Monday, February 27, 2006

they lied! about money!

It has been a month since the State ifof the Union address, and 3 weeks since the President's proposed budget came out.

The space science and astronomy community reaction has been curiously subdued. Partly this is because of mixed news, the bits of extra funding to the National Science Foundation sound promising (though the details look a bit worrying). And the particle physics people are happy with both the DoE Office of Science and NSF.

The "leadership" has been notably quiet. Not a peep from the American Astronomical Society or the relevant divisions of the American Physical Society. Word is that some of the people who should be speaking out are basically withdrawn in shock. The reality of the budget and the attitude they are getting from NASA ("if scientists want to complain about the funding, then I'm sure we can find someone who would appreciate the funding" is one paraphrased comment I got forwarded) has been a blow, the direct contradiction to what we've been told, repeatedly, over several years, as recently as january this year, and the cynicism of the cuts are just too much - people don't want to play any more.

There has been some flurry of activity among individual groups threatened, a lot of writing to Congress critters. Which is well and good. Congress does have the budgetary power to change this.
I'm concerned on a couple of fronts there. One is the anecdotal information I hear that Congress committee members were "prepped" by NASA to expect "whining" from "special interest groups" (and, again, I paraphrase). So a lot of the commenting to Congress will be ignored.
Secondly, Congress can raise the Science line funding at NASA, and even recommend priorities, but unless they specify very low level line item funding (which they can do and have done), the NASA AA and science directors can re-allocate within the line. I am wary of letting Congress take line-by-line control of the NASA science budget, 'cause that way lies a lot of smelly pork and even worse prioritization of funding. Also, the CEV/Constellation development WILL run over budget, and the cost overruns will just eat up more science/aeronautics funding.
I still get the sense that a lot of scientists expect a Congressional miracle. I am not so confident, but we can hope.
Actually the best bet may be for Congress to chicken out of passing a potentially electorally controversial budget and for the 2007 budget to be a "continuing" 2006 budget...

And, there have been outbreaks of cannibalism.
The science community is very vulnerable to this when time get hard, which is why we so often get shafted.
The best bet for long term funding is solidarity.
Do not speak ill of others research, always praise it in general terms, and then address specifically why your research is so important, will cure cancer etc.
But, I have heard several reports where missions, centers and sub-fields have claimed that what others do is not so important and that all the remaining funding must go to them, with the others cut. Once such a game starts, it escalates, and everyone loses. It would be so nice if our dear colleagues could learn a little bit of classical game theory.
Starting with meta-rule #1: Do Not Participate in Negative Sum Games!

Overall there is a curious theme here: NASA science has always made some sincere effort to consult with the community, establish priorities and maintain balances portfolios across sub-disciplines. Partly this is engineering sense, you break up the labs and mission teams and they take 10-20 years to reassemble. Partly it is scientific sense, you don't know where blue sky breakthroughs come from, so you cover all the bases, to the extent you can.

This seems to have changed. There is no apparent recognition of priorities; there is no attempt to balance across sub-fields; and there is no consultation with the community - in the past there have been at least some efforts to call in the existing advisory committees, tell them the bad news and ask for recommendations and prioritizations. The standing committees will assemble at very short notice and can give very rapid response. Not so much this year.
NASA is now run top-down, and the admins have their preset preconceptions and priorities. There doesn't even seem to be much of an attempt to rationalise the funding decisions; they know what they like, they know what they want to do, they know what they have to do in a few cases whether they like it or not, and they have the power. So the rest they just cut in chunks until it is small enough.
Butchering. Clumsy butchering. With a little bit of payback on the side.

And I don't think we're done yet...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steinn --

I think that there is quite a bit of lobbying going on slightly below the surface, but it is pretty targeted at the people who might directly control decisions about restoring science funding.

I am, however, as shocked as you are at the absence of significant public comment from our professional organization, the American Astronomical Society. It is almost as if they figure that as long as HST and JWST are safe, the rest of the field is none of their business.

We have been living through an extraordinary period in astrophysics, as technological advances have made it possible to detect planets orbiting nearby stars and some of the most distant (and oldest) galaxies in the Universe. Multiwavelength observing has become routine, and computational advances have made huge survey projects possible. And now we are about to walk away from all that we have accomplished, as university-based research and technology groups are disbanded and we look ahead to losing the windows on the Universe that have been so recently opened. For years, NASA has pretended to be serious about the International Space Station, at huge direct cost and even greater opportunity cost. Now NASA is pretending it has a plan to return to the Moon and then to go on to Mars. Great public relations, but at the cost of destroying a decade of real space science opportunity and wasting a generation of scientists.

And the American Astronomical Society just stands by quietly.

--anon dean

2:53 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...


Yeah, I don't want to be too harsh about the AAS, because there may be behind the scene happenings I don't hear about, but I would very much like to be in a small room with 3-4 of the AAS exec for an hour or two for some frank discussion.
I have also heard third hand that some people have, at least temporarily, given up.

I'm more worried than normal about this year, because I think that while Congress is generally sympathetic and open to persuasion, at least in the committees that matter, they are going to be endplayed by NASA. I'm not even sure NASA will follow "will of Congress" statements on funding, or care if Congress is annoyed about it.
I am very worried about anecdotes I hear about the NASA admin attitude towards the Science directorate. Even if they personally don't care about Science, they could try to be professional and cut out the "yeah, you gonna make me" attitude.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Adam Solomon said... might not help much but I'll be presenting my research to and spending a day with a number of Congressmen who are "friendly to science" in a couple of weeks...unfortunately I haven't been following the exact budget developments lately (I'm still at the phase where I'm just learning how to research, so the politics of it are beyond me!), what exactly does the new budget entail?

Mmm, I might be meeting Bush as well, but I don't know if it would be right/appropriate to complain about budgeting to him :)

5:45 PM  
Blogger Steinn said...

Hey Adam

Basically the new budget cuts all future space science missions other than the "big three": HST refurbishment, JWST and SNAP. Earth-Sun (magnetosphere) is protected, and Solar and Lunar missions do ok. Mars is cut some.
Partly this is cost overruns meeting budget squeezes, but a major part of it is due to the decision to put the development of future launchers into the Science line.

If you meet Bush, don't complain, be positive and enthusiastic about what you think is important.
eg if you are interested in extrasolar planets, then say you hope NASA will do missions to explore extrasolar planets etc.

For the Congressmen, also be positive - be generally positive about all science (assuming you genuinely feel so, of course), and be enthusiastic about specific programs that you care about. If they are being cut, express regret that they had to be cut and express hope the cuts will be restored or new programs will replace them.

The American Physical Society has "FYI" which provides good summaries of proposed budgets for various agencies.
The Bad Astronomer has also summarised some of the budget issues.

If you can speak, and want to, then do so. Try to be positive, it is counterproductive to try to gain anything by denigrating other parts of a field, in most cases.
Congressmen is more likely to notice informed enthusiasm from someone like you than from cynical old astronomy profs doing near formal lobbying.

12:01 PM  

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