More Context, the Broader Picture at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate

In my last post on the potential NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) budget for FY 2014, I left out some context. In particular, there is one division of SMD that does not provide astronomical sciences funding, but factors into the total picture: Earth Science. To provide greater context to our discussion, here are two plots of SMD budgets over time.1

This first plot shows changes in division budgets with time, in then-year dollars on top and fixed 2013 dollars on the bottom2, since FY 2007. Why FY 2007? Before that date, NASA changed its accounting scheme, and the honest truth is I haven’t figured out how to reconcile the budgets in a meaningful way. So we’ll just pretend that before FY 2007 is irrelevant… Ok? Ok. Next, for clarity, I’ve separated out the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for the full timespan, even though it lived in the Astrophysics division’s Cosmic Origins program before FY 2010.

NASA SMD Sand Chart

Sand chart showing changes in NASA SMD budget since FY 2007 in then-year (top) and inflation-adjusted FY 2013 dollars (bottom).

In FY 2009, Earth Science and Astrophysics received $325 million and $75 million, respectively, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, i.e., the stimulus. As is clear from the plot, the overall NASA SMD budget was growing at about 3% going into the recession, but then dropped sharply in FY 2010 and has yet to recover. Also clear is the Obama Administration’s prioritization of Earth Science, which experiences large growth beginning in FY 2009, the first Obama Administration budget. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the budget for the astronomical sciences has been shrinking since FY 2007, slightly faster than the total SMD budget. 

While much of the recent focus has been on the very real, large cuts to the Planetary Science division, the rest of the divisions have also been slowly decreasing for several years. In fixed FY 2013 dollars, the SMD budget has declined by $424 million, an 8% cut, between FY 2007 and FY 2013; over the same period, astronomical sciences funding has fallen $730 million, a 19% cut! (Incidentally, this is about the same as the total SMD shortfall compared to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.) This speaks to one of the most pressing issues for our community: we must speak up together with one loud voice.

The above plot shows each year’s actual, enacted budgets, which reflect the sum total of the Administration’s priorities, Congressional input and agency decisions. To further highlight how the Administration’s priorities factor in, this next plot shows side-by-side comparisons of the President’s budget request and the enacted budgets (or appropriations bill language for FY 2014) beginning with FY 2010. Colors are the same in this plot as for the previous, and in each panel, the horizontal lines occur every $100 million then-year dollars.

NASA SMD Bar Chart

Bar chart comparing Presidential budget requests and actual appropriations for each of the NASA SMD divisions.

This plot highlights the sharp cut to Planetary Science proposed in the FY 2013 and FY 2014 budgets as compared to previously strong support. This cut was opposed by Congress, resulting in an enacted cut about $100M smaller than proposed. Also clear is the rebaselining of JWST, which occured in mid-2011 as appropriations were being debated for FY 2012. 

Hopefully, this has helped clear up some open questions from the previous post, but if anything remains unclear, please let me know! I’m hoping to continue using this space to share all that I’m learning as I make my transition from astrophysics researcher to science policy wonk. Next up, we’ll take a look at the NSF budgets!

1My goal is to learn how to set up interactive plotting for all the relevant budgets on the AAS site. In the meantime, if you have suggestions for better ways to display this information, I’m all ears! And would happily provide you the data tables I’ve used to make them.

2Inflation adjustment using Consumer Price Index (CPI) data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Astronomical Sciences in FY 2014: Below the Top Line at NASA

Last post, we took our first look at the potential budget for the coming fiscal year, FY 2014, which began 28 days ago. That’s right, we’re talking about the “outlook” for something that’s already begun (you may have heard that Congress is having a hard time meeting deadlines lately).

As a quick reminder, here’s the current budget situation. The relevant appropriations subcommitties in both chambers of Congress (“Commerce/Justice/Science” and “Energy & Water”) have passed spending bills. However, nearly all of them are still awaiting consideration by the full House and Senate before potentially being “conferenced” between chambers and becoming law. The government is now (finally) funded via a continuing resolution, pinning funding levels at the sequestered levels of FY 2013; this is about 6% lower than FY 2012 for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. As part of the deal that ended the government shutdown and averted a US default, the House and Senate agreed to budget negotiations, in which they will attempt to work out the vast differences between their budget resolutions, which set the funding targets that the appropriations committees use to actually allocate funding. These discussions will not reach the level of detail below, but the exisiting appropriations bills were designed to meet what amounts to each side’s opening bid in the negotiations. Thus, they give us an idea of how each chamber envisions the future of science research in a time when the federal government is driven largely by deficit reduction goals.

