Friday, January 18, 2008

Tough times for astronomy?

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All week, I've been talking about new astronomy results on ever-increasing size scales. But, today, it is time to snap back to reality for, what I think, was the true news for astronomers last week.

As I blogged last week from the American Astronomical Society Meeting, the astronomy budget picture is bleak. NASA expects the astronomy budget to be severely crunched, due in part to small budget increases, and in part to budget line item directives that are requiring NASA to spend a lot of astronomy's money on one specific mission that had been delayed due to the budget crisis. The mandate from Congress on the science mission in question (which shall remain nameless, is deserving science, but is very expensive) will require cuts in many other areas of NASA astronomy, probably delaying several future missions and reducing money available as research grants.

Our big pot of research money, the National Science Foundation, is also expecting fairly flat budgets for the forseeable future; our planned astronomy investments require increasing budgets. Some very painful and unpopular cuts will almost certainly have to be made.

But we are better off than our friends in Great Britain. Due to budget concerns and some politics that I don't pretend to fully understand, British astronomers have been told to expect a 25% budget cut in the coming few years, as well as a withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Gemini Telescope project (which will increase budget pressures on the NSF here in the U.S., too). This will be a tremendously difficult budget crunch for our British friends -- a 25% cut is extraordinarily painful for any group or business, whether publically funded or a privately owned. And the budget numbers fell from the sky with little warning.

We astronomers have been more successful than many government groups at getting funding increases in a time of tight non-defense budgets, but it looks like budget realities are catching up to us around the globe. The U.S. astronomy community is begining to prepare a report on the next decade of astronomy research in the United States (we've done this every ten years for several decades now, and it helps to guide Congress, NASA and the NSF in funding decisions). This time it looks like we will have to be much more grounded in realities, as we will have to consider tight budgets for the first time in years.

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