Current Roles and Relationships of NASA and NSF in Astronomy and Astrophysics
The two primary funding agencies in astronomy and astrophysics, NSF and NASA, have different cultures and characteristics that derive from their different missions. The key aspects of the two agencies’ mandates, organizational structures, program management approaches, and planning processes affect how they interact with each other and the implementation of the decadal survey recommendations. These characteristics provide the primary context for the committee’s findings and recommendations, which are aimed at enhancing the positive synergy in astronomy and astrophysics research as described at the beginning of Chapter 1.
The NASA Act of 1958 (as amended) gives NASA responsibility for the aeronautical and space activities of the United States. It states a number of objectives, the first of which is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” It authorized NASA to “arrange for participation by the scientific community,” “acquire, construct,…operate and maintain laboratories, research and testing sites and facilities,” “cooperate with other public and private agencies…in the use of…facilities,” and “appoint such advisory committees as may be appropriate.”
The NASA year 2000 strategic plan addresses advancing space science, the exploration of space, and space technology. There are five enterprises within NASA to carry out this strategy. One is the Office of Space
Science.1 The Office of Space Science’s charter includes developing and mounting space missions to study the universe, and promoting science education for the general public and for [K-12] students in particular. In the most recent internal reorganization of the Office of Space Science, an Astronomy and Physics Division was created.
Space missions are the primary vehicle through which the Office of Space Science achieves its scientific and educational objectives. NASA operates a number of laboratories and centers, which manage the implementation of most missions and support their operation. It provides grants to enable research based on the data generated by the missions. The research is carried out both in NASA centers and by investigators in universities and other laboratories. Mission planning is comprehensive and encompasses technology development, conceptual design, instrument development, launch, subsequent operations, data collection and distribution, and research and analysis. NASA supports a number of national centers to archive and distribute data generated by missions. The agency uses a structured and transparent project management process that employs full-time project managers, regular milestone reviews, and budgeting of contingency reserves. While the committee observed that NASA gets good marks in general for its project management expertise, some projects have encountered difficulties. Typically, when cost growth has occurred during the development of a scientific mission, the mission specifications, including science goals, have been modified to keep the expected overall cost below a specified ceiling.
The Office of Space Science maintains the federally chartered Space Science Advisory Committee under the auspices of the NASA Advisory Council. This committee gathers input from the external scientific community on mission priorities, strategic planning, and ongoing activities. It has subcommittees corresponding to the science theme areas defined by the Office of Space Science’s strategic plan, as well as subcommittees for crosscutting areas such as technology development. Researchers selected broadly from the scientific community constitute the membership of the various committees. The chair of the Space Science Advisory Committee sits ex officio on the NASA Advisory Council. The Office of Space Science strategic planning process feeds into NASA’s agency-wide planning process. The Space Science Advisory Committee takes into account the National Research Council’s decadal reviews of astronomy and astrophysics and other reports and seeks NRC review of its strategy.
There is currently no formal mechanism for astronomy program coordination between NASA and NSF other than through the NRC’s Com-
For more information see <http://spacescience.nasa.gov>.
mittee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA). The CAA has strong scientific credentials but is not constituted to carry out technical program reviews or management critiques. NASA seeks advice from the CAA via its parent boards (the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy) on occasional mission-related questions, such as whether the overall scientific goals can still be achieved when a mission is descoped. The committee notes that the agencies have never jointly asked for formal advice of any kind from the CAA, even though the decadal surveys are jointly commissioned.
The NSF Act of 1950 established NSF “to promote the progress of science; to advance the National health, prosperity, and welfare; (and) to secure the National defense.” It directed NSF to support “basic scientific research and research fundamental to the engineering process….” NSF also has a charter to strengthen science education.
The NSF is dedicated broadly to the advancement of science and engineering through support of university-based research. NSF undertakes a responsibility to support education and training at all levels and has a primary responsibility for the long-term continuity of the research effort and the maintenance of the scientific workforce on a generational time scale.
The NSF is governed at the top level by the National Science Board. The management of the program is divided into directorates and several cross-cutting divisions and offices. The Astronomical Sciences Division in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate has primary federal responsibility for ground-based astronomy and astrophysics research, including optical/infrared, solar, and radio astronomy. NSF also supports a small amount of research in ground-based planetary astronomy. It is important to note that significant sources of research support for astronomy and astrophysics research are spread broadly across NSF. The Office of Polar Programs supports several astrophysical experiments in Antarctica. Solar research at NSF is supported by both the Astronomical Sciences Division and the Division of Atmospheric Sciences in the Geosciences Directorate. The Physics Division is also a significant source of support for astrophysics research. (See Appendix C for more details.)