As already discussed, the Senate bills reflect their goal to restore the 2013 sequester cuts and strengthen investments, while the House’s look to meet the sequestered budget caps for 2014 (i.e., potentially deepening cuts from the 2013 sequester). However, if we look a little deeper we find a more complicated picture. Let’s begin with NASA, the agency that, today, provides most of the funding for our field.

NASA Division Budget Changes since FY 2012

Within NASA, funding for the astronomical sciences comes from the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which houses separate Divisions for Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, Heliophysics, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Webb was separated out of the Astrophyiscs division (like Hubble before it) as an “agency priority” in FY 2012. The budgetary changes relative to 2012 for each of the astronomical divisions are shown in the figure above.

For Hubble’s infrared-focused successor, JWST, FY 2014 is scheduled to be the most expensive construction year. After a cost re-baselining and rescheduling in 2011, the 6.5m space telescope carries an estimated total pricetag (for the US) of $8.7 billion ($8 billion to launch) and a launch date in October 2018. Despite recent rumors of further cost overruns and launch delays, the short government shutdown thankfully did nothing to change the mission cost or launch date thanks to smarter project management and 14 months of schedule reserve on hand. It seems that at least one rumor is related to confusion about total worldwide pricetag (about $10 billion) versus US pricetag (about $8.7 billion, as mentioned in the article linked above). While the two-week shutdown ate into available planned reserves but did not cause costly delays, the $74 million dollar cut proposed in the House appropriations bill would represent some 3-4 times the reserve funding designed into the budget to protect against more costly delays.

Both the Astrophysics and Heliophysics Divisions see 8% differences between the House and Senate allocations, with the Senate apportioning more in both cases. For Astrophysics, the Senate allocates an additional $36 million above the presidential request, largely to provide funding for development of the top-astrophysics priority WFIRST mission; the House bill report provides no specific direction for distributing the cuts they propose. For Heliophysics, the Senate matches the Administration request, with specific support for the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) and Solar Probe Plus missions, as well as the Heliophysics Explorer program. In Heliophysics, as in Astrophysics, the House report is silent on the distribution of proposed cuts.

The most detailed point of contention for both chambers is the Planetary Science division. Here, both the Senate and the House allocate about $100 million more than the presidential request (though still less than the division’s budget in FY 2012 and prior). Each legislative body provides specific direction in the bill reports (linked above) about what select programs, and even missions within programs, should receive. The relative agreement between the two chambers versus the administration reflects a clear disagreement between the legislative and executive branches when it comes to Planetary Science. This largely began in 2012 when the administration proposed a $300 million decrease in the division’s FY 2013 budget.

At the program level, the Senate language would specifically apportion funding to the OSIRIS-Rex mission, space technology development, and Near-Earth Object detection and characterization. The House, on the other hand, provides specific language targeting funding levels for research and analysis grants, the proposed Mars 2020 rover mission, and planning for a mission to Europa. This last item, despite not holding high priority within a constrained budget scenario in the recent decadal survey, comes at the request of Representative John Culberson of TX, who is ardent in his belief that there is life on Europa.

The soft-opening to the budgetht negotiations have been rolling out in the media over the last several days, with most predicting that the best case scenario is a one-year deal that replaces the across-the-board sequester spending cuts for FY 2014. We will continue to work alongside partners in Washington, like the broad Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) United Coalition, to protect crucial discretionary investments like basic science research from further harmful cuts. It’s important to keep in mind that we are all in the same boat, looking for a rising tide.

Looking Ahead to a Potential Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, How Do the Astronomical Sciences Fare?

The last few days have brought welcome news of a potential end to the government shutdown, maybe. For those of us hoping to improve the environment for federally funded research, the prospect of accompanying budget talks that address long-term spending are the most ear-perking news we have heard in days. Whether you believe there can be a grand, or baby grand, or even Schroeder’s-piano-size bargain, its important to look at where this Congress left off when they last considered funding the government in something like the “normal” way.

There’s a lot to say here, so I will break discussion of fiscal year (FY) 2014 appropriations into a series of posts. I’ll also put together some background articles on some of the things I’ve been learning about. These won’t necessarily be better or worse than the coverage you could read elsewhere, but will come from someone with a background like your own, for whatever that’s worth to you. Let’s begin with the top line of the budget and work our way down over the coming weeks.

