By assembling the community to determine its scientific priorities every decade, making the hard choices in advance of the associated political and budgetary processes, and arriving at an informed consensus on the best and most executable scientific programs, the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, provides guidance to Congress and the Administration on scientific goals. In particular, NASA’s Astrophysics Division and the NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences (NSF-AST) have for decades been guided by its contents, and in recent years, the Department of Energy (DOE) has begun to look to the survey to see where the discipline is headed. Astronomy was the first discipline to organize such a decadal survey. Other scientific disciplines have followed suit, and the Academies’ decadal process is becoming established as a critical component of planning for several fields.1
However, the evolution of both the science and the budgetary landscape requires that the decadal process itself be reviewed periodically to derive lessons learned and best practices that are aimed at ensuring that future decadal-ranked missions and initiatives are aligned with realistic budgetary expectations, and to ensure that the advice given by the decadal process is informed and credible. Identifying best practices, emerging issues, and current activities that can help prepare for the next astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, due to be completed in 2020, is not only prudent, but necessary at this time, if the United States is to harvest the
1 There have been decadal surveys for each of heliophysics, Earth science, planetary science, the various subdisciplines of physics, ocean science, and civil aeronautics.
rich scientific promise of this bountiful age of astronomy (see the Academies’ report The Space Science Decadal Surveys: Lessons Learned and Best Practices2).
The committee’s statement of task states that the committee “may provide guidance on . . . potential activities in preparation for the next decadal survey.” As such, the committee provides discussion of the next decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics as a resource for the organizational efforts going into the next survey.
The Cost and Technical Evaluation Process
New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics3 (NWNH) was the first of the space science decadal surveys to implement independent cost and technical evaluations (CATEs) for all major projects being considered for prioritization, both ground- and space-based. This development in the decadal process was implemented in response to the 2008 NASA Authorization Act, which directed that the decadal survey process “shall include independent estimates of the life cycle costs and technical readiness of missions assessed in the decadal surveys whenever possible.”4 The CATE process was developed for the decadal surveys in order to provide an independent, standardized process to produce a figure-of-merit for technical and cost risk that aids in the decadal surveys’ science prioritization. CATE, as implemented by the Aerospace Corporation in partnership with the Academies, is based on historical and continuously updated and validated databases and methods. It is designed to evaluate diverse mission concepts of varying design maturity. The CATE methodology incorporates cost growth based on the historical record and the state of the design or development. CATE assesses the technical risk and readiness and then monetizes the technical risks into potential design growth and associated cost and schedule threats. The objective of the CATE process is to perform a cost and technical risk analysis for a set of concepts that may have a broad range of maturity and to assure that the analysis is consistent, fair, and informed by historical data.
This committee believes that the overall impact of the CATE process was positive, although not without some shortcomings. One shortcoming arose be-
2 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), 2015, The Space Science Decadal Surveys: Lessons Learned and Best Practices, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
3 National Research Council (NRC), 2010, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
4 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, P.L. 110-422, Section 1104 (October 15, 2008).
cause Aerospace Corporation, which performed the CATEs under contract with the Academies, had less experience with ground-based projects than with space missions. Another shortcoming was that CATE is not a full and detailed costing exercise and should not be considered as such. Rather, it is an attempt to carry out an analysis of cost and technical risk for each major mission being considered for high-priority ranking—an analysis that is on an equal footing on a mission-by-mission basis so as to enable relative comparison within an approximate overall budget envelope. The committee supports the lessons learned and best practices provided in Space Science Decadal Surveys.5
In addition, this committee concurs there may be merit in introducing additional flexibility into the CATE process—for instance, by allowing a larger subset of promising initiatives that emerge from it and the decadal survey, but are not top-ranked by virtue of cost and technical risk concerns, preliminary funding to retire some of the risk identified therein. Furthermore, a two-step process might be useful, as advocated in Space Science Decadal Surveys, which begins with a preliminary CATE of a large subset of initiatives, which would be followed by the more detailed CATE of the smaller subset that emerges as the most viable among this first group. Finally, some of the initiatives evaluated in NWNH perceived that there was insufficient opportunity to correct misconceptions that led to inaccurate cost estimates. Therefore, some means to provide feedback during future CATE processes might be explored, while recognizing that the appropriately confidential deliberative process of Academies committees, including decadal survey committees and panels, is an important tool in ensuring the independence of the advice the decadal survey reports provide. Nevertheless, the overall impact of the CATE process was positive, allowing a fair and objectively informed approach to prioritization within a defined budget envelope. An independent CATE process, in whatever future form, is essential for the credibility of cost estimates used by the decadal survey committee, as well as for the credibility of the decadal process itself. Cost and technical evaluations played a crucial role in NWNH. Modest, early investment in developing future concepts and assessing their costs greatly facilitates the overall decadal process.