Radio astronomy is an almost entirely ground-based effort, so NSF is by far the primary source of funding in this subfield. While NSF’s general approach to large projects is to respond to proposals from the university community and to not impose a vision on that community, it has consistently supported, at the initiative of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Observatory’s design and development efforts for the
Atacama Large Millimeter Array. The NSF is also the primary source of support for the Arecibo Observatory (a 300-meter single-dish radio telescope) through the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center.
The NSF supports three major national optical/infrared observatories: the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which is responsible for a suite of moderate and small telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres that are widely available to the astronomy and astrophysics community; the Gemini Observatory, two 8-meter telescopes (northern and southern hemisphere) with the United States supporting roughly half of the international collaboration; and the National Solar Observatory, which operates solar telescopes widely available to the community.
The Astronomical Sciences Division’s strategy is to seek answers to a number of science questions covering the major issues in the field and to explore cross-disciplinary connections with related fields such as physics. Implementation focuses on strengthening the discipline via the grants program, development of new instruments and technologies, and operation of national observatories. Improving education as well as public understanding of science and NSF’s role in new discoveries also figures in the strategy.
The grants program at NSF is administered by individual discipline scientists and it funds the best ideas generated by the university-based research community, as judged by competitive peer review. Research grants are funded separately and independently from facility construction and operations. Project development and operations are conducted by outside entities—usually academic consortia or individual universities. The typical user who has been awarded observing time on a telescope through a competitive peer review process may also apply to NSF for a grant to carry out the research.
A remarkable circumstance exists in the area of nighttime ground-based optical/infrared telescopes: Most of the U.S. facilities of this kind are built by universities with private and state funds. Developing a viable policy for providing public funds for adequate instrumentation of non-federal ground-based optical telescopes is a challenge that remains to be met. The NSF is establishing a new telescope instrumentation program to provide such funds since the inadequacy of the instrumentation for independently funded telescopes limits scientific exploitation of this great scientific asset. (The history of the instrumentation program is discussed in greater detail below in the section “Issues Affecting NASA and NSF Implementation of Decadal Survey Priorities.”)
In keeping with the prominence of education in its charter, NSF and its Astronomical Sciences Division strive to support researchers in small colleges and universities, which are a source of much of the scientific workforce. NSF operates a successful agency-wide program—Research
in Undergraduate Institutions—that provides support for such researchers. In addition, it conducts the popular Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. The Astronomical Sciences Division reflects the long-term NSF concern for education of the next generation of researchers at all levels and participates strongly in the Research in Undergraduate Institutions and Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs. Astronomy lends itself particularly well to attracting new cadres of students into science because of the fascination that the subject matter holds for inquiring young minds.
The Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate has a federally chartered advisory committee that provides advice on program direction. Like the advisory committees for other directorates, it is not formally linked with the National Science Board, by statute the highest authority in NSF. In response to a federal directive in the early 1990s NSF abolished its division-level advisory committees, so the Astronomical Sciences Division does not now have a dedicated advisory committee to assist in strategic planning. Astronomical Sciences Division staff prepared a strategy document in 1998–1999 that was then refined with assistance from a small ad hoc group of astronomers. Community input to the Astronomical Sciences Division regarding scientific direction comes from the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate advisory committee and the NRC’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. The Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics can provide, as described above, a forum for NASA-NSF coordination at a strategic policy level, although the NRC’s rigorous and lengthy review and approval process limits rapid responses for more immediate tactical advice. Like other divisions, the Astronomical Sciences Division does have a visiting committee that reviews its activities every 3 years, but the reviewers are encouraged to concentrate on verifying that the granting process is being carried out correctly rather than addressing strategic planning.
The Division of Physics at NSF has developed a unique and effective scheme for obtaining advice on high-energy and nuclear physics by partnering with the Department of Energy (DOE) in the operation of the federally chartered High Energy Physics Advisory Panel and the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. Each advisory committee provides a forum for DOE-NSF joint strategic planning in these disciplines. The agencies also operate a non-advisory body called the Science Assessment Group for Experiments in Non-Accelerator Physics that provides a mechanism for scientific assessment of project proposals in particle astrophysics and other non-accelerator-based physics of mutual interest to NSF and DOE. These panels can serve as a model for providing external expert advice to federal agencies and for interagency cooperation and coordination. (See Box 2.1 for more details.)
BOX 2.1 NSF-DOE Joint Advisory Panels: One Model for Coordination
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have created two advisory committees to help them coordinate and direct research in fields where both agencies have an interest. These committees could serve as a model for a similar NSF-NASA external group that would advise the agencies on their astronomy research programs.
The Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC), founded in 1977, serves to “advise DOE and the NSF on scientific priorities within the field of basic nuclear science research.”1 This mandate covers both experimental and theoretical investigations into the structure and properties of atomic nuclei, as well as their fundamental interactions. Recently, NSAC has been asked to develop a new long-range plan for nuclear physics research in the United States. The committee is tasked by the agencies to identify resource requirements in terms of both people and facilities, and to recommend appropriate funding levels. A similar plan produced by NSAC in 1996 was instrumental in the construction and upgrade of many facilities, including the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility’s Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University.
