AAS Newsletter - President's Column
...written April 10, 2008 for May/June 2008 Newsletter
Two interesting years go by very rapidly. This is my last
newletter article as President. My thanks to all of you
who have commented positively on them for your support
and to those of you who did not feel so moved on
My term ends with a bang rather than a whimper with the
sudden resignation of Alan Stern and the return to
the NASA Science Mission Directorate of old hand Ed Weiler.
Reading between the lines, my take on this transition
is that Alan was dedicated to doing more with a fixed
budget. An important boundary condition is that he could
not allow cost growth in missions. His approach to this was
one of tough love. He intended to first say "no." Any
mission with a threat of overrun had to find its own
way of solving that problem by downscoping or delay. If,
in especially pressing circumstances, the damage could
not be contained in the mission, Alan intended to keep
it in the division. No bleeding of planetary problems
into astrophysics, nor vice versa. I think what happened
is that Alan foresaw overruns coming down the pike for
which various pressures beyond his control would not
allow him to excercise this tough love. It was thus
a matter of principle for him to resign. He did so,
by his own statement, with respect for the NASA
Administrator and for the team he had assembled. If
this is the proper interpretation, and it is personal
to me, then there may be storm clouds brewing at NASA.
Ed Weiler has weathered storms before. I wish him good
fortune and proffer the help of the AAS where appropriate,
in doing so again.
It is as critical as ever to have a star to steer by
in these stormy waters, and that is the past and, especially
important, the upcoming decadal survey. The intention
is to keep a close eye on realistic life-cycle costs
and to put everything on the table that is not in
development, whether advocated by past decadal studies
or not. We need to do this hard work of prioritizing,
or some other body will do it for us. In this context,
it is very important for the agencies to cut the checks
to pay for the process. I hope and trust by the time
you read this, that is done and the process is well
As I wrap up my term, I want to give special thanks
to all with whom it has been my pleasure to work
closely on behalf of the Society. The Council has
been effective at several levels, helping to steer us
through the journals transition and embracing the notion
of a more strategic operation. The Executive Committee
was on top of all the issues, constant wise heads.
Susana Deustua served well as Director of Education
before her recent departure, especially in helping to
launch the International Year of Astronomy. The
headquarters staff work long, hard, dedicated hours,
and it was a pleasure and priviledge to get to know
them personally. I am especially grateful to my ad hoc
"kitchen cabinet" comprised of Executive Officer Kevin
Marvel, CAPP Chair Jack Burns, Secretary John Graham,
and, most recently, our new President John Huchra, for
constant support in all matters from details of the
bylaws to sweeping policy issues. They made it an
especially engaging tour of duty.
...written January 20, 2008 for March/April 2008 Newsletter
"Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the
birdies is?" This statement of dubious origin and more
dubious grammar was passed down to me through my mother
from my grandfather, an Oklahoma high school history
teacher. We are now attempting to throw off the cold of
winter. In the fiscal environment that means the dramatic
crash and burn of the omnibus spending bill passed in
December that saw the sudden and traumatic demise of
long, encouraging, bipartisan support for the Competitiveness
Initiative and the America COMPETES Act. That would have
put the NSF and the DOE Office of Science on a path to
double their budgets. There was some hope that
NASA could ride that spirit in the form of the Hutchison/Mikulski
proposal to provide NASA with an extra $1B in supplemental
funding to belatedly cover some of the costs in the wake of
the Columbia disaster. That also vanished. This spring sees
the science policy community attempting to pick itself up,
dust itself off, and start all over again for FY2009. The
broad support for science is there, but here we are in a
presidential election year. It may, if anything, be even
harder to garner the attention and support we thought we had
last year. Some thought that the Competitiveness Initiative
would solve the fiscal problems of the Astronomy Division
of the NSF that led to the Senior Review. Wayne Van Citters,
perhaps cynical, perhaps realistic, refused to count those
chickens. Points to Wayne.
There was a great deal of Society activity following the AAS
meeting in Austin and the presentation by NASA Administrator
Michael Griffin. Dr. Griffin accused us of failing to support
NASA broadly, something we do at Congessional Visits Day and
in other venues. He was steamed about certain directed language
in the aforementioned omnibus spending bill. There were other
hot topics, as well as hot science, swirling around the
One outcome was a statement from the Society restating our
support for setting scientific priorities by means of broad
community input and the need to stick to those priorities
with due care given to subsequent scientific developments.
The statement also made clear that the Society does not condone
attempts by individual facilities or missions to engineer
specific directed congressional language that has the liklihood
of subverting those priorities arrived through broad community
input, the decadal surveys and other processes. This Society
statement was not in direct response to Dr. Griffin, but was
in the works since last Fall when the Committee on Astronomy
and Public Policy (CAPP) drafted a new set of goals and policies
that were passed by the Council in Austin. You can see this policy
statement at http://www.aas.org/policy/capp_guiding_principles.php.