Since the passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) (plus modifications from the fiscal cliff deal in 2012) and the failure of the supercommittee it spawned, the spending debate in Washington has largely centered around whether or not discretionary spending should be at or below the sequestered budget caps. Let’s break that down a bit, shall we?

For our purposes, the BCA established two things that affect funding for the astronomical sciences. First, it put in place budgetary caps for discretionary spending programs, meant to tamp down the budget deficit (the annual difference between revenue and spending), for FY 2012 to 2021. Second, it created a so-called supercommittee, with members from both parties and chambers of Congress, tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures (when added up over 10 years) by January 2012. If that effort failed (spoiler alert!), the BCA mandated $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction spending cuts over the same time period: the sequester. The cuts were to be evenly distributed over the 10 years and divided roughly equally between defense and non-defense discretionary programs (discretionary spending programs are all those that require Congressional appropriations legislation).

In the first year sequestration was imposed, FY 2013, that year’s appropriations were basically given a bowl cut, with a bowl about 8% shorter than the discretionary budget’s already shortened hair (this was largely, but not entirely, due to the sequester; more on this in another post). For FY 2014 on, the sequester is imposed as a further reduction in the spending caps mentioned above. This gives Congress the flexibility to get discretionary spending inside the bowl however it would like, using the normal appropriations process. Funding the government with continuing resolutions (CRs) currently under debate, which largely continue the previous year’s programs forward at the same spending levels, leaves considerably less room for flexibility.

Broadly speaking, the more fiscally conservative members of Congress would like to see the discretionary spending levels at or below the sequestered caps, while liberal members want to see growth in the discretionary slice of the budgetary pie. If we look at the few appropriations bills that have taken the first step in their journey and passed through their committees, we see that ideological difference in the very top-line numbers. The House appropriations bills shove everything underneath the sequestered budget cap, while the Senate side uses an entirely different bowl: the pre-sequester budget cap. For the agencies that fund the astronomical sciences, this amounts to differences roughly in the amount of the potential sequester for FY 2014, about 7.5% of the total. For the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, the Senate has allocated $5.1 billion for FY 2014, while the House pins that number at $4.8B. Similarly, for NSF’s research and related activities (of which astronomy is only about 4%), the Senate bill sets funding at $6B vs. $5.7B in the House. The bills for DOE-Science show a similar disparity at $5.2B in the Senate vs. $4.6B in the House.

Generally speaking, the Senate numbers tend to restore budgets to near FY 2012 levels (i.e., undoing the 2013 sequester cuts), while the House appropriations seek to solidify or even further cut the sequestered budget numbers of FY 2013. In the unlikely event that the House’s funding levels were to be adopted outright, the consequences for the astronomical sciences would be quite dire, with already low grant award rates dropping toward 10% (if you could see it, this link would support that, but…) and major projects like the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, Mars 2020, and the James Webb Space Telescope likely to see delays and subsequent cost overruns.

It is highly unlikely that either the House or Senate numbers would be adopted outright and codified into law, though we would be facing the sequestered budget cap for the total FY 2014 budget if no changes are made to current law (i.e., more bowl cuts). As budgetary negotiations lurch ahead over the coming months, we’ll be working with lawmakers both directly and through coalitions for basic research funding to establish as robust and balanced a funding profile as we can for FY 2014 and beyond.

In the next post, we’ll dive a little deeper into the proposed budget to see how the different aspects of our sciences fare. We’ll also look at a few other astronomical science policy concerns, including the proposed re-organization of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs, restarting production of Pu-238 for deep space exploration, and the potential politicization of the peer-review process.

The Government Shutdown and You

The federal government remains shut down as the two chambers of Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the government as we move into fiscal year 2014. Now on the ninth day of the shutdown, we are continuing to sort out its effects on our astronomical sciences. And we are asking you for your stories, which we will collect for a letter to Congressional leaders.

