Picking a Direction (and sticking to it!)

Cover Art for 2001 Decadal SurveyOn January 24th the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) in the UK announced Michael Bode (an Astrophysics Prof at Liverpool John Moores University) will take the lead in defining a 20 year vision statement for astronomy in Europe. Dr. Bode was put in this powerful but unenviable position by ASTRONET, a consortium of eleven European science agencies. In this job, he will herd cats (e.g. scientists) until they come up with a unified vision. Specifically, he will work to get his community to agree on what questions are most vital to answer, and how these questions can most effectively be answered. This set of questions and methods for answering will be used to shape how limit resources are allocated for science.

This kind of a process isn’t new. In the U.S., we’ve been producing decadal surveys for a while, with the most recent coming out in 2001 (you can read it here, NRC cover art shown above right). Until recently, for every decadal survey desire, their was a matching plan of action that often included a NASA mission with allocated funding (or at least allocated web space). The problem is, the plan of the scientific community and the plans of individual members of Congress and the White House don’t always match. Unfortunately, it’s the politicians who hold our scientific pocket books, and people without science backgrounds are working to define how money should be spent. Today’s congress and white house are giving priority to the Moon-Mars initiative and to the International Space Station. This is crippling the ability of the astronomy community to do the science our best minds have deemed most worth doing.

I don’t know is how this is going to effect things long term. I often judge people on how well they do the things they say they are going to do. As a community, we set specific goals for ourselves. Periodically, outside forces set goals for us as well. Whose goal set will be judged on? Programs get cancelled due to lack of progress, but it is hard to complete things when your resources are taken away or you are told to go spin your wheels doing something else. Will our budgets be slashed to punish us for not meeting diverging goal sets?

As a community, we worked hard to pick a direction. As a community, I believe we want to stick to the directions we defined. I wish when politicians got involved in defining our directions for us that they would put in as much effort and consultation with experts into their decisions. Any politician can find 1 PhD to back up their ideas. That’s a problem. Somehow, as a community, we need to give up our cat like behavior when dealing with politics to give a unified voice to our decadel survey and the political visions of our professional associations. Only as a united voice can we somehow get congress share our vision.

I hope Michael Bode’s vision can be more lasting than our own US vision. Good luck Michael, may the force of the political pocket books be with you.

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