The NSF and DOE also support a committee that reviews the nation’s high-energy physics research programs. The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) has a mandate very similar to that of NSAC, in this case giving advice on research priorities, funding levels and balance, and potential changes based on new discoveries or technology in the realm of high-energy physics. HEPAP was created in 1967 to advise the DOE, and NSF formally joined on January 1, 2001. High-level administration support—through the Office of Science and Technology Policy—for the HEPAP-backed plan for U.S. participation in the European Large Hadron Collider has been credited with making that arrangement succeed. HEPAP is currently engaged in a significant long-range planning process for high-energy physics.
The advisory groups are both standing panels, composed of approximately 20 members, that meet three times a year to review the programs. The national laboratories, laboratory user groups, and the American Physical Society’s Division of Particles and Fields suggest potential HEPAP members, who are drawn primarily from academia, as well as from the various national laboratories. NSAC members are chosen in a similar manner. The two groups engage in long-term planning, a task generally undertaken by ad hoc subcommittees of the advisory committees.
The DOE and NSF also operate the Science Assessment Group for Experiments in Non-Accelerator Physics (SAGENAP). SAGENAP was assembled in 1996 to facilitate cross-agency decision making on project proposals in particle astrophysics. This body enables the accelerator community to have a voice in government funding of non-accelerator physics experiments. At its own request, NASA has observer status in SAGENAP.
NSAC and HEPAP are both chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, but SAGENAP is not.
COORDINATION BETWEEN NASA AND NSF
In the past, when presented with the list of project priorities in the decadal surveys, NASA and NSF have taken their respective halves of the separated ground/space list and have realized those projects to the best of their abilities. This approach has been quite successful thus far, as demonstrated by the current well-being of the field; however, it is not clear that this independent approach will continue to be as effective as facilities continue to become more interdependent and costly into the future. Operating now according to separate agendas, NASA and NSF often fail to coordinate, cooperate, or even communicate with each other. There are exceptions, of course, on the level of interactions between individual program officers and discipline scientists, but even these are rare. The committee was surprised to learn, for example, that the current head of NASA’s Office of Space Science and the current head of NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate have never met with each other to discuss their respective program plans. The committee believes that interagency communication, coordination, and cooperation are critical to the future of an effective national astronomy and astrophysics enterprise, and so it was encouraged to learn that interactions between relevant NASA and NSF managers have recently increased. To ensure interagency coordination, the committee believes that the Executive Office of the President should be involved.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), backed by the budgetary authority of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has had experience in coordinating complex programs in the federal government by creating multiagency committees. Both White House offices have specific charges to oversee, and in OSTP’s case lead, efforts to ensure interagency cooperation. For example, OSTP’s enabling legislation includes charges for the office to “lead an interagency effort to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets” and to “build strong partnerships among Federal, State, and local governments, other countries, and the scientific community.”2 Similarly, a key role of OMB is “to help improve administrative management, to develop better performance measures and coordinating mechanisms.”3 Both offices have played these roles in other interagency forums. (See Box 2.2.)
BOX 2.2 White House Coordinated Interagency Programs
National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP)
The NOPP was created in response to PL 104–201, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, to facilitate multiagency support of oceanographic research and education. The National Oceanographic Research Leadership Council (NORLC) oversees the program. It is composed of the heads of the 12 participating agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and is chaired by the Secretary of the Navy. An Interagency Working Group comprising senior staff members from all participating agencies performs staffing functions assigned to it by the NORLC, and an Ocean Research Advisory Panel composed of senior scientists drawn from non-profit organizations and industry provides independent outside advice to the NORLC.
Federal Information Technology R&D Program (formerly the High Performance Computing and Communications Initiative)
Coordination of federal information technology research and development is the responsibility of the Interagency Working Group on Information Technology R&D (IWG/IT R&D). The IWG has representatives from 12 participating agencies, and it reports to OSTP through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The IWG coordinates planning, budgeting (including preparation of annual crosscut budgets), and assessment activities in an area where a number of agencies play important roles but where no one agency claims IT R&D as its primary mission.
United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)
Overall direction and executive oversight of the USGCRP have been the responsibility of the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, which reports to OSTP and OMB through the NSTC. The subcommittee includes representatives from 14 participating federal agencies, plus OMB and OSTP, and its major duties have included the preparation of annual crosscut budgets. Assessments of the effectiveness of this process have been mixed (see Space Studies Board, National Research Council, Issues in the Integration of Research and Operational Satellite Systems for Climate Research: I. Science and Design, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 14).