This policy says, among other things, that the Society will not
advocate for, nor criticize, individual missions or facilities.
The role of the Society is to support astronomy, indeed science,
broadly. Interestingly, digging into the history, we found
that CAPP was originally formulated as a vehicle to do special
pleading for specific facilites. We now believe that this would
be strongly counter-productive for our community as a whole.
Another outcome from the Austin meeting in this context was an
OpEd piece I wrote for Space News. That was a response to
Dr. Griffin's address and covered many of the points I have
The issue of supporting astronomy broadly, not supporting nor
critiquing individual missions and facilites, is tricky in
practice. Suppose the process of public input were flawed in
some way, as proponents of missions often perceive? Where does
the Society statement in support of the upcoming Hubble Servicing
Mission come into this? That was an individual mission. In that
case, there had been a Presidential Commission, and so public input
of a sort, but clearly there was also politicking. The temptation
is large for a group that is passionate about its science, that
thinks it has been treated unfairly, and that has seen others
benefit from, let's call them what they are, earmarks. That mode
of science funding, however, carried to its extreme of every
group for itself leads to dysfunction. We must try to pull together.
The Society can attempt to ensure the system is as broadly based
and as fair as possible. That does not guarantee a perfect process,
but, like democracy, it is much better than the next best thing.
We all have to work to make sure the next decadal survey is as
effective as possible.
In the context of our renewed efforts to benefit astronomy in
FY 2009, I am delighted to welcome fellow Texan Marcos Huerta as
the new Bahcall Public Policy Fellow. Marcos will serve for a full
year and will be a great boon to to our policy efforts.
Finally, I am delighted to say that the Executive Committee and
the Council rose to my challenge to match my pledge in support of
the Bahcall Fellowship and the Van Biesbroeck Award. I urge all of
you to consider giving a bit extra to help the Society do its work
and support its best and brightest. Please also nominate deserving
colleagues for our awards and prizes for which we raise these funds.
...written October 2007 for November 2007 Newsletter
Policy, policy, policy. What we mean by that, of course, is
expanding fruitful opportunities for federal and other
funding of our research. We work in an environment where this
is a constant "creative" tension. That is probably healthy
at some level, but that tension is what keeps "policy" on
everyone's mind. It is why I have spent a fair amount of
my time as President engaged in these issues, why the
Council voted in our retreat in Hawaii to make this a
high priority, and why most members of the AAS keep a
weather eye on these issues. Fall has been an active
time in this regard.
The Beyond Einstein Program Assessment Committee released its
report in September. The AAS released a statement commending the
process, as we did for the NSF Senior Review, being careful not to
comment on the results, per se. Even this statement engendered some
contention. My personal view is that having community input
to such a serious issue is preferable to the contrary, as
we witnessed in previous NASA administrations. I think we want
to encourage that aspect of NASA decision making, and the
AAS statement was commensurate with that aim. There are still
issues related to the portions of our community who were
disappointed by the BEPAC recommendations (and by those of the
NSF Senior Review, for that matter), and attention must be
paid to those as well.
As a direct development of the vote of Council in Hawaii
to enhance the role of the Council and the Society in
policy issues, I appointed a sub-committee of Council, chaired
by Chryssa Kouveliotou, to help us consider issues of
strategic planning by the Committee on Astronomy and Public
Policy in addition to the tactical response at which CAPP
has proved effective. We also had a two-day retreat
of CAPP in October, with participation by this new
Council sub-committee, to consider how to develop strategic
as well as tactical planning. My original idea was that
the Council sub-committee, with the benefit of being elected,
would engage in strategic planning and CAPP would remain
the tactical implement. It soon became clear that particular
notion was not practical. For one thing, I have made an
effort to get experienced, strategic thinkers on CAPP. For
another, the lines of authority were confused. At the
CAPP retreat, we decided that it made more sense to merge
the committees and have all the Council members of the
Policy Sub-Committee serve on CAPP. That will temporarily
make CAPP somewhat large, but I belive workable, and
we can shrink the total body by attrition. This newly
expanded CAPP will be charged with considering strategic
issues, as well as with schmoozing with staffers and tracking
important bills on the Hill (the Mikulski/Hutchison addendum
to the NASA budget was passed while we were in Washington,
its survival remaining an issue).
