Opportunities and Challenges Ahead: Report of the NSF/AST Portfolio Review Committee Released

The report of the NSF/AST Portfolio Review Committee (PRC) was released on 2012 August 16. The committee recommendations, made to NSF/AST, chart out a funding path toward the big science recommendations of the recent decadal survey (New Worlds, New Horizons) while also presenting significant challenges to the open-access OIR community in the intervening years. In the related Currents article we summarized the key recommendations related to the OIR community and described their potential impact on our community.  

We have created an online community forum to enable a discussion on the potential impact of the PRC report. We welcome your input on topics such as:

  • How will these recommendations affect you?
  • How can we maintain open access to facilities in a way that is consistent with the issues considered in the PRC report?
  • Do the recommendations strike an appropriate balance between grants, facilities, and new initiatives in the NSF/AST portfolio?
  • In the context of reduced resources, do the recommended investments support the best strategy for preserving US leadership in astronomy?

Please enter your comments below. Comments entered below will be posted immediately. Comments sent to currents@noao.edu will not be posted unless requested. 

Comments (13)

NSF/AST Report

Has NSF/NOAO considered removing the double-jeopardy in the present NSF system of applying for telescope time and funding separately?

Apparently the committee notes the problem with grants being de-coupled from telescope time, but their solution to get rid of the telescopes and retain the grants  as they stand makes no sense, to me at least, since many of the grants are to fund teams for their use of the telescopes. Why not combine the two, as NASA does, so that those who get the telescope time also get the funding to do the related work? This would seem, to a primarily NASA-funded person like myself, the most efficient use of both money and facilities.

Clearly there are also grants that are unrelated to observing so only the subset of funding that is linked to observing would be distributed in this way.

I do not have enough information to know whether/not this would help with continuing the funding of the telescopes on KPNO, but I do believe it would increase the efficiency with which the science approved in an observing proposal is completed and published since the teams could concentrate on doing the science and writing papers rather than writing more proposals for funding to do the science and write papers.

Belinda Wilkes


NSF/AST Report

The future of our field depends on training graduate students and postdocs.  People entering the "pipeline" now will be the new postdocs starting to work on LSST when it is completed. What facilities will be available for their training?

NSF must unify operation of its optical resources

The seeds of this problem were sown when NSF (and/or AURA) divorced Gemini from NOAO.  That has left us with a situation where our cutting edge large facility is run by an organization with low user satisfaction, scoring low on productivity, and with opaque or wasteful instrument programs, budgets and so on; while the NOAO-KPNO-CTIO organization, which scores high with users and develops instruments useful to a lot of the community, gradually falls behind.  Let's face it, no matter how much we scream, if the telescopes NOAO runs are 2 meters and 4 meters and never any bigger, eventually we are going to lose them or have to spin off all or a fraction of them.  The telescopes under 2 meters got spun off already.

To its credit the report recognizes that this is a festering problem. What I want to see is the NSF put operation of Gemini and budget control back under NOAO _before_ it starts chopping off the other limbs.  This is necessary to insure that the users believe they are going to continue getting useful public access telescope time.  The NSF response to the report and its nominal schedule did not fill me with confidence.  What I am afraid of is that the NSF will start closing or divesting the Kitt Peak facilities first and then not really get around to fixing Gemini, because it's a thorny issue and requires a firm stance with the Gemini partners, which we have not done in the past.

Further, there is a substantial public equity in the existing facilties, especially the Mayall but also WIYN. I would have liked to see some evidence that this equity will be preserved in seeking partners to operate these telescopes going forward (much as the DES-Blanco relationship).  For example, it would be good to see a BigBOSS or similar survey instrument on the Mayall with substantial public access time, recognizing that a BigBOSS consortium would have to come up with a lot of construction and operations funding, but that it would also be impossible without the large public investment in the 4-m, which is nowhere near the end of its scientifically productive life.

NSF AST report

As requested I am reposting the comments I made on Facebook in response to several threads there discussing the implications of this report.

It seems that the bottom line is that we can have public-access telescopes, or we can have astronomers who are not tenure-line faculty/civil servants, but we can't have both.

By 'public access' I mean publicly run, currently available (as opposed to 10+ years from now), ground-based facilities for which the majority share is open to the whole community rather than being restricted by institutional affiliation. As for size, I would say it is important to have a range, not just e.g. Gemini size, for student training and experimental instrumentation. At least a 4-m in each hemisphere; plus at least one 2-m somewhere for training and instrument experimentation.

