U.S. Astronomers vow to help prioritize science funding

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Feb 11, 2008
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A very interesting email came to me the other day. It's from the American Astronomical Society, the largest professional society of astronomers in the US. Sometimes, the AAS will make a position statement of some sort, and in general they are not of great interest to the public. But this one made me laugh, though perhaps ruefully.

Why? Well first, in January I attended a meeting of the AAS, and NASA top banana Mike Griffin came to speak... and let's just say it didn't go so well. No, let's not just say that: read what I wrote after listening to him. Bottom line: he was ticked that some astronomers circumvented NASA's funding process by going straight to Congress to get earmarks for some missions. That messes up the funding for other projects, putting them in jeopardy.

My take after the speech when talking with other astronomers is that this is true, and we need to band together. However, the flip side of this is that Griffin said it in a way that made him come off as kind of a jerk. He literally said that if astronomers "want to sit at the adult table" we'd better shape up. Cute, huh? Nothing inspires people more than being called childish. Let me be clear: I agree that we need to figure out how to be united on this, but I do wish Griffin had said it in a way that wouldn't instantly unite astronomers against him.

Anyway, the statement just released by the AAS reflects the sense that we need to unify. Here is the statement in its entirety; emphasis is mine.

On Community-based Priority Setting in the Astronomical Sciences

Adopted 24 January 2008

The American Astronomical Society and each of its five divisions strongly endorse community-based priority setting as a fundamental component in the effective federal funding of research. Broad community input is required in making difficult decisions that will be respected by policy makers and stake-holders. The decadal surveys are the premier examples of how to set priorities with community input. Other National Academy studies, standing advisory committees, senior reviews, and town hall meetings are important components. Mid-decade adjustments should also be open to appropriate community input. Pleadings outside this process for specific Congressional language to benefit projects or alter priorities are counterproductive and harm science as a whole. The American Astronomical Society opposes all attempts to circumvent the established and successful community-based priority-setting processes currently in place.

Well, good. It's nice to see this being written down. The problem is, if some team wants to make sure their project gets funded, the AAS really cannot stop them from contacting their Senator or Rep to try to get an earmark for it; the AAS is not a legal body in that sense and I doubt would kick anyone out for circumventing the statement. However, word would spread pretty quickly if someone did do that, and the gossip would fly. That would be... interesting.

I certainly hope it doesn't happen. Like I said, I think we really do need to stick together and speak with one voice. We cannot put a single mission ahead of others without a unanimous agreement, because that would threaten many, many other projects. It's all good, and it's all important, and we all have a stake in every mission, even if we aren't directly involved. I'd really prefer we don't all hang separately.