A blue-ribbon panel has rejected a White House suggestion that U.S. astronomy programs be consolidated within NASA. ScienceNOW has learned that the panel's report, due out next week, will instead suggest greater collaboration among federal agencies and other stakeholders as the way to preserve U.S. supremacy in the field.
The 11-member panel from the National Research Council of the National Academies, dominated by university astronomers and led by retired aerospace executive Norm Augustine, was set up in April at the request of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Its charge stems from longtime concerns about whether the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) budget can support a growing list of facilities, coupled with a dramatic rise in NASA funding for space-based research.
Once a minor player, NASA now accounts for nearly three-quarters of individual research grants in astronomy. (Nearly 30% of all small grants in astronomy go to research related to the Hubble Space Telescope, for example.) NSF has been unable to keep pace with that rapid growth. As a result, "funds for the independent observatories are at subsistence levels," warned Joseph Miller, director of the University of California observatories, in testimony to the panel. "Without significantly more [money], U.S. leadership ... will rapidly decline."
Another concern is that the division of labor between NSF and NASA has created some gaps. Work on astrophysical theory to interpret space-based observations receives little support from NASA, for instance, because it's not related to a particular mission, while NSF managers focus on ground-based data.
But OMB's idea of consolidating U.S. astronomy funding within NASA went over poorly, sources say. Instead, the report is expected to suggest that astronomers be given a larger voice in advising NSF's mathematics and physical sciences directorate and that NSF and NASA work more closely together--as they did successfully in BOOMERANG, a balloon experiment to study the cosmic microwave background (ScienceNOW, 30 April). Both agencies ought to coordinate with other U.S. groups, including the Department of Energy and private institutions. "We need a fundamental culture change," says one astronomer. "And somebody has to crack the whip."