I am not sure what the point of having telescopes is if we don't have astronomers both experienced and in training to use them; and I am not sure what those same astronomers would do if there were no telescopes to which they have access, say if they are not in Hawaii or California institutions. It is not the same to relegate everyone else to the archives. Yes the space-based facilities are open to all but they do not provide the hands on training in observing and instrumentation that the ground based facilities do. And by training in instrumentation I do not just mean training of people who will go on to build instruments. I mean the training to show astronomers who will not build their own instruments or work full time at an observatory just how complex these systems are, how hard they are to build and maintain and run. The Portfolio Review recognized that there is a problem with the instrumentalist astronomers, observatory staff, etc. being given short shrift when it comes to getting jobs with stable career paths, and the underlying cause of that is that they are taken for granted and not seen as being equally meritorious as those who do the cutting edge science observations that depend on those facilities and instruments. That disconnect will only grow if most people no longer have access to a telescope to take observations first hand - if they only ever get their data via queue observing, space facilities, or archives.

And as we continue into an era where there are fewer and fewer long-term astronomy positions available, due to fewer and fewer tenure line hires at universities, more and more senior and mid-level people in this career - not just grad students and postdocs - will depend for longer and longer on the soft money that only NSF and NASA can effectively provide.

I don't see a solution, obviously. But I think we have to find a way to avoid effectively shutting down our open access northern hemisphere national O/IR observatory, and Gemini alone is not enough.

Portfolio review

Given the potential impact of this report, the (lack of) response from the community is a bit surprising. Clearly, the review panel was faced with a very difficult task, and we should thank them for the effort they invested in the process. However, some of their recommendations appear to favour a relatively narrow section of the astronomical community (see Mark 4:25).

First, there is a clear change on the role envisaged for NSF support for the astronomical community. By elevating support of the Blanco above the Mayall, the committee places a higher premium on NSF support of large-scale surveys, available to everyone, than on support of open access facilities, the only facilities available to many in the community. In some ways, this is moving towards a physics-based approach, supporting specific experiments targeting big science questions rather than a host of individual, small programs, each with narrower purview. That a more effective strategy for tackling the key scientific questions, but, if so, maybe it should be adopted across the board, rather than just within the public domaine.

Others have commented on the impact of reduced access to telescope time with respect to training students – although maybe that’s not such an issue if the only future option is training to analyse data from large surveys. But reduced access to frontline observations will also impact the ability to write strong grant proposals, thereby giving a significant advantage to those with access to private facilities. Moreover, it doesn’t make sense to focus (some) facilities on big science questions unless (some of) the grants programs are given a similar focus. (Parenthetically, I note that one of NSF’s concerns is the overproduction of graduate students.  Those students are supported primarily by grants, so placing an emphasis on maintaining grant spending at the current level seems counter intuitive.)

Clearly, there needs to be avenue for funding what are blithely termed “mid-scale” instruments – there are scientific questions that can only be tackled by complex instruments that cost $20-50 million (ie 1-2 times the annual budget for KPNO). However, in my view the TSIP model has not provided a particularly effective use of government funds in past support of those efforts. Over the last decade, $33 million has been invested in TSIP; based on the NOAO annual reports, those funds have generated 104 refereed publications from the publicly available time at those facilities, for an average of $320K per paper.  That’s not a particularly strong return on investment from the perspective of the national community. Any future program should require much broader public access to private facilities supported by the program– both direct and through archives. Parenthetically, I have never really understood the rationale for paying amortization fee. Yes, the private facilities represent substantial past investment by the supporting universities, but that’s a choice that they made, often a long time ago. The exception would be if those construction costs still have an impact on the operating costs.

Which brings us to the major issue – operating costs:  it seems very likely that, just as the national facilities are hurting for infrastructure support, so are the private observatories - particularly those pursuing larger facilities. For example, it can’t be good to be faced with supporting Lick and Keck (and looking for funds for TMT) if you have significant dependence on state funding and the California budget looks the way it does. With the changing landscape within NSF for facility support, there may well be some re-evaluation of priorities by universities in private partnerships. It’s very unlikely that you can pull the plug on the national facilities without collateral damage. (By the way, if there are fewer facilities, there’s likely to be less demand for instrumentation, so an even narrower path forward for specialists in those areas.)

Maybe it’s time to take a deep look at the private/public “partnership” currently operating within Optical/IR and decide whether turn it can be turned into a real partnership. Maybe we need to assess the viability of all US optical/IR facilities, public and private; consolidate as necessary; and devise a more streamlined system for their support and operations. There’s obviously a political minefield in there, but it could be in the interests of all parties to work out a new modus operandi. Or maybe we just decide that there are areas where we’re never going to be able to compete with the current European dominance, give up on the old-fashioned individualistic approach and focus elsewhere.

