Advantages and Disadvantages of Moving NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Responsibilities to NASA
There are advantages and disadvantages to moving NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities to NASA. Since each agency’s role in astronomy and astrophysics must be viewed in the context of its broader charter and its culture, it is useful to summarize the salient features of the two agencies before discussing the consequences of a transfer.
NASA’s charter focuses on space science. NASA launches space missions and conducts related research. It has a highly organized system (using independent advisory committees) for strategic planning of these missions and their operation, and it carries out its work through internal facilities, centers, and laboratories supported by extramural research funds. The management style has a significant “top-down” nature. NASA is a larger agency than NSF and, although its grants program is primarily mission-related, it now funds most of the work of the astronomy and astrophysics community.
NSF’s charter is to fund a broad range of science, develop and maintain the U.S. research infrastructure (both people and facilities), and promote education. NSF responds to proposals from the university science community and works through universities or consortia of universities. NSF is also responsible for a number of ground-based observatories and has begun to plan in terms of science-theme initiatives, an effort that itself requires strategic planning. Nevertheless, NSF still strives to remain flexible to enable it to respond to changing directions in research as proposed by individual investigators. This broader orientation, in contrast to NASA’s emphasis, reflects a more “bottom-up” approach to management.
There are several fundamental issues to be addressed when considering the advantages and disadvantages of the transfer of NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities to NASA:
Integration of ground- and space-based research
It is certainly plausible that a well-integrated program would emerge if all astronomy and astrophysics operations were the responsibility of a single agency. Integration of the space and ground parts of astronomy and astrophysics research was a high priority of the most recent decadal survey report. Bringing the federally funded astronomy and astrophysics effort into one agency could facilitate this integration.
Integration of privately and federally funded ground-based optical/infrared programs
For ground-based optical/infrared astronomy, much of the observing power resides in telescopes constructed with private and/or state funds and owned and operated by universities or private institutions. Incorporating the NSF astronomy and astrophysics program into the NASA organization would not, by itself, solve a major issue in ground-based astronomy, namely, effective integration of the private telescope facilities into the larger system. Since working closely with the university community is a traditional NSF strength, that agency seems better suited to address this problem.
Efficiency of program and project management
While both agencies have from time to time encountered serious problems in managing specific projects, each has had overall success in project management. On one hand, moving ground-based astronomy into NASA would enable the application of its disciplined style of project management, with announcements of opportunity and integration of technology development, conceptual design, instrument development, operations, data collection and distribution, and research and analysis. On the other hand, NSF could achieve the same objective without disrupting its active astronomy program by strengthening its style of project management. Establishing practices that allow for stable long-term operation and optimum scientific use of facilities would have many advantages for NSF and its growth strategy. Open bidding for all phases of new national facilities would directly strengthen the university research community, and thereby the field. In addition, NSF has the flexibility to respond to new ideas and proposals that emerge from that community in areas not anticipated by “top-down” strategic plans and not associated with major facili-
ties, missions, or science themes. The separation of this grants program from new initiative funding in NSF protects the program from fluctuations created by the changing needs of many projects. The committee notes that the operations of both agencies are already streamlined to the point that there is little possibility for economies of scale in transferring NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics operations to NASA.
Budget constraints on very large ground-based projects
The top-ranked large ground-based initiative recommended by the decadal survey report is the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope. Unless the NSF Astronomical Sciences Division budget enjoys extraordinary growth over the next decade, the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope will be too costly to be pursued. The scale of the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope is more commensurate with NASA missions; however, either agency would require a concomitant budget enhancement to enable construction of this telescope. NSF’s Major Research Equipment account, or something like it, could be expanded to accommodate more initiatives, enabling NSF to respond to the most recent decadal survey report’s recommendations. This action might also assist NSF’s growth strategy. At the present time, the Office of Space Science’s interpretation of NASA’s charter (which does not explicitly prohibit sponsoring ground-based research) makes it unlikely that NASA would accord high priority to ground-based initiatives such as the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope.
