community needs to understand where the cuts would come from in the Science Mission Directorate or elsewhere in NASA to help fund JWST if more money is not appropriated to NASA, and we appreciate Rep. Frank Wolf’s request to the White House for this information.

Besides JWST, there are many other highly ranked projects that were started but not yet finished. The recommendations of the decadal surveys that set priorities for the astronomy and astrophysics community, the planetary community, and the space physics and heliophysics community are bottlenecked right now, as large projects generally take more than a decade to come to fruition. We look forward to the 2003 planetary decadal survey’s top-ranked Mars Science Laboratory, slated for launch in two months, as the most ambitious robotic study yet of Mars’ rocks and soil in an effort to understand its ability to support microbial life. In solar and space physics, the top-ranked mission from the 2003 decadal survey is the Solar Probe Plus, now under design to study the sun’s outer atmosphere. These of course do not include the top-ranked large priorities in the current decadal surveys, from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in astronomy and astrophysics to the Mars Astrobiology Explorer-Cacher in planetary, with the heliophysics and space physics report due out next spring. NASA’s suite of missions is declining, and astronomers from other disciplines such as high-energy astrophysics are awaiting their next turn for a mission.

Different disciplines in astronomy naturally ebb and flow as large projects come and go. Small and medium activities, projects and missions sustain the community on a long-term basis, and these must be protected in the budget. Even small money lost from a division or directorate impacts research grants and technology development. Delays and funding losses have big ripple effects in the astronomical community, as jobs are lost, international cooperation fades, and students turn away from fields where money has been cut. These losses threaten our international leadership in large projects and in research and technology development in general.

We are grateful to Rep. Wolf and the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee for supporting science in general. In their bill, National Science Foundation funding would remain flat, with an increase in the Research and Related Activities line. But there would be a decrease in the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction line, which has potentially damaging implications. This agency-wide line is designed to help fund large ground-based projects, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope if approved. Meanwhile, the Senate proposal calls for a decrease in the National Science Foundation budget, with the Research and Related Activities account down $120 million compared with fiscal 2011 enacted levels.

As the Augustine report emphasizes, scientific research helps create jobs, improves the standard of living and keeps us competitive in a global economy. The American science literacy rate is appallingly low, and it is vital that we re-engage schoolchildren and the public in science. We need to draw young people to science, technology, engineering and mathematics as an investment in our future, and astronomy captivates and excites curious minds as few fields can. A big dividend from investment in astronomical research is the enticement and training of tomorrow’s scientists. We all stand to gain from that.


Debra Meloy Elmegreen is president of the American Astronomical Society and the Maria Mitchell Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College.