We cannot claim to know all the impacts yet, but here’s a snapshot of what we do know so far:

  • NASA has sent 98% of its employees, more than 17,700 people, home without pay or access to their work.
  • The NSF has furloughed 2,000 of its employees, which is 99% of its workforce, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science has drawn its federal staff down to single digits at nearly all sites. CORRECTION (7 Oct., 12:50 pm EDT): The Department of Energy’s Office of Science continues to operate at near normal levels until available balances are exhausted.
  • Contractor-operated NASA, NSF, and DOE facilities (including JPL, APL, STScI, and the national observatories and labs), on the other hand, are continuing near regular operations in the near term. This includes paying salaries to scientists and support staff and continuing ongoing mission operations for Curiosity on Mars and the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. However, these facilities may have to draw down staff and operations if this budget battle draws on for multiple weeks.
  • All public-facing elements of NASA have gone dark or will not be maintained.
  • Preparations for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which has a 20-day launch window in mid-November and then not again for 26 months, have ceased during the work stoppage at Kennedy Space Center. UPDATE (3 Oct., 8:00 pm EDT): Happily, NASA has determined that ensuring MAVEN’s successful, on-time launch is crucial to ongoing operations on Mars, including the Curiosity rover, and will be excepted from the shutdown.
  • The scientific heart of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), will stay cooled to testing conditions, but tests are postponed during the shutdown. In the event of a protracted shutdown (longer than about 2 weeks), ISIM may have to be warmed up, which could result in a two-month delay for this critical project milestone.
  • “Payments will not be made” by NSF during the shutdown. Work can continue with already disbursed funds, but no extensions, exceptions, or new disbursements (e.g., grant renewals) will be processed until the government reopens. You should contact your local administration if you are unsure whether your grant funds will be accessible during the shutdown.
  • NSF’s grant review system will grind to a halt. The Fastlane system for processing grant applications will be down, preventing new grant submissions. Deadlines that occur during the shutdown will be postponed to dates that will be determined once NSF is allowed to open back up. All grant review panels will be postponed.
  • Both the National Radio and Optical Astronomy Observatories (NRAO and NOAO), operated by independent organizations on behalf of NSF, will continue near-normal operations through next week. However, reports from NRAO indicate that a shutdown longer than 10 days will result in furloughs for nearly all staff. Similar conditions likely apply for NOAO in the event of a prolonged shutdown. UPDATE (4 Oct., 12:15 pm EDT): Multiple sources have now confirmed that NRAO is suspending all observations on VLA, VLBA and GBT and furloughing most of its employees at 5:00 pm today. UPDATE (9 Oct., 12:00 pm EDT): In an email, the NOAO director announced that “furloughs […] and reduced scientific operations on Kitt Peak” would set in after Friday 18 October if the shutdown continues past that date. Meanwhile, they believe that operations in Chile can continue for “several weeks into November.” The email directs users to send questions on Kitt Peak to Dr. Lori Allen and on operations in Chile to Dr. Nicole van der Bliek.
  • Federal employees (other than those excepted from furloughs) are forbidden from traveling during the shutdown, meaning NASA researchers would not be able to attend next week’s AAS Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver if the shutdown continues.
  • The Smithsonian has furloughed about 84% of its employees during the shutdown. While the majority of the coverage focuses on the shutdown’s effect on museums and the National Zoo, this also affects researchers at Smithsonian Research Centers. John Johnson at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has a blog post on the effect on the CfA in particular.

Most recently in the shutdown saga, the House has been pushing piecemeal spending bills that narrowly address particular functions of the federal government deemed most important. As of October 3rd, only one of these narrow resolutions has been signed into law, a resolution that maintains most military pay. Three others passed in the House during yesterday’s activities. Though the agencies that support the astronomical sciences might not fall to the bottom of such a list of government priorities, they are also unlikely to be found near the top. Senate Democrats and the President have flatly rejected this piecemeal approach to re-opening the government (with the exception of military pay).

As I said at the outset, these are not all the impacts. We will continue to gather more information and update you as it comes in, but we’d also like to hear from you as we prepare to send a message to Congress that this unnecessary government shutdown is hurting their constituent scientists and hampering scientific progress. Please submit your story.

Please also send any corrections or additional impacts to us at public.policy@aas.org.

One Astronomer’s Transition to Science Policy

It’s no secret that since my second or third year of graduate school, I have not seen myself following in the footsteps of my research advisors. Looking back, this seemed like THE crisis of my life, but it was in fact the beginning of a (somewhat meandering) journey toward my next step in science policy. I’ve spent the last three years, first unintentionally and later fully consciously, working to distill how I’d reached this point as a researcher and what I wanted for my future career. And today, I have happily found myself the next John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society.

At about that point about three years ago, I began to explore potential career paths, having the benefit of a highly supportive advisor (if self-admittedly not knowledgeable about non-academic careers). I tried to figure out what I loved and did not love about my academic research. I like: discussing science with anyone and everyone, thinking critically and working creatively on complex issues, and forming interesting relationships with a diverse group of people. I did not like: hunching behind a computer for most of the day, the thought of multiple relocations based on the whims of the academic job market, and the constant pressure to find funding and publish papers. This list is much more distilled now than it was then, but that has come through the exploration I’ve done.