Production of a scientific workforce for the future
NASA concentrates primarily on missions and to a considerable degree presupposes the existence of a cadre of researchers, although it has been active in promoting K-12 education. NSF has as an explicit top-level goal the development of the nation’s university research capability and the proactive development of a scientific workforce for the future. NSF is a resource for funding research-based education within the small colleges that produce a substantial fraction of scientists in the United States. There is no comparable activity of this scope in NASA and no obvious niche for it. NSF also has accepted a responsibility for helping to ensure the long-term continuity of university research groups, for example by funding a wide range of instrumentation for ground-based astronomy. The students trained in these programs are the “seed corn” for all types of future instrumentalists, and the university research groups constitute the intellectual infrastructure on which the continuing training capacity rests. NASA has a more specialized role in supporting space instrumentation (much of it developed at national laboratories). The transfer of astronomy and astrophysics at NSF to NASA could result in erosion of this training
resource due to the time and budget pressures of NASA’s core space mission.
Public information and outreach programs
Public awareness of astronomy and astrophysics has been enhanced by NASA’s public education and outreach effort, which has been highly successful. NASA’s admirable lead in this arena could be followed for ground-based astronomy. NSF could adopt some of NASA’s more successful strategies aimed at informing the press and the public about the research that it funds. Efforts in this direction are now in progress at NSF, although top-level support backed by substantial funding for these efforts will be necessary.
Diversity of funding opportunities
NASA missions have a finite lifetime, and continuity depends on dovetailing their funding envelopes as time and fiscal pressures dictate. Any major space science mission failure could have a considerable impact on the NASA astronomy and astrophysics program and its community. Overruns in major programs such as the space station have the potential to negatively affect the space astronomy and astrophysics program, although the current NASA administration has not so far allowed the problems with the space station to affect the space science enterprise. In contrast, NSF, by design, fosters continuity in the intellectual development of the community. It also provides members of the research community with an alternative funding avenue for programs that NASA might find difficult to fund for programmatic reasons. This diversity is healthy for the field. The loss of NSF as an independent actor in astronomy and astrophysics would deprive the field of an important source of stability, continuity, and diversity. In fact, the vulnerability of the discipline to the catastrophic loss of a major NASA mission argues for a greater rather than a lesser role for NSF.
Stewardship of ground-based astronomy
NASA operates missions and laboratories and conducts some of its own research. NSF has a charter to support the public ground-based observatories and university-based research, including instrumentation and some share of the operation of private telescope facilities. Its responsibilities encompass not only optical/infrared but also radio instruments. NASA has little experience in radio astronomy. By contrast, NSF has been sufficiently successful in supporting radio astronomy facilities to now be mounting a major international initiative (the Atacama Large
Millimemeter Array), and a transfer might disrupt the progress of this effort given NASA’s lack of expertise.
NSF is primarily a science agency. NASA is primarily a mission agency. Increasingly, the frontiers of science are multidisciplinary, and NSF is chartered to act as a general science agency, linking various disciplines together where appropriate. The loss of such potential linkages would be harmful to the development of astronomy and astrophysics. Basic research across the sciences, but especially astronomy and astrophysics, would be adversely affected by loss of the role that NSF plays in enabling interdisciplinary research between the astronomical and astrophysical sciences and, for example, physics (particle, gravitational, nuclear, atomic, molecular and optical, plasma, and condensed matter), computation, mathematics, chemistry, and geophysics. Although NASA has a role in the interagency information technology initiative that is creating the powerful grid-based supercomputing capability needed by all of science and engineering, the main players are NSF and the Department of Energy, and to a lesser extent, the Department of Defense. The probable loss of synergy across all of the aforementioned fields is a prime argument against an administrative move of the NSF astronomy program to NASA.
In conclusion, the committee finds that the potential advantages of transferring NSF’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities to NASA are outweighed by the advantages inherent in retaining a leadership role for NSF in ground-based astronomy and astrophysics.