ISSUES AFFECTING NASA AND NSF IMPLEMENTATION OF DECADAL SURVEY PRIORITIES
NASA—with important international contributions from, for example, Europe, Japan, and Canada—has been quite successful in implementing the large space initiatives recommended in the decadal surveys. Nearly all of the missions recommended in the current decadal survey
report have been incorporated into NASA’s strategic plan. Large space missions recommended in past and current decadal surveys (e.g., the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, and the Next Generation Space Telescope) almost always experience significant cost growth as a result of formidable technical challenges and other issues. As mentioned earlier, when such cost growth occurs, NASA typically reduces the mission’s capabilities to maintain the project’s cost and technical feasibility. If a so-called “rescope” or “descope” of the mission becomes necessary, NASA consults with its internal advisory panels in an attempt to minimize the scientific losses of the revised mission concept and asks the NRC to review and assess the scientific validity of the new mission in light of the original decadal survey recommendation for the mission. The agency also makes difficult, and in many cases controversial, decisions in considering the trade-offs between developing new astronomy and astrophysics missions and devoting those resources to supporting the operations and research programs of older missions that are still producing interesting scientific results. One of the most important examples of such a trade-off is evident in the case of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Next Generation Space Telescope. Both missions share the same funding line in NASA’s Office of Space Science budget, so funds for the design, development, construction, and eventual operation of the Next Generation Space Telescope must be balanced against the costs of upgrades, operations, and research support for the Hubble.
In the Gemini project, NSF has successfully responded to two of the three major ground-based recommendations of the 1990s decadal survey.4 Currently, NSF is moving forward with the implementation of the remaining major initiative of the 1990s decadal survey, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. NSF does not yet have a viable strategy to implement the major ground-based facility initiatives of the current survey within current budget estimates. Assignment to the Major Research Equipment budget line is NSF’s main mechanism for funding large facility initiatives. Increased competition for Major Research Equipment funding, combined with an increase in the scope and cost of ground-based astronomy facilities and instrumentation, will make it difficult for NSF to formulate and implement the needed strategy.
Even if funds were made available to implement all of the initiatives recommended in the current decadal survey, the issue of NSF’s large project management remains. Several staff members in the Executive
Branch and in Congress conveyed to the committee their perception that NSF does not manage large projects well and their frustration with the general lack of openness and transparency in NSF’s internal priority setting and management of the large projects funded through NSF’s Major Research Equipment account. Concerns about NSF’s ability to construct and operate the large ground-based projects proposed in the current decadal survey were formally expressed in the 2002 budget document that requested the present study,5 and NSF was directed to produce a plan to enhance its capabilities for managing large projects. The committee heard testimony on the issue of large project management at NSF and discussed it with several high-level project managers with significant experience in large federal construction projects. At its second meeting, the committee was also provided with a brief summary of an interim report on NSF project management. NSF is scheduled to deliver its final report to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress in September 2001.
In addition, NSF’s astronomy program has large ongoing commitments to various existing ground-based astronomy institutions. Thus, the fraction of the Astronomical Sciences Division’s budget available for unsolicited grants to university investigators is relatively small. Addressing this imbalance was recommended as the top priority overall by the 1990s decadal survey, but it has not been possible for the Astronomical Sciences Division to do so within present budget constraints.
Ground-based optical astronomy is unique in that most of the major facilities in this field in the United States are university-based telescopes whose construction is independently funded. This group of facilities could be thought of collectively as a third major player in ground-based optical/infrared astronomy, along with NASA and NSF. This third group has brought enormous resources into the field. The council of directors of these facilities (the AURA Coordinating Council of Observatory Research Directors, ACCORD) strives to coordinate the facilities’ policies, but it does not have the power of governance. Consequently, this major component of U.S. astronomy is fractured and has not dealt with its principal problem: funding the instrumentation that is necessary to fully exploit the scientific potential of its telescopes.
In 1995, an ad hoc panel6 of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics recommended that NSF assume responsibility for providing the
instrumentation needed at the independent telescopes. It also recommended that the independent observatories offer observing time to individuals not affiliated with the sponsoring universities in return for this funding. The plan was referred to as the Facilities Instrumentation Program.7 Although the original instrumentation plan was not considered to be a success because of the limited participation by the private and state observatories, the most recent survey committee and its optical/ infrared panel8 strongly endorsed the fundamental tenets of this instrumentation program as a way of increasing the overall research infrastructure for the discipline. As a result, the survey committee modified the plan so that it would be more appealing to the private and state observatories and renamed it the Telescope System Instrumentation Program.9 It was the express hope of these previous NRC’s panels that if NSF could offer a large enough incentive, it could simultaneously increase the discipline’s research infrastructure through instrumentation at the private/state observatories and exert leadership in ground-based optical/IR astronomy.