aas 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 your discretion.

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 underway.

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 convention center.

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 summarized here.

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 telescopes?

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 http://groups.google.com/group/aascommncomm. 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 energy.

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 that awaits.

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.


10 April 2008
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