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…