Astronomy under the Portfolio Review

As a student and for most of my career, I have depended on Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo for most of my access to optical telescopes. If I were starting out today, I could not pursue the career that I have. Astronomy in this new era will be done by fewer people and only those at privileged institutions. And the science that will be done will be highly biased.

Proposed changes will cripple users at many institutions

I respect the need to allocate resources during difficult times, and I appreciate the difficulties faced by the NSF AST portfolio reviewers.  However, I must agree with many of the comments made in previous comments.

I'm an astronomer at a small institution who has involved undergraduate students in research for decades.  My former students are now at major academic and research facilities.  I choose to be in a liberal arts college because I value the balance between teaching and research.  I've recently received an NSF RUI grant, and much of the work will involve taking students observing.  I've designed this project because I believe 1) all young astronomers and astrophysicists, even theorists, should acquire some appreciation for what actually goes on at the telescope; and 2) some superb science is actually more efficiently done with smaller telescopes than with large ones. 

Infrastructure is expensive to develop.  Please do not sacrifice valuable facilities for the sake of a few more large telescopes--and a lot fewer astronomers.

Linda French, Illinois Wesleyan University

At what price large?

Surveys are important.  Large surveys are important.  But at what price?  The path forward appears to be to aim for large surveys as the primary public access to astronomical data, at least from the NSF standpoint.  By removing all northern hemisphere access for the public to telescope facilities, we remove our ability to train future astronomers in the art of actually collecting data.  Gemini is largely queue observing, so as the remaining northern observatory if the portfolio review recommendations are implemented, serves little training purpose aside from proposal preapartion and data analysis.

LSST, ALMA, and their like will provide fantastic data, but I worry that the younger astronomers (at least those not at large institutions which have their own time on large telescopes) that look at that data will see it without context, with out ever having been to a telescope.  That would be truly unfortunate.

Other commenters have made excellent points here, particularly with regards to how NOAO and Gemini will be in the future, and I wish to echo Ben's points about budget control.


My two cents....

I have grave misgivings about the loss of so much public access to
observing facilities.  Many have brought up the negative impact this
will have on the training students and postdocs, something I agree
with.  But I also worry about the impact on the ability for junior
scientists to develop as scientific *leaders*, a critical part of
their professional advancement. If observing time is so scarce because
its all tied up in a few large telescope projects, can junior
scientists really develop their own research program when they might
get half a night of 8m time a year?  If the solution to the loss of
observing facilities is to band together into large research consortia
which tap large project survey data, and as the senior leaders of
those consortia mete out the resources to the individual team members,
we are in severe danger of losing research diversity and not
developing individual scientific leadership in young
investigators. There are many good projects to be done on small
telescopes, and it's often here that the individual investigator or
junior scientist has an opportunity to start new or more speculative
projects. Is anyone really going to use their precious 0.5 night of 8m
time on a project that might not pay off (but could be really cool if
it did)?

We're in a dangerous situation where continuing the relentless push
towards large aperture, large missions, and large consortia is leading
us to shutter (both nationally and individually) our small- to mid-
aperture telescopes and limit research resources for the small
projects and individual investigators. This could have a chilling
effect on both the quality of research (unchecked results, no more
serendipitous research, less attention to "alternative" scientific
models, etc) and on the scientific workforce, as good young scientists
look at the dwindling possibility of a successful opportunities in astronomy
and decide on other career paths. This outcome is a very real
possibility on this path we are staring down, and I would strongly
urge for solutions that preserve a diversity of research
facilities.  If this means we can't be as aggressive in chasing the
new big telescope projects, that's a tradeoff that needs to be

Implications of closing Kitt Peak telescopes to public access

When I went to graduate school at the University of Colorado, my advisor, Peter S. Conti, told me he was sending me observing to Kitt Peak.  As an undergraduate, I had been privledged to do some observing at Palomar and Mt. Wilson, but what was this Kitt Peak thing all about?  Peter explained about the national observatories: that any astronomer could apply for time to use one of the greatest telescopes around, with modern instrumentation.  In the 1950s and earlier really the only way you could do observational research was to be a "member of the club"--either a faculty member at Caltech, say, or some other prestigious place that owned its own telescopes.  Instead, the idea of a national observatory was that anyone, with a good idea, could go and use the equipment.  I did my thesis using 100+ nights of small telescope time, and a few years later found myself as a staff astronomer at Kitt Peak (later merged with CTIO and called NOAO), eventually aciting as the telescope scientist for the Mayall 4-meter.  On days that weren't going so well, or when my boss was mad at me for some silly thing I had done (and I did a lot of those) I could tell myself it was worth it, because I believed in the mission.  Now that I'm at a private observatory with its own facilities I still depend upon tha national observatory for doing some of my science, and more to the point, the mission seems just as curicial today to the health of US astronomy as it ever did.  Where else are graduate students going to learn what they need to know?  