As already emphasized in this report, facilities operations costs in NSF-AST have a major impact on resources for new medium and small initiatives. Without an augmentation in its overall funding level, the anticipated growth of operations costs at NSF-AST is likely to severely compromise the grants program and the new Mid-scale Innovations Program (MSIP), making effective use of the new facilities difficult, to the long-term detriment of U.S. astronomy. Currently, operations for
facilities constructed using MREFC funds come out of NSF-AST funds. NWNH considered the potential impact of operations costs. Continuing in this tradition, future decadal surveys would have enhanced effectiveness if consideration of the life-cycle cost—including design and development, construction, operations, pipeline data processing, and data curating—of a “prime mission” with a well-defined lifetime were included in the deliberations that lead to prioritization of ground-based activities. This approach is already the norm for space-based activities and facilitates long-term planning.
NASA has initiated studies of several selected large- and “probe”-class mission concepts to prepare the concepts for detailed consideration by the next decadal survey. The large mission-class studies are receiving funding support from NASA. It is hoped that such modest investments will mature these mission concept designs so that the next survey committee will have a fuller understanding than in past surveys of the necessary effort to implement any particular one. NASA should be commended for inaugurating these concept studies.
NWNH attempted to provide various off-ramps and decision points in the event of changes in the budget landscape. It was the first decadal survey in space science that was tasked with assembling these so-called decision rules. However, the additional constraints on both the NASA and NSF budgets that subsequently emerged have made the survey’s full implementation impossible. Strategic advice is most useful if it is robust in the likely case that the actual budgets differ substantially from the assumed budgets in the decadal process. Future surveys could incorporate guidance to the government on how to reprioritize when budgets are significantly different from assumptions. Space Science Decadal Surveys provides useful lessons in this regard.6
NWNH recommended that an independent advisory committee be created to assist with federal planning in astronomy and astrophysics.
NASA, NSF, and DOE should on a regular basis request advice from an independent standing committee constituted to monitor progress toward reaching the goals recommended in the decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics, and to provide strategic advice to the agencies over the decade of implementation. Such a decadal survey implementation advisory committee (DSIAC) should be charged to produce annual reports to the agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, as well as a mid-decade review of the progress made. The implementation advisory committee should be independent of the agencies and the agency advisory committees in its membership, management, and operation.7
6 NASEM, 2015, Space Science Decadal Surveys, p. 65.
7 NRC, 2010, New Worlds, New Horizons, p. 15.
In addition to these annual reports, throughout NWNH the DSIAC was charged to provide guidance to the agencies at numerous decision points if or when those points were reached.
The DSIAC as envisioned by NWNH did not fully come to fruition; however, its work has been partially carried out in a piecemeal fashion by the cumulative efforts of the Academies’ standing Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) and the several, independent Academies report-writing committees that have been chartered since 2010. Because the CAA as it is currently manifested is not charged by the agencies to provide periodic (annual) reports, this part of NWNH’s recommendation with respect to the DSIAC has not been fulfilled. The next decadal survey will likely again consider the astronomy and astrophysics advisory structure.
In the 2010 NWNH process, the decadal survey committee received information generated by five Science Frontier Panels (SFPs) and four Project Prioritization Panels (PPPs). The SFPs were charged with studying the white paper input from the research community on the science drivers in their fields and identifying the most promising opportunities for progress in the next decade in the form of a set of high-priority questions and areas of discovery. The PPPs then used the SFPs output and conducted in-depth studies of the technical and programmatic issues related to scores of potential research activities identified by the community in a heavily subscribed request for information (RFI) process. The PPPs also engaged with the Aerospace Corporation on the CATE process and carried out an initial draft ranking of research activities in their respective portfolios. The survey committee then examined and assimilated the reports of these panels as they determined their single, comprehensive program. There are pluses and minuses to this structure, and this organizational approach was a departure from the past. The SFP/PPP model ensured a thorough vetting of the options and was a major method through which the broader astronomy community was involved in the decadal process. However, this process also proved more complex and time-consuming than previous surveys. In particular, the SFPs and PPPs produced separate reports, which themselves were independently reviewed and published, and these did not always align with the survey committee’s final conclusions. Reconsideration of this practice may be warranted when planning future surveys. In addition, the survey committee of NWNH was larger than in the past (with 23 members). When the next survey is constituted, thought might be given to committee size and nimbleness, while ensuring the necessary collective expertise and breadth of viewpoints.
