14 February 2024

Realizing Decadal Priorities in Astronomy

Kelsey Johnson

Kelsey Johnson University of Virginia

AAS President's Message

I am writing to share my perspective on the importance of advancing decadal priorities in the astronomical sciences, and more importantly, to ask you to help the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in its advocacy efforts over the coming weeks and months. The AAS continues to call on leaders in Congress and the White House, and on the directors of the agencies responsible for implementing decadal recommendations — NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science — to make the substantial investments needed to enable awe-inspiring breakthroughs by US scientists in this and future decades. 

The AAS has a longstanding commitment to supporting the recommendations of the US National Academies’ decadal surveys for astronomy and astrophysics, planetary science and astrobiology, and solar and space physics. These recommendations include investments in new telescope facilities, space missions, and programs to enable investigations in compelling scientific areas — and to support the individual researchers who undertake those investigations. Support for these investments has allowed US scientists to play leading roles in making ground-breaking discoveries, for which every US taxpayer shares credit. 

With the recent release of two decadal surveys and the impending release of a third (on solar and space physics), we stand at the threshold of new discoveries that will transform our understanding of the cosmos. Crossing this threshold will require supporting the design and development, construction, and operations and maintenance of globally competitive telescopes, while still preserving an appropriate balance with smaller-scale research programs. Astronomy is not unique in this regard. As reflected in the National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report, in fields ranging from physics to ocean science, maintaining US leadership at the cutting edge of scientific discovery requires investments in new, more capable facilities (like particle colliders, gravitational wave observatories, and ocean drilling vessels) as well as in the scientific teams that use them. Higher operating costs for such new facilities can be partly offset by investments from new partners or the retirement of older, less capable facilities, guided (in astronomy) by the recommendations of other community-based processes that have the full support of the AAS. However, it is counterproductive to try to fully offset higher operating costs by slashing funding for individual researchers: new facilities will yield no discoveries without scientists who can use them. 

As President of the AAS, I have registered concerns about the limited progress made to date in implementing the recommendations of the most recent (Astro2020) Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics. Among space missions, the highest-priority Astro2020 recommendation for NASA is a program for developing transformational new “Great Observatories,” of which the first (now known as the Habitable Worlds Observatory) would be a large ultraviolet/optical/infrared space telescope that provides revolutionary capabilities across astrophysics, including the detection of chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of at least 25 potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars. Among ground-based facilities, the highest-priority Astro2020 recommendation for the NSF is participation in the US Extremely Large Telescope project, which would give all US astronomers access to powerful new optical/infrared telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres. The Astro2020 report also offers strong endorsements of a radio-wavelength Next Generation Very Large Array and of a Cosmic Microwave Background Stage 4 experiment to probe the early history of the universe (the latter to be funded by the Department of Energy in addition to NSF). These are exciting and ambitious projects. They are capable of making ground-breaking discoveries, maintaining US leadership in the face of rising international competition, exciting broad public interest and enthusiasm, and helping attract some of the “Missing Millions” to pursue careers in STEM fields. However, their promise will only be realized if policy makers in Washington ensure that NASA and NSF receive levels of funding sufficient to build and operate the facilities and to support their users. 

Previous decadal surveys have led to the development and construction of world-class facilities like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the JWST, and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, whose powerful capabilities have revolutionized (and will continue to revolutionize) our understanding of how planets, stars, and galaxies form and evolve over cosmic time.

In the coming weeks and months, you will be hearing more about how AAS members can help make the case for the next generation of critical investments for the future of our field. As a first step, I urge you to monitor the AAS Policy Blog and to contact your members of Congress regarding fiscal year 2024 funding through our recent Action Alert

Thank you for helping to protect the future of astronomical sciences.  

Kelsey Johnson
AAS President