The Next Decade of Astronomy?

I feel obliged to pass on the news that the results of the Decadal Review of US Astronomy were announced yesterday. There has already been a considerable amount of reaction to what the Review Panel (chaired by the esteemed Roger Blandford) came up with from people much more knowledgeable about observational astronomy and indeed US Science Politics, so I won’t try to do a comprehensive analysis here. I draw your attention instead to the report itself  (which you can download in PDF form for free)  and Julianne Dalcanton’s review of, and comments on, the Panel’s conclusions about the priorities for  space-based and ground-based astronomy for the next decade or so over on Cosmic Variance.  There’s also a piece by Andy Lawrence over on The e-Astronomer’s blog. I’ll just mention that Top of the Pops for space-based astronomy is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which you can read a bit more about here, and King of the Castle for the ground-based programme is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). Both of these hold great promise for the area I work in – cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics – so I’m pleased to see our American cousins placing such a high priority on them. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which is designed to detect gravitational waves, also did very well, which is great news for Cardiff’s Gravitational Physics group.

It will be interesting to see what effect – if any – these priorities have on the ranking of corresponding projects this side of the Atlantic. Some of the space missions involved in the Decadal Review in fact depend on both NASA and ESA so there clearly will be a big effect on such cases. For example, the proposed International X-ray Observatory (IXO) did less well than many might have anticipated, with clear implications for  Europe (including the UK).  The current landscape  of X-ray astronomy is dominated by Chandra and XMM, both of which were launched in 1999 and which are both nearing the end of their operational lives. Since X-ray astronomy can only be done from space, abandoning IXO would basically mean the end of the subject  as we know it, but the question is how to bridge the  the gap between the end of these two missions and the start of IXO even if it does go ahead but not until long after 2020? Should we keep X-ray astronomers on the payroll twiddling their thumbs for the next decade when other fields are desperately short of manpower for science exploitation?

On a more general level, it’s not obvious how we should react when the US gives a high priority to a given mission anyway. Of course, it gives us confidence that we’re not being silly when very smart people across the Pond endorse missions and facilities similar to ones we are considering over here. However, generally speaking the Americans tend to be able to bring missions from the drawing board to completion much faster than we can in Europe. Just compare WMAP with Planck, for instance. Trying to compete with the US, rather than collaborate, seems likely to ensure only that we remain second best. There’s an argument, therefore, for Europe having a programme that is, in some respects at least, orthogonal to the United States; in matters where we don’t collaborate, we should go for facilities that complement rather than compete with those the Americans are building.

It’s all very well talking of priorities in the UK but we all know that the Grim Reaper is shortly going to be paying a visit to the budget of the  agency that administers funding for our astronomy, STFC. This organization went through a financial crisis all of its very own in 2007 from which it is still reeling. Now it has to face the prospect of further savage cuts. The level of “savings” being discussed  – at least 25%  -means that the STFC management must be pondering some pretty drastic measures, even pulling out of the European Southern Observatory (which we only joined in 2002). The trouble is that most of the other ground-based astronomical facilities used by UK astronomers have been earmarked for closure, or STFC has withdrawn from them. Britain’s long history of excellence in ground-based astronomy now hangs in the balance. It’s scary.

I hope the government can be persuaded that STFC should be spared another big cut and I’m sure that there’s extensive lobbying going on.  Indeed, STFC has already requested input to its plans for the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). With this in mind, the Royal Astronomical Society has produced a new booklet designed to point out the  relevance of astronomy to wider society. However I can’t rid from my mind the memory a certain meeting in London in 2007 at which the STFC Chief Executive revealed the true scale of STFC’s problems. He predicted that things would be much worse at the next CSR, i.e. this one. And that was before the Credit Crunch, and the consequent arrival of a new government swinging a very large axe. I wish I could be optimistic but, frankly, I’m not.