During the decade preceding a survey, there are multiple independent white papers and federal advisory committee reports that collectively, and in a comprehensive fashion, identify progress made to date, promising new science directions,
the hottest areas of astronomy, and the technical methods to address them. This considerable effort can be assembled, summarized, and then channeled into the decadal process itself. As a part of the next decadal process, the Academies can again assemble and summarize prior relevant advisory committee and Academies reports. This systematically assembled archive will help streamline the 2020 effort, obviate the need to perform redundant studies during the survey, and provide useful traceability.
The State of the Profession
NWNH made a comprehensive effort to survey the state of the profession and workforce issues through its six Infrastructure Study Groups (ISGs). While the information collected by the ISGs was not able to be made publicly available, it was critical to the survey committee’s deliberations on these issues.8 Given the increasing focus on diversity, alternate career paths, and pipeline issues in science in general, and in astronomy in particular, a future decadal survey would be of additional value to its stakeholders if it could address these topics in more detail. Therefore, the committee concludes that incorporating a detailed assessment of the health of the astronomy profession—its diversity, the effects of major funding issues, and pipeline issues, among other items—could be useful for the next survey and executed during the survey process or prior to it.
Public and Private Support for Astronomy vis-à-vis the Decadal Survey
The public-private partnership in U.S. astronomy has been a strength over the past hundred years. However, given the recent difficulties encountered by the Thirty Meter Telescope and Giant Magellan Telescope projects, the cancelling of the Telescope Systems Instrumentation Program, lack of a plan for NSF participation in future optical 30-meter telescope planning and construction, and the disconnect between the public decadal process and private deliberations and funding, it may be time to consider developing a process for a unified effort between the public and private spheres in an attempt to optimize the U.S. astronomical enterprise as a whole. Therefore, the committee believes that engaging from the outset the private sector of U.S. astronomy, as well as private philanthropies, in the upcoming survey process could be helpful to the eventual outcome of the 2020 decadal process.
8 The ISGs were not formally chartered Academies committees, as the SFPs and PPPs were, so they could not produce public reports.
International Coordination and Participation
Space Science Decadal Surveys identified a number of useful best practices to encourage better incorporation of international perspectives and processes into the U.S. decadal survey process.9 Many space missions and ground-based efforts (e.g., the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Extremely Large Telescopes) are joint international efforts and must be coordinated, and there are many examples of successful joint international missions. However, recent experience with the International X-ray Observatory and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna bears mentioning. Although NWNH ranked them both highly, there was not sufficient funding available for NASA to pursue these mission concepts in addition to higher-priority activities. What were previously strong ties between the United States and Europe weakened as a result, and Europe soon established its own efforts while preserving the possibility of a minority role for the United States. With the emergence of Europe, Japan, Canada, Russia, and (soon, possibly) China and India as major players in space astrophysics, a stronger and more creative effort might be made to engage potential international partners in the decadal survey process, as reflected in Space Science Decadal Surveys. The mismatch of the various funding cycles is a major challenge, but the international nature of the science would seem to demand greater effort at the decadal level concerning international coordination and expectations.
Engagement with the U.S. Community
In the run-up to a decadal survey, there can be a mismatch between the expectations and hopes of the astronomy community and known (or at least expected) budget limitations and mission plans. Incorporating budget projections into a future decadal survey, such as was done in NWNH, will be essential to achieving federal buy-in and support for its recommendations. Communicating these budget expectations under which a credible survey must work to the entire U.S. astronomy community in advance of the 2020 survey is therefore also essential, so that the community has the opportunity to prepare activities within that context if it so chooses. The American Astronomical Society, the Academies, and the federal agencies are in the best position to perform this function.
9 NASEM, 2015, Space Science Decadal Surveys, pp. 43 and 53.
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