Another strong recommendation of the Hawaii Council retreat and
the Washington CAPP retreat was that we have a full-time policy
person. Kevin Marvel keeps his hand in on these issues and
his experience and talents in this area remain invaluable, but
he has a great deal on his plate as Executive Officer. Our
first Bahcall Policy Fellow, Jeremy Richardson, did an excellent
job for the six months of his tenure during Congressional "high
season," but building and maintaining relationships in Washington
requries year-round attention. To further this end, we will hire
the next Bahcall Policy Fellow as a full-time position (with a
tenure of one year, renewable).
In an effort to keep us all apprised of the levers of policy
power in the federal government and who has their hands on
them, we have created a Policy Ecology Wiki. The intent is to
provide an up-to-date tutorial about "how things really work."
You can find this web page by clicking on the Policy link on the
AAS main page and then on the link for the Astronomy Policy Ecosystem.
The URL is: http://intrawiki.aas.org/doku.php?id=policy_ecosystem.
This wiki will be open to members of CAPP to edit and perhaps
eventually to our entire membership. In the meantime if you have
comments, changes, or additions to suggest, please send them to me
or to Jack Burns, Chair of CAPP.
In a related area, I want to thank Neta Bahcall for her
generous support of the Bahcall Public Policy Fellowship.
Neta has promised more support in the form of a matching
challenge pledge. Council selected the Bahcall Fellowship and an
expansion of the endowment for the Van Biesbroeck Prize for "unsung
heroes" so that it can be awarded annually as the current highest
priorities for fund-raising. At our October Executive Committee
meeting, I made my own challenge matching pledge. I will give
$1000 to each of these areas under the condition that ExCom,
collectively, and Council, collectively, each contribute
$2000. I am optimistic that my pledge will be
collected. I urge you to do your part as well. Even small
contributions to these worthy issues, to our general funds,
or to other items that attract you, can be of help in expanding
the range and effectiveness of the Society. We have tried to
make giving easy, with a button to click on the web page when you
pay your dues, or whenever else the mood to be generous is upon
you. Please consider giving what you can.
Finally, on a different issue, I have appointed a new Child Care
Committee chaired by James Rhoads. This committee will ensure
that there is a contact for people inquiring about child care
at meetings and will work with us to see if we can provide
more concrete support than has been true in the past.
See you in Austin!
...written August 2007 for October 2007 Newsletter
The America COMPETES act is passed, the NSF is on a
budget path to double in ten years, the Astronomy
Division gets its fair share and we are embarked on
a golden era in ground-based astronomy. Unfortunately,
the real world is more complex than that. Several of
us met with Wayne Van Citters and Eileen Friel of
the NSF Astronomy Division for a day in August to discuss
the great opportunities and daunting challenges facing the
NSF. A number of points emerged that astronomers need to
contemplate. Ten years is a long time, two or three
Administrations, five Congresses. What Congress giveth,
Congress can messeth up. There is this contretemps in
Iraq. On a more local level, the Astronomy Division has
done well in the last couple of budget cycles and gets
great credit for having undergone the rigors of the
Senior Review. To balance that, the focus of the national
competitiveness initiative is on topics like nanotechnology.
We can, and will, make the case for the role of astronomy
there, but the task is difficult; that is not the central
function of astronomy. Another practical factor is that a
significant portion of new money tends to get "stove-piped,"
put into special initiatives, of which astronomy may get a
share, but which are not equivalent to general revenues.
An example is "centers." There is no doubt that astronomy
benefits from the Center for Adaptive Optics at Santa Cruz,
but that money in the centers program could never have
bolstered the grants program or paid for the VLA. This
makes the flow of new NSF funds from Congress to astronomers
inefficient by some measure. On the other side, along with
breath-taking opportunities, an avalanche of operation costs
for major new instrumentation, ALMA, ATST, GSMT, and LST
is headed our way. It is unlikely that even a doubling
of the Astronomy Division budget over ten years will deflect
that onrush. The trick will be to orchestrate a symphony of
public, private, national, and international funding to
meet these challenges and accomplish great things. Wayne and
Eileen have circulated a letter to our community by AAS
exploder outlining their plans to implement the recommendations
of the Senior Review. They will be at the NSF Town Meeting in
Austin to address these issues with us. Come to Austin and help
us continue this important conversation.
As long as we are talking about money, let me bring up the issue
of fund raising. Executive Officer Kevin Marvel and I are
going to try to strengthen the development effort of the Society
in a number of ways. Astronomers are, by and large, naturally
penurious (they won't invite us back to Las Vegas!), but
the Society has needs with which we hope that you will help.
Council is engaged in a discussion of what our priorities
should be, for instance, bolstering some of the prizes so there
is more equality among them, or supporting policy or education
initiatives. We are trying to make the process of giving easy and
transparent on the website and elsewhere. Please consider giving
just a little in addition to your dues to help the Society prosper
and to better serve you and our community.
