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Letter from AURA to House Science Commitee Regarding JWST (6 Mar 2006)

Status Report From: Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
Posted: Monday, March 6, 2006

March 6, 2006

The Honorable Sherwood Boehlert
2246 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-3223

Dear Chairman Boehlert:

The meeting of the House Science Committee on March 2nd examined the tension that exists during times of highly constrained budgets between numerous small NASA missions and projects, and the "flagship missions," such as Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope. The science programs of the latter two projects are managed on behalf of the international community by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Inc., under contract from NASA. I would like to provide my own perspective on this issue and respectfully request that this letter be made a part of the hearing record. In addition, I request that the February 24th letter to you and Mr. Gordon from the AURA Board of directors also be included in the record.

The witnesses pointed out that NASA's Research and Analysis (R&A) programs, proposed for significant reductions under the President's FY07 request, are key to the long-term health of the field. AURA strongly shares this belief. However the purpose of this letter is to point out that NASA flagship projects such as HST and JWST in fact also provide individual investigator funding to university scientists, of scope comparable to the R&A program, and are functionally equivalent with respect to sustaining the health of the community.

For example, each year the Hubble Space Telescope program distributes more than $20M of individual research funds, typically in small grants of $50-100K, to hundreds of U.S. scientists for use in analysis and exploitation of Hubble results. In a typical year, the three NASA "Great Observatories," Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra, combine to distribute $70M of such analysis funds, a sum far greater than the entire National Science Foundation expends on individual investigator grants in astronomy. The majority of these funds go to support graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty members. These are the same recipients correctly identified as critical to the future of the field by advocates of the NASA R&A program. Therefore the financial health of this segment of the community depends not just on the health of the R&A program, but also equally on the vigor of current and future flagship missions.

A similar argument applies to the impact on investigators from smaller NASA flight projects such as Explorers, sounding rockets and balloons. Several dozen investigators get started, or maintain footholds, in the field each year as the result of these vital projects. However the Great Observatories have supported several thousand U.S. astronomers in a similar manner, and continue to do so.

Research and analysis, and small, medium, and flagship missions all perform quite different types of research and support the community in different ways, and no one category can feasibly replace the others. There is a need to support people as well as missions--without one the other is useless. In addition to providing fundamental research support, flagship missions address the most important problems in astrophysics and cannot be done in any other way. They are called "Flagship" because they represent a significant and transformative step forward and are the icons of U.S. technological achievement and leadership. One measure of their unique impact is the numbers of peer-reviewed papers produced: HST alone has produced over 5,000 in major journals.

One of the central issues examined at the Committee's hearing was the balance within the space sciences. To cancel flagship missions in favor of R&A would simply shift the imbalance, not eliminate it. Our letter of February 24 acknowledges the need to redress the R&A problem, while affirming our support of NASA's decision to maintain funding for the highest priority missions. We concur with the numerous statements made during the hearing that a community-based approach should be brought to bear on this issue and we look forward to participating in this process.

Finally, I wish to point out that the overwhelming source of the problem is not the existence of flagship missions, nor their cost increases. The FY06 budget for Space Operations was widely considered inadequate and, if international commitments to the Space Station were to be met, a major increase was needed between now and 2010. The overall budget NASA received for FY07 failed to address this problem and this led to a wholesale transfer of over $3 billion out of the science area. I hope that the Congress can address this fundamental issue during your deliberations this year.

AURA deeply appreciates your strong support of the space sciences.

Sincerely,

William Smith
President

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