When the CSR is completed then STFC will have yet again to do another hasty re-prioritisation. Their Science Board has clearly been preparing:

… Science Board discussed a number of thought provoking scenarios designed to explore the sort of issues that the Executive may be confronted with if there were to be a significant funding reduction as a result of the 2010 comprehensive spending review settlement. As a result of these deliberations Science Board provided the Executive with guidance on how to take forward this strategic planning.

This illustrates a big difference in the way such prioritisation exercises are carried out in the UK versus the USA. The Decadal Review described above is a high-profile study, carried out by a panel of distinguished experts, which takes detailed input from a large number of scientists, and which delivers a coherent long-term vision for the future of the subject. I’m sure not everyone agrees with their conclusions, but the vast majority respect its impartiality and level-headedness and have confidence in the overall process. Here in the UK we have “consultation exercises” involving “advisory panels” who draw up detailed advice which then gets fed into STFC’s internal panels. That bit is much like the Decadal Review. However, at least in the case of the last prioritisation exercise, the community input doesn’t seem to bear any obvious relationship to what comes out the other end. I appreciate that there are probably more constraints on STFC’s Science Board than it has degrees of freedom, but there’s no getting away from the sense of alienation and cynicism this has generated across large sections of the UK astronomy community.

The problem with our is that we always seem to be reacting to financial pressure rather than taking the truly long-term “blue-skies” view that is clearly needed for big science projects of the type under discussion. The Decadal Review, for example, places great importance on striking a balance between large- and small-scale experiments. Here we tend slash the latter because they’re easier to kill than the former. If this policy goes on much longer, in the long run we’ll end up a with few enormous expensive facilities but none of the truly excellent science that can be done from using smaller kit.  A crucial aspect of this that that science seems to have been steadily relegated in importance in favour of technology ever since the creation of STFC.  This must be reversed. We need a proper strategic advisory panel with strong scientific credentials that stands outside the existing STFC structure but which has real influence on STFC planning, i.e. one which plays the same role in the UK as the Decadal Review does in the States.

Assuming, of course, that there’s any UK astronomy left in the next decade…

19 Responses to “The Next Decade of Astronomy?”

  1. […] So Astro 2010 is on the streets. His Darkness Peter Coles already has an interesting post out in which he makes  two suggestions – first that  the European plan should be […]

  2. Rob Ivison Says:

    couple of points:

    first, whilst i like the idea of the orthogonal approach, it cannot and should not be used for projects that are so immense and technologically complex (i hardly need name the biggest losers in the Decadal) that they require a truly global approach;

    second, it’s a little misleading to ignore the fact that “STFC’s internal panels” are largely populated by esteemed members of the community – indeed, Cardiff has been extraordinarily well represented. it’s not obvious to me that an external panel would do a significantly better job. having said that, it would be interesting to see the astro community, perhaps led by the RAS, undertake it’s own Decadal-style exercise.

  3. telescoper Says:


    On the first point, I agree. What I meant to say was that we clearly should collaborate with the US on the global projects but in other situations its probably better not to compete over the same territory, but to do things that are complementary. That’s what I meant by “in some respects”. I’ve added a bit of text to make that clearer.

    On the second point it’s not the membership of the STFC panels that I was talking about, I’m sure they did the best they could under impossible constraints. What I was going on about is the way that the relationship between the community input and the STFC strategy output is extremely murky. I’d like to see a clear astronomy strategy developed and published before the horsetrading starts within PPAN. A point I didn’t make is that the fact that we now have UKSA as well as STFC makes the case for a strategic commitee outside both these bodies stronger. I did have in mind that the RAS could do this job, and think it would do it very well.

    Another thing I think I should say – at the risk of sounding sycophantic – is that the fact that this review was presented by a person of the stature of Roger Blandford did make a big difference to the way it is being received. It is important that the leaders of UK astronomy play a full part if such a thing ever gets off the ground here.