In these days of onrushing progress in our science, I commend to
you the reading of the essay by Simon White entitled "Fundamentalist
Physics: Why Dark Energy is Bad for Astronomy" (arXiv:0704.2291)
and the rejoinder by Rocky Kolb "A Thousand Invisible Cords Binding
Astronomy and High-Energy Physics" (arXiv:0708.1199). The direct
issue here is the potential for a culture and financing clash
between high-energy physics and classical astronomy, but another
important sub-text is work in large collaborations versus
the lone astronomer perched at prime focus (as if that happens
anymore) or scratching with a pencil (brave theorists use pens).
The focal point is research on Dark Energy and Dark Matter, topics
that clearly affect both fields. My not-so-deep take on this is
encapsulated in a phrase I have over-used for the last several
years: "it's all one Universe" (and yes, I know about multi-verses).
The debate reminds me of the computer wars; should we have the
biggest, baddest iron on the planet, or really good work stations
on our desks? Or telescopes. Should we just have a supremely
outrageous aperature telescope, or a network of one-meter robotic
The answer, I believe, is that we need the proper
spectrum of resources and talent to use them. I have to admit I
am a bit discomfited by the circus that supernova work has become
once Type Ia came into the direct line of fire of cosmologists and
physicists. On the other hand, I believe both in the value of large
teams where appropriate, and, fiercely, the value of the individual
struggling away with a problem. I'm a small cog in the SDSS II
SN Search program. I'm very impressed with the talent on this
team and the way it meshes individual effort to fill in the
supernova "redshift desert." On the other hand, I spent
a great deal of time this summer, much of it alone, pondering the
Rorschach patterns of data arrayed on the spectropolarimetry
Q/U plane. I don't think that sort of work gets done by a
large team. In any case, I recommend that you read what Simon
and Rocky have to say, think about it, and talk to your
colleagues. We are arranging a debate between the two of them
in Austin. There are issues that we must, collectively, address.
As advertised, I have appointed a Committee on New Communications,
chaired by Council member Gary Ferland. The thoughts of the
committee are developing on
The commitee will be well on its way to drafting a preliminary
report by the time you read this, but this is a long-term issue.
Please watch for developments and let us know what you think.
...written June 20, 2007 for August 2007 Newsletter
From all indications, the Hawaii meeting was a success.
The hotels were near the beach, and the convention center
was a great environment for the scientific presentations.
The interaction with the members of the Solar Physics Division
was very satisfactory. The Sun is a star, and we do
have issues in common! I got my first ever Aloha shirts
from a nice little shop in the Ala Moana mall and
sported two leis at the banquet.
For those of you keeping score, the summer meeting is when
people elected in January take office. John Huchra is
now formally President Elect. I offer my personal thanks
and that of the Society to Bob Kirshner for his four years
of service as he steps down as Past President. We have a new
Vice-President, Lee Hartmann, but will miss Wal Sargent who
has completed his three-year tour. New Councilors are Chryssa
Kouveliotou, Nick Suntzeff, Jay Lockman, and Gary Ferland,
who will fill out the last year of Lee Hartmann's term. Our
thanks to retiring Councilors, Karen Bjorkman, Jill Bechtold,
and Alan Title. Richard Green became Chair-elect of the
Publications Board and next June will replace Mike A'Hearn
who really pitched in during this turbulent time for our journals.
On that front, the journal transition is going quite smoothly.
The folks at IOPP are working with us with great esprit and
We are trying to get the Council more involved in substantial
long-range planning for the Society. To that end, we met
a day early, Saturday, in Honolulu, to consider such issues.
The clear highest priority was the general policy area. This
is consonant with the anxiety we all feel for funding, large
ground and space-based facilities, and related topics. I am
going to work with Council to devise strategic goals for the
Society in this context. This will serve to give overall
guidance to our active Committee on Public Policy. Currently,
CAPP is effective, but basically reactive. As a step in this
direction, I have appointed Chryssa Kouveliotou to be the
Council representative on CAPP. Two key ideas were enunciated
at the retreat: the AAS is unique in that it represents all of
astronomy; and the Council is unique because it is elected
by that community. We need to focus on using that capacity to
enrich our enterprise.
My call for people interested in thinking about the role
of new modes of communication went out in an E-mail exploder
and I had the first responses within minutes. I thank
all of you who showed an interest. I hope to have a
Committee on New Communications (CommComm?) formed by
the time you read this.
Also in Honolulu, the Committee on the Status of Women
in Astronomy held a session to address harassment. The
topic was handled with great sensitivity. It is clear,
unfortunately, that harassment, from subtle to overt,
remains an issue. The Society has an anti-harassment policy,
but we do not have a set of procedures to address the issue.
