NSF AST: the bell tolls...

Heads up, peeps.
NSF Portfolio Review is out

Mayall, WIYN, 2.1m KPNO, GBT and VLBA are out in recommended scenarios.


Portfolio Review - full text 170 pp (pdf)

To summarise: Kitt Peak telescopes cut; Green Bank Radio Telescope and Very Large Baseline Array cut; McM-P Solar Telescope cut before Advanced Solar Telescope starts.
Committee recommends pre-emptive cuts based on pessimistic budget scenario.

    Two scenarios:
    A presumes 10% effective cut over decade
    B presumes 30% effective cut over decade

    From Exec Summary: "We recommend that AST avoid the risk of drastic reductions in small grants and mid-scale funding by configuring its facility portfolio assuming more pessimistic budgets (e.g., Scenario B). If stronger budgets are realized, then re-investments can be made through the small grants and mid-scale programs."

    ie. make some irreversible cuts immediately without waiting for the axe to fall.

    "We also recommend that continued AST involvement in Arecibo and SOAR be re-‐evaluated later in the decade in light of the science opportunities and budget forecasts at that time."

  1. Recommendation 10.1: AST should maintain substantial funding to AAG, ATI, and a mid-scale program as a top priority.
  2. Recommendation 10.2: AST should plan its facility portfolio assuming the more pessimistic range of forecasts (e.g., Scenario B), with the result that more optimistic budgets (e.g., Scenario A) can have heavier re-investment in the field through the small-grants and mid-scale programs.
  3. Recommendation 10.3: Our recommended portfolio includes ALMA, ATST, VLA, Gemini, Blanco, DST, Arecibo, NISP, and SOAR.
  4. Recommendation (from Chapter 9): We recommend that LSST begin construction with an MREFC start in FY14 or as soon as possible thereafter, so as to maintain an expected start of operations in late 2021 or early 2022.
  5. Recommendation (from Chapter 9): We recommend that AST provide partial funding to the construction and/or operations of CCAT through the Strategic Initiatives Program later in the decade, if and when funding for the Mid-Scale Innovations Program exceeds $30M per year.
  6. Recommendation 10.4: AST should reevaluate its participation in Arecibo and SOAR later in the decade in light of the science opportunities and budget forecasts at that time.
  7. Recommendation 10.5: In our Scenario A, we recommend that AST contribute of order $20M/year to GSMT late in the decade.
  8. Recommendation 10.6: We recommend that AST divest from the Mayall, WIYN, and 2.1-meter telescopes at Kitt Peak, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, and the McMath-Pierce solar telescope.

    "...These facilities have a total annual budget of approximately $20M for operations, plus additional and less easily quantified shares of centralized costs in their parent observatories."

    So - to have GSMT and CCAT that is the cut recommended

    Summary of funding scenario A and B recommendations

    The Senator from West Virginia may now take the floor.

  9. Recommendation 10.7: We recommend that AST divest in a manner that is responsible to its fellow tenants at observatories and to its long-duration user programs.
  10. Recommendation 10.8: We recommend heavy investment into the Mid- Scale Innovations Program (MSIP), particularly in the more optimistic Scenario A portfolio.
  11. Recommendation 10.9: In the near term, we recommend only minimal funding of additional strategic investments beyond CCAT, GSMT, and data archive(s).

Editorializing: the cuts to existing facilities are essentially forced by the insistence on ramping CCAT in as a new facility to complement ALMA, and that NSF must buy into one of the 20-30m telescopes (GSMT) by 2018.

Funny, they call it the "Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope", I thought it was called the "Caltech-Cornell Atacama Telescope"...

Ironically $10M is added to EARS (Enhancing Access to the Radio Spectrum) at the same time Green Bank radio telescope and the Very Large Baseline Array are being shut down.

Hmm - the Green Bank Telescope saw first light in 2000 in its current incarnation. The recommendation is that it be shut by 2017.
ALMA saw first light in 2011 - maybe it can be shut in 2028 to make room for some new stuff.

There is a tiny amount $1-2M for a new theory/computation initiative.

PI grants are flat (in 2012 dollars) in scenario A and cut about 25% in scenario B - ie both down in adjusted costs.

Review recommends NO actual significant new initiatives be contemplated for the next decade, just choosing from existing buffet.


NRAO initial response to portfolio recommendations

PS: Portfolio Committee Members - no hard feelings, eh?

Seriously - these committees are tremendous amount of hard work and are usually very difficult for the members.

Portfolio Committee Charge

More like this

Cornell and Caltech were the initial pairing for CCAT, but they managed to get a number of other observatories on board, and rather than make the acronym much, much longer they backronym'ed it some time ago to simply refer to the hill it's on. You can see the full list of partners at: http://www.ccatobservatory.org/index.cfm/page/about-ccat/Partners.htm

By Dan Birchall (not verified) on 16 Aug 2012 #permalink

You hit it on the nail when you say:

"Editorializing: the cuts to existing facilities are essentially forced by the insistence on ramping CCAT in as a new facility to complement ALMA, and that NSF must buy into one of the 20-30m telescopes (GSMT) by 2018."