During the 17 years I was at NOAO I never quite had the impression that the NSF believed as strongly in having a national observatory as I did.  We were always under attack for running "small telescopes"---it didn't matter if these small telescopes provided unprecidentedly large field of views with excellent CCD camers--they were small, and they ought to be closed.  When we were finally forced to close the small telescopes by the NSF, it was NOAO, not the NSF, that caught the heat from the community.  And of course, once the small telescopes were lost, the question was always why we were bothering to run a 2.1-meter...and now it's no surprise that the 4-meter's time has now also come.  

The removal of 1000 nights of public access time is going to have a devasting effect on the US community, and all of the LSSTs (and JWSTs for that matter)  in the world aren't going to make up for that.  They're not going to provide the spectroscopic capability that I (and many in the US community) need. Keeping the 4-meter alive by devoting it entirely to BigBOSS and a single survey, or having it taken over by a gang of universities seems to me to be nearly as bad.  The mission is lost.  It's a return to the days before the national observatories.  

Keep the National Observatory open for the next generation

I already posted the following back in December 2011, but maybe it's worth posting it again following the devastating portfolio review recommendations.


I write these comments from the control room of the SMARTS 1.0m telescope at Cerro Tololo, on a beautiful night, almost exactly the 41st anniversary of my first observing run at CTIO. My 7-night run is observing time that was awarded through the NOAO portion of time on the SMARTS telescopes.

It has been photometric, and with extremely stable air, all 7 nights, apart from a few hours of clouds on one of the nights. This is typical of Tololo, one of the world's leading astronomical sites. How fortunate American astronomers are to have had access to the southern hemisphere through this marvelous facility for so many years!

I would not have had a career in astronomy without the national observatories. These institutions were created by the visionaries of the previous generation, with the support of our nation's Science Foundation. They realized that astronomy would flourish in America if astronomers at institutions across the country had access to telescopes at first-rate sites.

So it is with a feeling of disbelief that I hear that the national observatories may no longer be available to the next generation. Will the opportunities that were afforded to me when I was young no longer be offered? Will we go back to the era where only a few elites at prestigious institutions had access to telescopes at great sites? It is difficult for me to believe that this is being seriously considered at the Foundation, and I hope it is not the case.

A pithy statement made by the late Don Osterbrock in the 1980's comes to mind: "If we had only had the Hale Telescope, we would already know the Hubble Constant," the implication being that if only a chosen few have access to the facilities, a wrong result cannot be checked and challenged by other talented scientists.

Astronomers need a diverse range of telescopes in order to advance our science. A 1-meter telescope like the one I am using tonight can obtain images of objects for which a followup spectrum can only be obtained by the largest telescopes in the world. Does a small telescope mean small science? No, indeed; my program tonight is in support of a current Hubble Space Telescope project. And the 0.9m telescope a few steps away played an important role in calibrating the large-telescope data for the cosmological work that just won the Nobel Prize.

And let's not forget the educational role of these telescopes; at the moment, a young graduate student is sitting here in the control room, ready and eager to take over the telescope tomorrow for a thesis project. And let's not forget what a bargain these telescopes are; the operating cost is minuscule compared to the expenses involved in running 4, 8, and 10m instruments.

So, for the sake of the next generation, not to mention a few old-timers who might still have some good ideas, the Foundation needs to find a way to keep a thriving national observatory, serving the advancement of astronomy with a diverse suite of telescopes available to the best projects from astronomers across America.

Howard E. Bond



Universal OIR Access & a Unified Community?

I think one question to ask is "How can the US OIR telescope system optimise its access to the whole community?"  

Our community has partial or full access to an extremely broad range of telescopes and associated instrumentation. A number of the projects are sharing resources between different partners, within the US or internationally whether they are "public" or "private" because of the need for construction and operational funds. And, as we know, these funds are severely limited whether they be public or private.  So how do we work together, as a community, to make the most of the available funding? 