We will develop such a set of procedures.
At this writing, we have not yet heard the results
of the Beyond Einstein study (BEPAC). Congress is
moving from authorization to appropriations, and there
are some hints of good news. I hope that the completion
of the difficult task of the NSF Senior Review is amply
rewarded. Stay tuned.
2-4-6-8 everybody NOM-I-NATE!
...written April 21, 2007 for May/June 2007 Newsletter
Whew! A lot has happened!
First, my congratulations to John Huchra who was elected to be
the next President of the Society. John will formally become
President-Elect at the meeting in Hawaii. He will then take over
as President at the meeting in St. Louis in June of 2008 and I
will serve as Past-President until the Pasadena meeting in June of
2009. We have hired a consultant to lead a one-day Council retreat
before the Hawaii meeting to guide the Council toward a more strategic
outlook for the Society. John has generously agreed to join that
effort. I know he will put his energy, intellect, and experience
behind the health and future of the Society.
We had a short, intense, and very professional process to issue
a Request for Proposals to publish the Astrophysical Journal and
the Astronomical Journal, to evaluate the proposals, and to
select a vendor. We are very pleased that the Institute of Physics
Publishing will be the new publisher of our cherished and prestigious
journals and are very optimistic that our new partnership will lead
to a necessary and valuable evolution of what it means to publish
science journals in the globally-connected electronic age.
The complex RFP defining our journals and our aspirations for them
was put together by a team consisting of AAS representatives
and outside independent consultants. The proposals were then
evaluated by another team (with some overlapping representation).
The proposals were evaluated first for technical merit, completely
independent of cost. Only then were costs evaluated. In the final
stage, site visits with finalists were arranged. IOPP emerged as
the choice in large part because of their current leadership
in the modern era of electronic publishing and their palpable
excitement to move forward toward greater enrichment of technical
publishing with more connectedness among journal articles,
cross-references, images, and other data bases. The global vision
of IOP also emerged as a factor. All of this, and our expenses will
go down substantially!
Our Society owes a debt of gratitude, to which I certainly add my
own personal thanks, to the people who accomplished this. Special
commendation goes to our Executive Officer, Kevin Marvel, who
oversaw the process in a highly professional way, and to our editors,
Ethan Vishniac and Jay Gallagher, and Pub Board Chair Mike A'Hearn,
who were deeply engaged in this effort. Appreciation also goes to our
consultants, especially to Bob Milkey who set aside his well-deserved
retirement as Executive Officer to provide his wisdom in publishing matters.
As part of this process, we have come to realize that we should have
had an evaluation like this at regular intervals in the past. I
certainly recommend that we do this again in about five years to
ensure we are getting the best service for our membership at the
most reasonable costs.
In the world beyond the Society, I am delighted to welcome
Alan Stern as Associate Administrator for the NASA Science
Mission Directorate that oversees Astrophysics, Solar Physics,
Planetary Science and Earth Science. Alan has made rebalancing of
R&A a top priority and appointed Yvonne Pendleton specifically
to oversee that effort. He has convinced John Mather to take on the
important post of Chief Scientist. He has appointed Jon Morse
to be head of the Astrophysics Division. SMD will be a different
organization with Alan as AA, but he will still have the problems
of a constrained budget that face all of NASA. We need to work
with him to ensure the very best science for the available funds,
and we need to work with Congress and the Office of Management and
Budget to increase the funds available to do the exciting science
Finally, let me turn to another internal issue. Look at the
person in the office on your left. Look at the person in the
office on your right. One of your hard-working, inventive,
stimulating colleagues deserves to be nominated for one of
the many prizes awarded by the Society. We continue to award
prizes to outstandingly deserving individuals, but also to
skirt close to a paucity of candidates. The latter is not
because good candidates are not there. Our active society is
full of them. Someone has to take the trouble to nominate them.
There is a perception in some quarters that this is a time-consuming
and cumbersome process. It does require a bit of effort, but
we have tried to stream-line the process. It is certainly
much less effort than constructing an observing or funding
proposal, and we all do that all the time! Please take a moment
to let your mind range over all your colleagues whom you know and
admire, from junior to senior, and make the effort to nominate
someone. We need to challenge the prize committees with a regular
surfeit of excellent candidates.
I look forward to seeing you in Hawaii, and then in Austin,
the live music capital of the world!
