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For a moment I was caught up in the incredible power of the research juggernaut that is my area of study, cosmology. “This is like playing God!” I declared to my boyfriend. “I want to be on this committee one day.” The committee that would allow me to assume a position of world domination? The National Academy of Sciences Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey Committee, which on Friday August 13th (dun dun dun!) released the sixth in a series of decadal reports highlighting the state of the field and making recommendations for steps to be taken over the next 10 years. And by recommendations I mean telling people how it’s going to be, right down to how much money government agencies like NASA should get for projects. (Watch the live announcement.)
It really is like playing God to the astronomy community: “The future of X-ray astronomy now looks bleak,” declared an esteemed former colleague (and X-ray astronomer) on Facebook. By allotting only $180 million1 over the next decade for the proposed X-ray telescope IXO, research in this highly energetic range of electromagnetic frequencies has been put on hold. As Julianne Dalcanton pointed out at Cosmic Variance:
In other words, thanks to our atmosphere, which protects weaklings like us from dangerous radiation like X-rays and ultraviolet rays, we won’t be seeing anything new in these wavelengths anytime soon. Bleak, indeed.
Meanwhile, cosmologists like me won big: not only was Cosmic Dawn (the early stages of the universe’s existence) selected as one of three major research priorities for the next decade, but also the number one priority for space-based missions/telescopes is the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will be tasked with hunting for a better understanding of the mysterious cosmic acceleration, thought to be caused by something (we really don’t know what) called Dark Energy. As a bonus, the capabilities needed for chasing down answers about Dark Energy can also be used to hunt for Earth-sized worlds in other solar systems, and WFIRST will be charged with that mission as well.
Of course, the 225 page report does more than excite cosmologists and deflate X-ray/UV astronomers. Ground-based optical observers have a lot to be excited about, as do theorists and experimentalists hoping to detect gravitational waves in the next two decades as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) received a tentative endorsement from the committee. Allotments were made for smaller missions as new discoveries require them, and this allows us the flexibility of pursuing research in an unpredictable but exciting area: the whole Universe.
Looking at another set of winners, the chapter on Astronomy and Society introduced topics previously covered in Astro decadals, but never in such great detail or with such explicit recommendations. Growing US astronomy over the next decade and indeed over the decades following it requires ensuring that enough Americans pursue education and research in the field. They note the dire need to accelerate the recruitment and retention of Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans into astronomy and astrophysics. While this issue was touched on in the previous decadal, this is really the first one to forcefully make this point:2
Indeed, if the US wants to maintain the current numbers of people involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields (often referred to simply as STEM), then underrepresented people of color have to be integrated in much larger numbers, simply because of changing demographics. Otherwise, we are looking at a future where Americans just don’t do science.
I’ll leave it to the reader to guess at what that would mean for the American economy. Noting that astronomy is often the gateway (drug) to science for impressionable young people, the report emphasizes that ongoing support for the diversification of astronomy is essential to preparing the US for our technological future. The report goes on to mention my two favorite science organizations, the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists. By the way, despite this focus on the future of American science, this survey had a notable international flavor, including international members of the committees involved in putting it together.
What is clear from listening to the press conference, reading the blog responses, and looking at the actual report is that, like anything else that involves large sums of money and a lot of people, everything still seems to come back to politics, or human error. I think they may be the same thing, or at least very much related. Was the committee right to gamble on cosmology, largely at the expense of everything else? Or did they do that because Adam Riess, a lead discoverer of cosmic acceleration, was on the committee that made programming recommendations? Perhaps it’s not Adam, but public perception – cosmology is wildly popular right now. Either way, it’s felt that the committee did not always make the most scientific evaluation possible, and I’m willing to believe that.
It’s also clear that things might have been different if certain evil people and organizations, ahem Goldman-$achsholes, hadn’t crashed the economy, leaving us fighting even harder for the budgets necessary to do large-scale astronomy exploration. Even as we practitioners of the scientific art dream big, Congress and the President will continue to spend trillions on unpopular wars while asking the rest of us to tighten our belts. As a scientist, I know I’ve felt this the least, and one thing I can do is try to lighten the load as a cosmologist by helping others to dream of something bigger than bombs, reminding everyone that the Universe outside of this struggling planet is a glorious, beautiful and fascinating place. Or, as the committee wrote:
In truth, this decadal marks an important personal moment for me. As of September, I will be one of the 5 or 6 Black North American PhDs in astrophysics this year, and I will also be one of the first on the scene preparing the WFIRST project for its jaunt in space. That’s exciting, and I hope my excitement will be contagious.
X-ray shot via NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Flickr account