    • Rob Ivison Says:

      question: why was Astronet not a satisfactory example of the strategic exercise you’re talking about? it covered ground and space, with a lot of community input, did it not?

      we must all be absolutely clear that withdrawal from ESO (ALMA, VLT, E-ELT) or ESA would be utterly disastrous for UK astronomy, on several levels. I can only imagine the PP community feels the same way about CERN.

      do we have a Blandford, i wonder – someone everyone would rally around? perhaps; perhaps not. stars of future generations should perhaps ponder this… if one were to put aside the robber-baron antics so common in UK TAGs and committees and instead build a reputation for impartiality – easier said than done, for sure – then this is the kind of job that might result.

      • telescoper Says:


        As far as I’m aware, ASTRONET did an OK job but was mostly about ESO and ESA activities. It also never achieved the prominence of the Decadal Review nor had has much impact. In fact I’d forgotten about it until you reminded me!

        It’s a great pity that so many of the senior figures in the UK astronomy scene seem to be motivated by empire-building rather than doing the best they can for the whole field. I guess it is inevitable given the emphasis placed by universities on winning grants and bringing in money that its the people who do that best who become prominent. The RAS president could do it, but that’s a post that rotates on a 2-year basis and is sometimes filled by a geophysicist so that wouldn’t do. Perhaps STFC and UKSA should appoint a Director of Astronomy Strategy to oversee such a process, with a brief to look only at the science?

        Agreed. On all counts. However, it’s a dangerous situation for ESO. Presumbly UKSA will control the ESA subs so it won’t be STFC’s problem. Of the two remaining big money items, ESO is by far the easiest to kill. It would be a disaster if that happened, but I wouldn’t give you very long odds on it.

        Of course they’re soon also going to be looking for a New Chief Executive – Professor Mason has indicated he won’t seek another term after his current one finishes in 2011. I find it hard even to imagine any sane person wanting that job.


    • Rob Ivison Says:

      you and i can both think of half a dozen folk that’ll be interested in the job – those very empire-builders of whom you speak. i’m sure we could also think of more consensual candidates. we could have a word in their shell-like, but would you wish the job on anyone? i have more respect for Keith than you do, by the sounds of it, and i can only imagine the stress he’s faced this last few years.

      Astronet did rather a good job of identifying future priorities (i confess i’d forgotten about it too, until this morning).

      re: ESO. it must be vulnerable for the reasons you mention. it also gives the impression of a bloated central empire, with fat cat salaries, taking on work that could be done in the member states, and this must be addressed. however, we can fix this as active members, and there is no doubt that they have truly superb people, and it is the organisation best capable of delivering and managing the facilities of the future, including E-ELT and SKA. most astronomers (and instrument builders) understand that withdrawal would spell the end of competitive astronomy in the UK. we must make sure *everyone* understands that.

    • telescoper Says:


      I think I’ve made my views on Keith Mason pretty clear elsewhere so I don’t think it’s worth repeating them now! Whoever does get the job when he stands down – if it still exists – needs to be someone with strong political nous and well as the scientific credentials to inspire confidence. I can’t think of many people holding strong cards in both those suits.


  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I suspect many people do not appreciate yet the consequences of 25% cuts in public spending. If, as is likely, the cuts to the STFC are that large, the consequences will be brutal and shocking for science. Peter rightly considers the possibility that this could mean a strategic withdrawal from a broad area of activity.

    Future funding will be determined by the Treasury with certain strategic commitments specified in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Enthusiasm within the STFC and among politicians for certain areas, such as space, may not count for much with the Treasury. The Treasury may force the hand of the STFC.

    I can imagine a strategic withdrawal from any one of the following: the European Space Agency (as Peter suggested); space activities other than through the ESA; CERN; the European Southern Observatory; ground-based astronomy in general. It is hard to see grants to university departments not being slashed much further than they have been already.

    This might even mean a repeat of the loss of a leading position in observational astronomy that Britain experienced in the early 20th century when funds (public or private) were not available to provide for the large telescopes of the day. That led to a concentration of cutting-edge research in astronomy on theory. I do not expect Jodrell Bank to be around for much longer if there are 25% cuts.