...written January 23, 2007 for March/April 2007 Newsletter
I'm still reflecting on "My Dinner with Mike," actually,
"our dinner." Executive Officer Kevin Marvel, Chair of the
Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy, Jack Burns, and
I had an informal dinner with NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin,
just before the Thanksgiving holiday. The idea was not to focus on
any particular issues, but to let the conversation flow to
keep the lines of communication open between our community and
the NASA administration. I believe we all four found this a
useful excercise. Dr. Griffin has a strong personality and deep
convictions, but it is clear he wants to do the best job he
can for all of NASA's components and that he is under budgetary
constraints not of his choosing. Several key ideas came out in the
course of the meal. This was shortly after several people were
asked to step down from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC). That was,
and remains, a sensitive issue. Dr. Griffin was adamant that the
old advisory structure allowed influence that inappropriately affected
NASA policy and budgetary decisions and that it had to be reformed.
He confirmed Jack Burn's insight that the changes were made to the
advisory structure in a manner designed to give the science community
more of a seat at the NAC table where top-level decisions are made and
that he was open to making the process more effective. We need to
work with NASA to make this system function as well as possible. Dr.
Griffin was also very sensitive to the burden of mission reporting
paperwork. He was emphatic that he wanted to hear of any case when
a PI thought a report had no real merit, and that he would endeavor
to fix that problem. At one point I asked about an issue that had
been bothering me; Dr. Griffin seemed to develop a relatively negative
impression of the astronomy community early in his tenure, and I
wanted to know why. One factor turns out to be that some members of
our community E-mailed complaints to him that were not just quarrelsome,
but rude and profane. Such E-mail continues. I have one piece of
advice to members of our community doing that. STOP IT! We can
have our differences of opinion, but it is terribly damaging to our
community if we do not express these differences in a professional
and constructive manner.
Several of us also had dinner with Dr. Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, Chair
of the NAC, during the Seattle meeting. Once again, Dr. Schmitt is
a strong personality with deep convictions, but he listened to
our discussion comparing and contrasting the old advisory committee
structure with the current one. I think we can have a constructive
conversation on this issue.
If we do not formally know the identity of the new Associate
Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, we will
soon. This is a position of great responsibility in a time of
opportunity and turmoil. I have every reason to believe that
the AA will bring a new sensitivity to the issues of advice
from our community to NASA and vice versa. I am confident this
person will work to restore R&A funding, but we must be aware
that SMD also has a constrained budget. We need to help the new AA
all we can with objective, scientific advice.
The Beyond Einstein Program Assessment Committee (BEPAC) study by
the National Research Council to set priorities for those missions
is well underway with a series of town hall meetings scheduled.
This will be a difficult and probably contentious process, but the
fact that NASA turned to our community through the offices of the
NRC to make these decisions is a good example of the community
involvement we want to encourage.
This spring will mark great interest in, and anxiety over,
budgets. The new Congress will establish the FY 07 budget
by some variation of a Continuing Resolution. By the time
you read this, the impact of that on NASA and NSF budgets
for the current year should be clear. Earmark reform seems
to have momentum and, overall, that is good. On the other hand,
this treatment of the FY 07 budget seems to have sidelined
the effort to gain a special supplement for the NASA budget to
make up for costs associated with the loss of the Challenger.
The status of the American Competitiveness Initiative that might
augment NSF and DOE, and maybe NASA, is threatened at this writing,
but may have been clarified by the time you read this.
By now the Administration's FY 08 budget will have been proposed
and will be the subject of active debate. This is where we
all need to apply leverage. Administrators at NASA and NSF can
only do so much if their budgets do not afford the assignments with
which they are tasked, never mind the dreams and aspirations
of the astronomy community. Communicate with your Congress-people.
Another issue that is playing out this spring, closely related to
some of those above, is the reaction of our community to the
Senior Review report of the NSF Division of Astronomy. The Division
and the Senior Review committee faced daunting issues to open
opportunities for new initiatives. The recommendations of the
committee involved some pain to virtually every portion of
the NSF-sponsored astronomy community. My personal impression is
that the recommendations for the large, diverse, and fractionated
optical/IR community still need special thought and consideration.
In any case, the Senior Review was advisory to the AST Division.
Implementation is a work in progress. The NSF is hosting a series
of town hall meetings to get further feedback on the recommendations
of the Senior Review. I urge all interested people to use those
venues to express your opinions, in a civilized and professional manner.