----- what a shame!

Don't be too quick to conflate ALMA with GBT. The GBT has really underperformed, and not contributed the significant science results that were hoped. It also has a very small user base. To give a current comparison: the number of proposals submitted to ALMA in the most recent call for proposals: more than 1100. The number of proposals submitted to the GBT in the most recent call: 91. Assuming ALMA generates the results it promises to, it is likely to be around for some time.

By Betsy Mills (not verified) on 17 Aug 2012 #permalink

Green Bank cost under $100 million, and few million to operate.
ALMA cost over a billion and $40 million per year to operate.
Want to compare cost effectiveness of these again?

Certainly. You point out an order of magnitude price difference, and I suggested that there may be a corresponding order of magnitude difference in the size of the user community. But as for cost effectiveness, neither of these metrics actually address the quality of science being done by either telescope, which should be the most important factor, and for which I have no metric at hand. Otherwise, I would have to say that the most cost effective telescope is of course my backyard telescope, which I use and have shared with friends, and which cost a few $100 and after that $0 per year to operate.

By Betsy Mills (not verified) on 17 Aug 2012 #permalink

If you have no metric on the quality of science being done by the GBT then you should really not say that it has "really underperfomed".

Number one rule of science funding is not to dis other segments of the community.

Well, sadly, since it would be nice to continue using the GBT, it IS my segment.

As for a metric, an ADS search for facility name in the abstract of refereed publications since 2001 shows that

-318 publications reference Green Bank (5768 total citations, 7 papers with > 100 citations)
-514 publications reference VLBA ( 10773 total citations, 15 papers with > 100 citations)
-1409 publications reference VLA (29844 citations, 40 papers with > 100 citations)

However, it is too early to compare ALMA by such a metric.

By Betsy Mills (not verified) on 17 Aug 2012 #permalink

I have to say this is an object lesson in how to extract grossly wrong statistics from publications data. Luckily the NRAO library at CV does a great job in tracking the actual number of publications from NRAO telescopes, see http://www.nrao.edu/library/pubstats.shtml

Comparing the two you can see that:

- A large number (about 50%) of papers either don't name the instrument in the abstract or use a different form of the name (GBT, "Very Large Array") etc. Even more if you count uses of NVSS and FIRST, which of course are VLA data.

- Not all of the 318 papers found by Betsy's search for Green Bank actually use to the GBT (including the most cited one, which is actually referring to the GB6 survey done with the old 300-ft).

- The GBT only started science operations in late 2001 and it took most of the decade for the publication numbers to ramp up, in fact they probably havn't levelled out yet. Even so, there are 399 authentic GBT papers since 2001.

These numbers show that GBT (and VLBA) are producing good science more or less commensurate with their level of funding. I completely agree with the NRAO statement that these are world-leading facilities in their area and, at least for the GBT, still in the early stages of their scientific life: Jodrell Bank and Parkes are still producing good science more than 50 years after commissioning.

Astronomy, in the world as well as the USA, is transitioning from a century of more-or-less exponential growth to a regime of constant funding. The cost-effective way to do that is obviously to dramatically slow down the rate at which we start major new facilities. Unfortunately, to keep the support of the public, the politicians and the students who will be the next generation, we seem to need the lure of the Next Big Thing much more than any actual scientific results from the Last Big Thing.

By Paddy Leahy (not verified) on 18 Aug 2012 #permalink

I have to say-the old saying is that a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush. Some of these facilities which won't be cut also haven't been built or completed. It's a lot easier for them to cut something that's not here yet, & yet NSF is going out on a limb cutting what we have in the hopes that we'll ghet money for stuff that's not here. Also, I think we need to consider some other factors, like what having that big dish go away from Green Bank would do to the local economy.

By Craig Levin (not verified) on 19 Aug 2012 #permalink

Wonderful post, Paddy. Yes, blame it to our truly short attention span, and constant desire for a new toy! Scientific - we are not,
at least not much these days. Green Bank site and the telescope merits to be a national heritage park, as (if I may say so), Radio Astronomy was founded in this country by one Mr. Karl Jansky.

The NSF is NOT our 'friend'. The agency has roots that weave a tangled web. The Augustine committee, the 'nuclear scientists' of immediate post WW2 era.. and the Manhattan project, how it came into being. The 'letter' Einstein drafted (NOT!!) and the courier, Mr Sachs - familiar name ? Read: http://www.dannen.com/ae-fdr.html

These people.. are not OUR people !

Now you can begin to dig deeper and see why we are being destroyed.

By Russ Stern (not verified) on 24 Aug 2012 #permalink

The National Solar Observatory ./ ATST project is planning to move it's headquarters to Boulder. The PR committee forgot to look at that, which would seem to be a huge expenditure. I wonder how much this will cost and is it worth sacrificing other productive telescopes to pay for it?