In its fiscal year 2002 budget summary document1 the Bush administration expressed concern—based in part on the findings and conclusions of two National Research Council studies2—about recent trends in the federal funding of astronomy and astrophysics research. The President’s budget blueprint suggested that now is the time to address these concerns and directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to establish a blue ribbon panel to (1) assess the organizational effectiveness of the federal research enterprise in astronomy and astrophysics, (2) consider the pros and cons of transferring NSF’s astronomy responsibilities to NASA, and (3) suggest alternative options for addressing issues in the management and organization of astronomical and astrophysical research. NASA and NSF asked the National Research Council to carry out the rapid assessment requested by the President. This report, focusing on the roles of NSF and NASA, provides the results of that assessment.
Overall, the federal organizations that support work in astronomy and astrophysics manage their programs effectively. These programs
have enabled dramatic scientific progress, and they show excellent promise of continuing to do so. Nonetheless, the existing management structure for the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics research enterprise is not optimally positioned to address the concerns posed by the mounting changes and trends that will affect the future health of the field.
The existing management structure for astronomy and astrophysics research separates the ground- and space-based astronomy programs. NSF has responsibility for the former and NASA has responsibility for the latter. The ground-based optical/infrared observatories funded by private and state resources constitute an important third component of the system. In astronomical and astrophysical research, NASA’s strength has been the support of work related to major space missions. NSF’s strength in astronomy and astrophysics has been the support of a broad spectrum of basic research motivated by the initiative of individuals and small groups in the scientific community and by its role in assuring the continued availability of broadly educated scientists. The NSF also funds research in related fields such as physics, geophysics, computation, chemistry, and mathematics, providing a broad multidisciplinary context for astronomy and astrophysics research that can promote productive connections among these fields.
Three important changes have occurred in the field over the last two decades. First, ground- and space-based research activities have become increasingly interdependent as well as increasingly reliant on large facilities, major missions, and international collaborations. Second, NASA’s relative role in astronomy and astrophysics research has grown markedly. (In 1980, most of the research grants in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics were provided by NSF. Today, most of the grants are provided by NASA.)3 And third, large state-of-the-art optical/infrared telescopes built with non-federal funds now dominate this component of ground-based astronomy.
These changes necessitate systematic, comprehensive, and coordinated planning in order to sustain and maximize the flow of scientific benefits from the federal, state, and private investments that are being made in astronomy and astrophysics facilities and missions. The increasing financial and intellectual demands to be met by more than one nation in supporting large projects, particularly on the ground, require that the United States develop a unified planning and execution structure to effectively participate in such international ventures. To develop the needed integrated and comprehensive strategy for the field, the committee rec-
ommends the formation of an interagency planning board for astronomy and astrophysics.
The Committee on the Organization and Management of Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics was charged to consider, among other options, moving NSF’s astronomy responsibilities to NASA.4 Such a move would consolidate the bulk of the federal programs5 in a single agency and, to some degree, integrate space- and ground-based astronomy. The committee concluded, however, that moving NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics activities to NASA would have a net disruptive effect on scientific work. Because of its combined commitment to investigator-initiated research, interdisciplinary research, and educating the scientists of the future, NSF is the right institution to sponsor ground-based astronomy and astrophysics. And further, such a move would not necessarily address integration of the third component of the system (i.e., the ground-based optical/infrared private and state observatories). NSF’s close working relationship with the college and university community makes it the natural focus for integration of this third component. The committee’s recommendations address improving the present overall management structure, as well as strengthening NSF’s ability to support ground-based astronomy and astrophysics and to work effectively in conjunction with the other two primary components of the system. The committee’s detailed recommendations are contained in Box ES.1.
In Chapter 1 the committee discusses the discipline of astronomy and astrophysics and the role of the periodic self-assessments carried out by the community.6Chapter 2 summarizes the roles and responsibilities of NASA and NSF and discusses some key aspects of their missions, pro-
BOX ES.1 Recommendations of the Committee
gram management approaches, and planning processes. Chapter 2 also describes the need for more cooperation and coordination between these two primary funding agencies for the discipline, and it mentions a few related issues that affect the implementation of the recommendations that arise from the community’s self-assessments. Chapter 3 specifically addresses the advantages and disadvantages of moving NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities to NASA. In Chapter 4 the committee presents its findings and recommendations. Committee biographies, meeting agendas, detailed funding and organization data, and a glossary and acronym list are included as appendixes.