...written October 6, 2006 for December 2006 Newsletter
I am becoming aware of the pitfalls of trying to write a column two
months in advance that will have some relevance, but not be overtaken
by events by the time it is published. I mentioned in my last column
that we were planning to submit, under the auspices of CAPP, another
set of questions to NASA Administrator Griffin. By the time you read
the October Newsletter, those questions had been submitted and promptly
answered. The exchange was posted electronically to AAS members and
I hope you all had a chance to read and ponder it. The AAS submitted a
press release with comments by officers along with the questions and
answers. here is my quote from the press release:
"President Wheeler said, 'The Columbia disaster put the
state of NASA, its science programs, and the human space flight program
under a bright focus. As a result, NASA has been tasked to do too much
with too few resources. Astronomers have been traumatized as plans on which
they have built their careers and planned the careers of their students
have been constricted or cancelled. Astronomers do not do these things
because they will lead to immense riches. They do them because their
hearts and souls are captured by the wonder at the Universe they are
privileged to explore. That is why they leap to the defense of projects,
long in the planning, and consuming of their scientific passions, that
are threatened with cut-backs and cancellation. This dialog with
Administrator Griffin is one means by which NASA and the astronomy
community can work together to accomplish the most exciting,
productive science with the most efficient use of taxpayers dollars.' "
In my last letter, I also mentioned concern of adequate community
input into NASA decisions. Hours after I emailed that off,
three senior members of the NASA Advisory Council, comprising most of
the Science Committee, either resigned or were asked to resign.
The point of contention was just how advice will flow from
the community, to NAC and the NASA Administrator, and thence to
the Science Mission Directorate. Administrator Griffin thinks
that the old system resulted in cacaphonous, conflicting advice.
Astronomers are concerned that (among other things) the new system
will not provide sufficiently flexible and expert advice in changing
circumstances. Everyone is concerned that NASA does not have the
budget to complete its charge. There have been multitudinous
exchanges on this issue and I believe it is fair to say that it
has not been resolved.
Administrator Griffin gave a speech at the Goddard Space Fight Center
on September 12 addressing these and related issues. That speech
was also widely circulated and I urge you to read it if you are
interested in trying to divine the NASA tea leaves. Many astronomers,
including the AAS administration, are still trying to parse what it
means to say that astronomers are suppliers to NASA. I think most
of us view our relation to NASA as much more of an integrated
enterprise engaged in common goals, neither "suppliers" nor "customers."
We will have a CAPP session at the Seattle meeting to explore these issues.
Another piece of reading you might find worth while is the rather
pointed article in Nature regarding past Decadal Surveys that
raised issues of how the next one should be handled. Plans
are just now getting underway for this very important process.
By the time you read this, the results of the NSF Senior Review
should be public. That is also a process that will deeply
impact our community, will be a topic in Seattle, and will
affect the Decadal Survey.
We live in interesting times.
...written August 16, 2006 for October 2006 Newsletter
August is a time astronomers devote to travel, meetings, and
writing papers. This year, our routine is set against the
background of sad and frustrating wars and new terror alerts that
have rendered our shampoo suspect. I hope that by the time this is
published there is a return to what passes for normalcy and
some glimmer of reason for optimism.
In this summer season, the business of the Society, while rarely
urgent, moves on. The new administration under Executive Officer
Kevin Marvel has smoothly taken over operations in the
Washington office. The transition to a new Editor-in-Chief
of the Astrophysical Journal, Ethan Vishniac, has proceeded
well, with some expectation that the full handover will begin
earlier than previously planned.
The Society, under the aegis of the Executive Committee, has
endorsed the efforts of Senators Mikulksi and Hutchison to
secure $1B in emergency funding for NASA to make up for some of
the costs of shuttle return to flight and losses associated with
hurricane Katrina. It remains to be seen whether this action will
survive the budget process. The Executive Committee has also endorsed
a letter from the American Institute of Physics supporting educators
in Ohio who are fending off an effort there to include intelligent
design in the curriculum.
Interestingly, the primary in Connecticut was of relevance to
the Society. Senators Cornyn and Lieberman have proposed in a
draft bill that all federally-funded research be publically available
after six months. Current policy is to make the AAS journals
available electronically after a decent interval, but six months
might severely alter our library subscription base and hence the whole
funding structure of our journals. The Society has written in opposition
to this bill. With one of its authors in a re-election battle,
this issue will probably take a back seat in the near future,
but it remains an item of concern.
One of my priorities has been to refresh the Committee on Astronomy
and Public Policy under the able leadership of Jack Burns. I
am very grateful to those who have served recently on this
important committee, to those who have agreed to continue, and
to those who have newly volunteered their time. One of the
issues that CAPP is currently considering is an offer by
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to take and answer questions
from the Society by email. This is an attempt by both the
Administrator and the Society to keep the lines of communication
open and is, to some extent, an extension of the session we
had at the January, 2006 meeting in Washington where I was
charged with asking questions of Dr. Griffin in an open session.
A sub-committee of CAPP is currently composing questions in
what may be an on-going exchange.
