Press Release

Federal Astronomy Programs Should Not Be Combined

By SpaceRef Editor
September 5, 2001
Filed under , ,

Ground-based astronomy research conducted by the National Science Foundation
should not be assumed by NASA, says a new National Academies report. The
report comes in response to a White House budget proposal that considered
consolidating the two federal programs. To better coordinate research,
however, the report recommends the formation of an interagency astronomy and
astrophysics planning board.

[NOTE: A PDF version of the report (820 KB) is available at

Recommendations of the Committee

1. The National Science Foundation’s astronomy and astrophysics responsibilities should not
be transferred to NASA.

2. In order to maximize the scientific returns, the federal government should develop a single
integrated strategy for astronomy and astrophysics research that includes supporting
facilities and missions on the ground and in space.

3. To help bring about an integration of ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics,
the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget
should take the initiative to establish an interagency planning board for astronomy and
astrophysics. Input to the planning board from the scientific and engineering community
should be provided by a joint advisory committee of outside experts that is well connected
to the advisory structures within each agency.

-The recommended interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Planning Board, with a
neutral and independent chair to be designated by the Office of Management and Budget
in conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should consist of
representatives of NASA, NSF, the Department of Energy, and other appropriate federal
agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Defense. The
Planning Board should coordinate the relevant research activities of the member agencies
and should prepare and annually update an integrated strategic plan for research in
astronomy and astrophysics, addressing the priorities of the most current National
Research Council decadal survey of the field in the context of tight discretionary budgets.

-The membership of the Planning Board’s advisory committee should be drawn in part
from the external advisory panels of the Planning Board’s member agencies. The
advisory committee should be chaired by an individual who is neither a member of the
agency advisory panels nor an agency employee. The committee should participate in the
development of the integrated strategic plan and in the periodic review of its

4. NASA and NSF should each put in place formal mechanisms for implementing
recommendations of the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Planning Board and
integrating those recommendations into their respective strategic plans for astronomy and
astrophysics. Both agencies should make changes, as outlined below, in order to pursue
effective roles in formulating and executing an integrated federal program for astronomy
and astrophysics. These changes should be coordinated through the interagency Planning
Board to clarify the responsibilities and strategies of the individual member agencies.

5. The NSF, with the active participation of the National Science Board, should:

a. Develop and implement its own strategic plan, taking into account the
recommendations of the interagency Planning Board. Its strategic plan should be
formulated in an open and transparent fashion and should have concrete objectives
and time lines. NSF should manage its program in astronomy and astrophysics to
that plan, ensuring the participation of scientifically relevant divisions and offices
within NSF. To help generate this plan, NSF should reestablish a federally
chartered advisory committee for its Astronomical Sciences Division to ensure
parity with the NASA advisory structure. The chair of this Astronomical Sciences Division advisory committee should be a member of the Mathematical and
Physical Sciences Directorate advisory committee. Furthermore, the Mathematical
and Physical Sciences Directorate advisory committee should make regular written
and oral reports of its key findings and recommendations to the National Science

b. Address the outstanding issues that are affecting ground-based astronomy at

-Lead the development of an integrated strategy for assembling the resources
needed to build and operate the challenging suite of ground-based initiatives
recommended by the most current decadal survey.

-Work to create an integrated system for ground-based optical/infrared
astronomy and astrophysics encompassing private, state, and federally funded
observatories, as advocated by the decadal survey.

-Improve and systematize the process for initiating, constructing, managing, and
using ground-based facilities, so that it includes:

–clear lines of authority for negotiations, particularly those involving
international partners,

–an open bidding process for contracts,

–comprehensive budgeting that provides for all aspects and phases of projects,

–provision of the resources required to exploit the scientific potential of the
facilities, including associated instrumentation, theoretical work, data
analysis, and travel.

c. Undertake a more concerted and well-funded effort to inform the press and the
general public of scientific discoveries, and cooperate with NASA in developing a
coordinated public information program for astronomy and astrophysics.

6. In parallel, NASA should:

a. Implement operational plans to provide continuity of support for the talent base in
astronomy and astrophysics should critical space missions suffer failure or be

b. Continue and enlarge its program of research support for proposals from individual
principal investigators that are not necessarily tied to the goals of specific missions.

c. Support critical ground-based facilities and scientifically enabling precursor and
follow-up observations that are essential to the success of space missions.
Decisions on such support should be considered in the context of the scientific
goals articulated in the integrated research plan for astronomy and astrophysics.

d. Cooperate with NSF in developing a coordinated public information program for
astronomy and astrophysics.

SpaceRef staff editor.