I started by getting more heavily involved in teaching and writing. I taught for and got involved in the organization of a local group of grads and undergrads working to improve community support mechanisms and the curriculum for Berkeley’s undergraduate physics cohort: The Berkeley Compass Project. I also wrote and edited for a local, graduate-student-run popular science publication. These activities, in addition to the joy and resume-boosting experiences I derived from them, helped me further identify what I might want to pursue with my Ph.D. in hand. I came away feeling a passion and aptitude for effective science education and communication, and a strong desire to engage in something where I personally felt a more direct social impact.

When it finally came time to apply for jobs, I knew science policy would involve a lot of what I wanted to do. As a policy advocate, one of my key duties will be to form strong working relationships with policymakers and scientists. I will get to talk to the former about the policies they are considering, and the latter about the science goals they are pursuing; what I did on my lunch hour (or three) as a graduate student will be a big part of what I am paid to do. I will grapple with the complex issues around how money is allocated for the ambitious scientific goals we have set out for the coming decade of highly constrained budgets. For many people I know, this may sound terribly boring, or futile, or unfulfilling, perspectives I can certainly understand but don’t share.

I weighed a number of other options. I (unsuccessfully) applied for science journalism jobs on the radio and in print, and for a few months thought I had landed a job working on science educational program development for K-12 students (a long, different story). After all this exploration, I am really excited about the opportunity the Bahcall Fellowship represents. I am excited to take a meaningful job that engages my continuing, strong love of science, but that also leverages the skills and other interests I have. I am ok with the idea that I may not live the rest of my life cutting along the bleeding edge of scientific discovery, and excited that I’ll still get to see that edge and have a hand in ensuring some of the necessary tools are available to keep it sharp.

Applications open for National Academy of Sciences Policy Fellowship

Graduate students: interested in a policy fellowship? Check out this opportunity to apply to the January 2014 session of the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program.

The online application is available at:

Here’s the opportunity summary from their site:

The Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program is designed to engage early career individuals in the analytical processes that inform U.S. science and technology policy.  Fellows obtain the essential skills and knowledge needed to work in science and technology policy at the federal, state, or local levels.  Fellows spend 12 weeks at the National Academies in Washington, DC learning about science and technology policy and the role that scientists and engineers play in advising the nation. Each year, applicants from around the world become part of a National Academies committee, board, or unit.  Each fellow is assigned to a senior staff member who acts as his or her mentor. The mentor provides guidance and ensures that the fellow’s time is focused on substantive projects and activities within the fellow’s assigned unit.   An immersive experience, the program is designed to broaden fellows’ appreciation of employment opportunities outside academia and leave them with both a firm grasp of the important and dynamic role of science and technology in decision-making and a better understanding of the role that they can play in strengthening the science and technology enterprise for the betterment of mankind.

Additional information may be found at:

Roundup: House Hearing on STEM Education

This past Tuesday, the House heard testimony from John Holdren (Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy)  Joan Ferrini-Mundy (Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation) and Leland Melvin (Associate Administrator for Education at NASA) regarding the administration’s proposed reorganization of STEM education programs. Clocking in at just under 2 hours (not counting recesses for floor votes), the House panel subjected the three witnesses to a litany of  pointed questions, occasionally glazed in mild derision. The panel seems to agree that a revaluation and prioritization of federal STEM education efforts is worthwhile, but the positivity ended there, with most panelists questioning whether the proposed reorganization had been properly considered and planned.

Over at SpacePolicyOnline, Laura Delgado has an excellent write-up that includes helpful background, including a link to the 5-year  Strategic Plan for coordination of federal STEM programs (which only came out last Friday, after the budget was formulated; although during questioning, the panel was assured that drafts of the plan had been available to the administration during the budget development).

Jeffrey Mervis has additional coverage at Science Insider, including some of the more quotable moments of the hearing. As Mervis points out, the questioning was “refreshingly nonpartisan”, but unfortunately for the administration, it was because they were largely united in their criticism of the proposal.

SpaceRef.com has the prepared statements of the three witnesses: Leland Melvin, John Holdren, and Joan Ferrini-Mundy

Universe Today posted an article earlier today on the proposed reorganization by Markus Pössel, entitled “Proposed Changes to NASA’s Education and Outreach – A View from the Outside”, but the link seems to be broken at present, so check back there later if you’re interested.