Several large issues will face the Society in the Fall. The
FY 07 budget is not yet settled and plans are underway for
FY 08. We are likely to see the product of the NSF Astronomy
Division Senior Review and to assimilate that report in
the context of the American Competitiveness Initiative which
has some promise of increasing NSF funding. There remains
concern of adequate community input into NASA decisions as
priorities are set for large and small missions, the
enterprise of searching for planets and life from space,
and missions in the Beyond Einstein retinue. The NRC
is laying plans for the next Decadal Survey, one that I
am confident will prove to be of extreme importance.
With the loss of the shuttle Columbia and the President's
response contained in the Vision for the Exploration of Space,
there have been immense changes in space science that affect
the members of the AAS. There is a natural, but unfortunate,
tendency to "circle the wagons and shoot inwards," as astronomers
leap to the defense of projects that consume their professional
lives. A preeminent task of the Society is to attempt to "lift
all boats" in these turbulent waters. We need to stay focused and
nimble. The best insurance of a bright future is to continue to do
exciting and vibrant science. I wish us all good fortune in that quest.
...written June 12, 2006 for August 2006 Newsletter
When I first contemplated accepting the nomination to
run for President of the AAS, I thought, well, at least
I will have the solid hand of Bob Milkey as Executive Officer
to lead me through the thickets. Then I realized that not
only was Bob intent on retiring, but our stalwart Senior
Editor of the Astrophysical Journal, Rob Kennicutt, was
decamping to Cambridge. The upshot is that we were
scheduled to replace the three top leadership positions in
the AAS simultaneously. It is a distinct mark of the
health of our Society that this transition has gone
very smoothly. Kevin Marvel is the new Executive Officer.
Kevin has some bold ideas of where to lead the Society
and the luxury to contempate them thanks to the solid
foundation left by Bob Milkey. Ethan Vishniac is the
new Senior Editor and while Rob Kennicutt's shoes are large
ones to fill, it is hard for me to think of a better
replacement. Ethan is a superb scientist, full of
common sense and sensitivity, and has a keen view of
the potentials and perils facing scientific publishing.
There is a long interval between that call from the
nominating committee and the time when one receives
the gavel of office. The call is in November, the
election in December, the vote tallied in January, formal
assumption of the position of President-Elect in June and
then a year in that office; 19 months. That is why, I presume,
in the Washington DC meeting, President Bob Kirshner
properly protested he WAS still the President. It was
a pleasure and education to serve as President-Elect with
Bob, who remains Past President for another year. I also
note that we will have a new election this fall. I urge
you all to think hard about who should lead the Society
and look forward to working with the new President-Elect
whom you chose.
My basic thought coming into this postion was that the
Society is in good shape, but the external environment
we work in is, at best, turbulent. Kevin has, however,
raised my consciousness about what a new administration
might accomplish. There were days before the Job Center,
before poster presentations at meetings, before electronic
publishing. These things are the immense legacy of earlier
administrations who worked to improve the Society. Developments
of that magnitude will be hard to emulate, but it is encumbent
on us to be open to the possibilities.
What can we do? The AAS Coucil is energetic, boisterous, and wants
to be involved. While there is mandated business with an attendant
modicum of tedium, we want to encourage the Council to think
strategically. There may be ways to speed up, even fundamentally
change, communications within our community. We are considering
setting up Wiki's to facilitate the work of committees, including
the Council. We are going to institute a new web page about
the ecology of the power structure in Washington that controls
our fate, the committees and our colleagues who sit on them. The
hope is not just to list committees and organizational charts but
to include some narrative to help reveal how these interlocking
groups actually function. I wonder if we could build a richer
community by invoking some aspects of MySpace.com or Facebook.com
(without the purient self-revelations!). Should the President
have a blog? I would be very interested in hearing suggestions
as to how we can fully, efficiently, and usefully take advantage
of modern communications potential.
There are issues facing the journals. To keep them preeminant,
we have to ensure that they take maximum advantage of peer
review, archiving, and the rich connectivity that electronic
publishing allows. Steve Maran, our Press Officer, notes that
with the rise of Craig's List and the depletion of classified
ad budgets in old-line newspapers, their circulation drops
and they reduce their science coverage. How do we respond to that?
Then there is that issue of the funding environment. Here is
an issue of "Ask not what your Society can do for you, ask
what you can do for your Society." Kevin Marvel has nurtured
a very effective public policy arm of the Society. We propose
to keep that healthy despite his new duties with a Policy Intern
position. That, and other demands, require an increase in the
dues, which have not changed for several years. We hope this
will not be an undue burden, but I personally made the motion
in Council to add another couple of dollars to the increase
proposed by the Executive Officer for fiscal reasons alone.
I think that this is necessary to maximize the effect of the AAS
on the funding and policy issues that face us. Watch for
Email Alerts, and talk to your Congressperson.