The fact that such a broad range of instruments exists clearly indicates the community's needs and desires.  But with limited funding, we need to question ourselves as to what instrumentation is necessary.  And the problem is that depending on who you ask, you'll get different responses. If the NSF divests public access to the 1m -- 4m class instruments, is there another avenue available between university partnerships as an example or maybe by expanding international partnerships? Now is the time to think "outside the box".  The current funding model for telescope/instrument funding does need to be revisited. 

In the same way, we should also question the funding model for research.  Can the US actually afford to fund the growing number of research astrononomers? 

And we should also remind ourselves that the NSF have generally responded to the community's wishes. The fact that it gets mixed messages from the community, as is clear in these responses and the SPR, clearly indicate that the US community do not act in a unified way and this is nothing new.  Should we close down public access to 1m-4m class instruments or not equip the larger 8m class telescopes with instruments which will make them internationally competeitive for groundbreaking science?  This is the dilemma we face. The SPR tried to address this issue and we should give them credit for that and we should be giving the NSF constructive feedback on the SPR recommendations for the OIR system. 

An outcome of the SPR should be the community questioning itself as to how to proceed within the next decade and setting a vision with reasonable funding goals.  Unfortunately we cannot do everything.


Thoughts about the PRC report and the future of NOAO

There are two basic premises of the report that I have a hard time accepting.

1.) The charge to the PRC was to accept the recommendations of the NWNH Decadal
Survey report, presumably including the timescales to reach the goals.
They were told to not consider the science, but only ways to implement the
NWNH goals. This is a problem because the budget situation is clearly not as
rosy as it was in 2010. A valid question is whether the NWNH goals are at all
realistic, and reachable in a reasonable time, given the current budget projections.

2.) The committee's recommendations were designed to "Maintain US Research
Leadership in Astronomy" (page 13 of PRC report). I submit that NSF
ceded this leadership decades ago to the private observatories
(e.g., Keck; Magellan) and to ESO (the VLT). Because of funding constraints,
NOAO has been unable to compete, either in terms of new telescopes or
cutting-edge instrumentation. We have some excellent instrumentation (e.g.,
NEWFIRM, pODI), but not enough (witness Gemini).

Therefore I submit the PRC process was inherently flawed.

Given the constraints, the PRC did a masterful job. We can all argue at the
margins, but the PRC followed their charge and came up with what is arguably
the best possible recommendation (especially if you want to protect the grants program). I do not criticize the committee; rather I criticize the charge they labored under.

Today we have a national observatory that may not have the world's largest
telescopes, or the most cutting-edge instrumentation, but we have a truly
national observatory. There is nothing pedestrian about NOAO and the "System".
You do not need the world's largest telescope to do top-notch science - but
you do need to know how to use the telescopes you have. NOAO excells in user
support. There are plenty of large and unproductive telescopes, but the Mayall
and Blanco are not on that list. Whenever I teach my "Observational Techniques"
course, I tell my students that instrumentation trumps area. The CTIO 0.9m
with the T2k CCD has roughly sensitivity of the largest telescope in the world
in the 1960s (the Hale 5m with photographic plates).

The genius of NOAO as a national observatory is that it has democratized
astronomy in this country. NOAO afforded us all access to the sky. The playing
field will never be completely level - those astronomers at the private
observatories have always had an edge because they can try out their ideas
at home prior to writing proposals to NOAO - but the field is much more level
than it was before 1960. NOAO has been good for the entire community
because it has permitted those to did not start at the elite astronomy
institutions to succeed and to go on in observational astronomy. One
can make a strong case that the competitive peer review process for access to
the national facilities has greatly strengthened the scientific results.

I fear the PRC report is the kiss of death for a truly national observatory.
We've been in decline for a long time for a simple reason - money.
Small telescopes are vital to the health of the system, because it is with them
we teach new generations of astronomers, and small telescopes are more likely
to foster innovation because one is loathe to experiment with the more valuable
time of large telescopes. Small telescopes are cheap, but they
are absent from the national portfolio. This is a false economy.
Medium-aperture telescopes are now under the gun. When will it stop?
There has always been opposition to the concept of national observatories. I
remember it being voiced strongly in the 1980s. Back then the argument was that
the money could be spent more effectively by the private observatories. I don't
hear that today, but the effect of the PRC report will be the same - a
greatly limited public access.

So we have the situation that a flawed process produced the only result it
possibly could, and which, if implemented, will result in a national
observatory very different than the system we enjoy today. We will end up with
the LSST, a small share of a 30m class telescope, very little intellectual
infrastructure, and little capacity for innovation or to train new
observational astronomers.
I would characterize this new vision for the national observatory as a
highway to the stars, but one without on-ramps. It's great if you are
already on.


Last updated or reviewed October 21, 2012.