    • telescoper Says:


      The Decadal Review was quite sceptical about the Square Kilometre Array, and their decision to downgrade relative to other ground-based activcities will surely have an impact over here. Since it seems to me that the European ELT project has pretty much unstoppable momentum, I think when the chips are down we might find ourselves walking out of SKA very soon. I personally think the science case for SKA is exceptionally strong, but the Decadal Review was right in pointing out that it is a stretch from a technological point of view.

      Jodrell Bank looked quite vulnerable a few years ago when E-Merlin faced the axe. To be honest, I was surprised that E-Merlin survived the last round of cuts too. Jodrell Bank is, of course, run by the University of Manchester not by STFC so it’s up to them to decide what to do with it in the long run. However, with the possibility of huge savings to be made, STFC may have to plan to abandon whole areas of astronomy, e.g. X-ray as I argued in the post or perhaps radio, meaning not only no facilities but no grants to research groups in those areas. Such a step would be grim news indeed for Jodrell.


    • Rob Ivison Says:

      if SKA’s precursors demonstrate that its science case can be taken seriously and that its technical requirements can be met, it will indeed be unstoppable. radio folk in the US appreciate that those things won’t be known for a good few years; also, the fabulous EVLA is inching its way through commissioning. the fact that ALMA is seen as “radio” probably doesn’t help, either – the distinction between “radio” and “submm” is less strong in the US, possibly because ALMA/EVLA/GBT/VLBA all fall under the NRAO umbrella. the idea that the US should dive headlong into SKA is not taken seriously even in the most radio-centric US departments.

      the rest of the radio world has been well aware of this. it didn’t stop them before and i don’t suppose it will stop them now.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have to confess that I have not read the U.S. Decadal Review: the PDF document was > 80 MByte in size on trying to access it, so I gave up. It is interesting that the Review is not enthusiastic about the SKA for reasons of prcaticality, given that project would be so important scientifically across a large number of fields.

    My suspicion is that the STFC will have bid to the Treasury for funds for various very broad activities, and therefore the Treasury may specify which of these areas are funded. As such, the STFC may be forced to abandon some areas, regardless of opinion within the STFC or the community. The same will apply to the level of funding of those broad activities that are funded. The Treasury may like the new Space Agency, or it may not. We’ll have to see.

    The scale of the cuts may be so large that unstoppable international projects may still find themselves without United Kingdom participation: opting out may be one way of cutting the British science budget. This could apply to the SKA if it goes ahead, or the ELT. Indeed, forcing withdrawal from ESO could be seen by the Treasury as a convenient way of avoiding future cost commitments.

    We are probably talking about 25% cuts, not 5%.

  6. Phil Uttley Says:

    Speaking as an X-ray astronomer, albeit one fortunate enough to have plenty of multiwavelength stuff to turn to (such is the beauty of working on AGN, nature’s most profligate photon producers….), I think it would be a bit premature for funding agencies to write off X-ray astronomy. The Decadal Survey recommended an increase in funds to the Explorer programme, which has been very good to X-ray astronomy in the past. Forthcoming X-ray missions include NuStar (the dawn of high spatial resolution hard X-ray imaging), Astro-H (the dawn of hi-res X-ray spectroscopy) and GEMS (the dawn of X-ray polarimetry). So new discovery-space is opening up, and it’s quite likely that more new X-ray Explorer-class missions will follow. Swift is going strong and XMM-Newton and Chandra are still working. Once expertise in X-ray instrumentation is lost, it’s very hard to get back, so closing down the field because of a setback like this would be a pretty reckless thing to do, although in the current circumstances I don’t preclude it from happening.

  7. Dave Carter Says:

    Those who support continued membership of ESO need to do more to demonstrate value for money. Despite all of the stringencies in the rest of the programme, ESO has shown no sign of cutting its cloth. It would be an interesting exercise to ask them to produce a plan to build ELT with no budget increase, or even a 25% cut. That, after all, is the situation the rest of us are in.

