U.S. Astronomy Needs Help

Although the U.S. astronomy effort may seem robust, a new report released 4 September by the National Research Council (NRC) warns that the field requires some treatment to address various ills. But researchers are divided over how the council's prescriptions should be implemented.

The report concludes that the nation's astronomy effort requires restructuring for several reasons: NASA's growing dominance in funding, the interdependence of space- and ground-based telescopes funded by different agencies, and the increasing role of state and private funds and facilities. Calling for "systematic, comprehensive, and coordinated planning," the study proposes a federal board that would represent several agencies and be led by an independent chair chosen by the White House. It also urges the National Science Foundation (NSF) to set up its own astronomy advisory panel, work more closely with nonfederal players, and rethink the way it plans and operates its ground-based telescopes.

No one disputes the need for greater coordination, given that NASA, NSF, other federal agencies, the Smithsonian Institution, states, and private groups all participate in astronomy research, often haphazardly. But some members of the community are concerned, for different reasons, with the report's recommendations. For example, Joseph Miller, director of the University of California Observatories/Lick Observatory in Santa Cruz, worries about an overarching planning board. "We fear this could turn into some top-down monolithic program" that leaves little room for independent voices. "If that's the case," he adds, "then it's doomed."

Miller suggests that the field can start with at least one concrete step: allowing the federal government to trade NSF-funded instruments for private telescope time, an idea viewed with sympathy by the NRC panel. "We need to start with practical things, and I have high hopes for this," says Miller. NSF officials say they hope to have money soon to start the effort.

Related site

A preliminary version of the report U.S. Astronomy and Astrophysics: Managing an Integrated Program