  8. Paddy Leahy Says:

    All the complaints you make about STFC strategic decision making have also been levelled against the decadal review process. The 2000 report is routinely criticised for backing a mega-project, JWST, whose spiralling cost has duly sucked most of the dollars out of the rest of NASA’s astrophysics programme. This time round, the top-level committtee has reversed the priorities assigned by its sub-panel to LSST and GSMT, and the report explicitly concludes that single-country planning (even for the US) is inadequate; in fact, of the 11 large and medium projects recommended, LISA, IXO, GSMT, ACTA, CCAT are already international collaborations and they suggest a collaboration with ESA on WFIRST.

    Of course the fundamental difference is that the UK on its own (even in good times) isn’t big enough to run a balanced set of astrophysics facilities. We couldn’t even afford a single “medium” project like CCAT, so UK “strategic” planning is about deciding which existing projects to buy into. If we want input into new starts, we have to do that at European level.

    Finally, it”s worth saying that the strength of the US astro community is that by and large it gets behind the report despite the fact that significant sections of the community are always disappointed by the choices made. If all the work that went into the Astronet roadmap is to pay off, European astronomers need to do the same thing!

    • Mark McCaughrean Says:

      Very interesting discussion, of course, and here at ESA we are looking hard at how best to interface the ongoing Cosmic Vision process with the space-based recommendations from the Decadal, as they are picked up for implementation by NASA.

      But let me tackle the issue of the ASTRONET process, which I took part in. While ESO and ESA projects of course played a key role in those deliberations, a broad array of other smaller non-ES* and/or national-level facilities were also considered, including, for example, the array of 2-4m telescopes that Europe has built, and the idea of doing astronomy in Antarctica (to name a personal involvement).

      Indeed, it was strongly argued that streamlining the way decisions are made on which smaller projects to implement and how to avoid costly duplication at that level is just as important as coming up with a consensus view on which joint mega-projects to go for.

      The reason is that whereas ESA and ESO are governed by rules and conventions which are designed to come up with that latter consensus, it’s often every country (and/or its science community) for itself at the lower level, leading to a lack of coherence and thus in my opinion, inefficiency across Europe. In my mind, that’s the only basis on which we can really compete with the US, but to be effective, that should involve European collaboration (or at least planning) on smaller projects, not just the mega-ones.

      How did ASTRONET do? Well, I take the glass-half-full approach: for a first attempt, it was a lot better than it could have been. Was it perfect? No. Can we do better? Yes, given what we learned the first time. Should we wait a decade to do it again? Probably not.

      However, for me there’s a crucial issue here: in the US, NASA and the NSF (and partly the DOE) commission the NAS to carry out Decadal Surveys. They then take them very seriously and do their level best to implement the recommendations. Similarly, ASTRONET comprises (largely) the various European funding and implementation agencies, and they commissioned a bottom-up, Europe-wide prioritisation exercise. The difference is that they appear to have made no meaningful commitment to actually execute the recommendations even when the consensus priorities might differ from those at the national level.

      Without that, the whole exercise is meaningless and will simply revert at the national-level to a “thanks for your recommendations; we don’t like them because they don’t align with our own priorities, however, so hard cheese”. Of course, those who’re used to dealing with STFC know that syndrome all too well, but it applies to the astronomers just as much as the funding agencies.

  9. […] read, chewed over, and discussed at length online in the weeks to come (see e.g. here, here, here, here); if you’re interested, the report is publicly available here, all 225 pages of it – […]

  10. Rob Ivison Says:

    i think you underestimate the influence and importance of the US radio astronomy community. i put their lack of interest in early-phase SKA down to their preference for high-frequency work and concerns about technical feasibility (it’s easy to write a killer science case if you’re not forced to keep it real, feasibility-wise). the age profile of their radio community plays a role too, this being in large part due to the way US radio work is (not) funded relative to HST, Chandra, etc.

  11. […] what it means for the shape of astronomy over the next ten years can be found on Sarah Askew and In the Dark among many, many […]

  12. […] Coles wrote a post about a year ago when the US Astro2010 Decadal Survey came out, which mentions the […]

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