Where Did the $30 Million For Astronomy Go?
Bethany Johns American Astronomical Society (AAS)
Congress directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide $30 million to support the design and development of the next generation astronomy facilities in the FY23 Omnibus Appropriations. We were excited to seemingly make some progress on the Astro2020 decadal survey ground-based priorities. However, the NSF Astronomy (AST) Division did not get the $30 million in their FY23 budget. Furthermore, the slight increase in the AST Division’s budget in the FY24 President’s Budget Request (PBR) released last March does not seem to cover the costs of operations and maintenance (O&M) of new facilities coming online. Where did the $30 million for astronomy go? How is NSF paying for facilities O&M?
The FY23 Omnibus Appropriations was passed right after Christmas in 2022, about three months late (the US Federal fiscal year starts on 1 October of the previous year). Astronomy was the only scientific discipline to get a special mention in the FY23 NSF Appropriations explanatory statement:
“Astronomy. — NSF is encouraged to provide appropriate levels of support for operating its current facilities, developing instrumentation, and preparing for investments in future world-class scientific research facilities. As such, the agreement provides up to $30,000,000 for NSF to support the design and development of next generation astronomy facilities recommended in the 'Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020' (Astro2020). NSF is also expected to support a balanced portfolio of astronomy research grants by scientists and students engaged in ground-breaking research.”
Appropriators likely intended for this funding to augment the NSF AST Division budget, which is where design and development of next generation astronomy facilities is typically funded. But this did not happen. The most current numbers in the FY24 PBR show that the AST Division went from $283.61 million in FY22 to $292.33 in FY23, an increase of about $8.7 million, which is much less the amount directed by Congress. Where did the $30 million for astronomy go?
The FY24 budget request for the AST Division is $303.33 million, an increase of $11.0 million (3.8%) from $292.33 in FY23. The AST Division is within the Mathematical and Physical Science (MPS) Directorate. All but one of the divisions in MPS got an even $11.0 million increase. We often hear that NSF does not like to play favorites among the scientific disciplines and typically tries to allocate funding equally. But the EXACT amount of $11.0 million increase to ALL the divisions in MPS goes beyond abstaining from playing favorites. It seems more like poor budget planning.
The divisions within the other large Directorates (BIO, CISE, ENG, GEO, and SBE) did not get the evenly spread increase that the MPS divisions got; each of their division’s increases are unique. These divisions seem to have budgets that increase/decrease at an amount that enables them to do the science they plan to do. The anomaly of the MPS divisions being allocated exactly equal increases is another mystery to add to the missing $30 million for astronomy.
The mystery becomes even more befuddling as the budget for the one MPS division that increased more than any of the other divisions, the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI), shot up by an increase of $97.45 million. What does OSI fund? What does it need such an increase?
The slight increase of 3.8% for the AST Division in the FY24 budget request is not the "ambitious, inspirational and aspirational,” kickoff of the Astro2020 decadal survey we hoped for. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is expected to be completed in late 2024 and the FY24 PBR shows $33.8 million is needed for its O&M costs, an increase of $11.7 million compared to $22.1 million in FY23. The O&M costs for Rubin exceed the AST Division budget increase of $11.0 million.
In fact, the specific AST Division budget line for infrastructure cannot explain how it’s paying for any increases in costs to design and develop, nor operate and maintain any astronomy facilities. In FY24 the AST Division Infrastructure budget is $219.95 million, an increase of $4.74 million (2.2%) from FY23. The tiny increase of $4.74 million in the AST Division Infrastructure budget cannot pay for the $33.8 million in O&M costs for the Rubin Observatory. A similar story plays out in FY23 PBR, where there are O&M facilities costs that do not seem to show up in the AST budget. O&M costs must be paid elsewhere from within NSF.
The Facility Operation Transition program in NSF’s Integrative Activities (IA) Directorate is intended to help buffer the budget shock to divisions, like AST, as facilities come out of construction and into operations. This program supposedly began around 2019 after the National Science Board’s Congressionally requested 2018 report entitled “Study of Operations and Maintenance Costs for NSF Facilities” (NSB-2018-17) recommended the program. However, it seems that the program was only funded in FY20 and FY21 at $10 million in both years. There is no indication that it has been funded since.
In FY20, these funds supported facilities O&M costs in BIO ($3.0 million), GEO ($3.0 million), and MPS ($4.0 million). In FY21, these funds were distributed to BIO ($7.50 million) and MPS ($2.50 million). The program’s funding is less than 10% of the O&M costs of these facilities, so that most of the funding remains the responsibility of the managing directorates.
Congress reauthorized this program in the CHIPS and Science Act in July 2022. The program is authorized to continue for another 5 years. Also, the legislation increases the threshold the program shall pay for O&M costs, from 10% to 50%.
The Facility Operation Transition is requesting $12.0 million in FY24, although we do not know what facilities they plan to support.
The Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI), formerly the Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (OMA), used to be the smallest division in the MPS Directorate. The OSI budget request is $315 million in FY24, an increase of almost 50% compared to $220.15 million in FY23. The OSI budget is now the third largest in MPS, with DMR and PHY being the first and second, respectively. This level of increase for OSI is astronomical compared to the average 4% increase of all the other divisions in MPS. What makes OSI so special?
The largest increase in OSI budget is the infrastructure budget line, from $60.95 million in FY23 to $107.63 in FY24 PBR, a 77% increase. The FY24 budget documents are not as specific as previous years, so we do not know what different infrastructure projects the funding is going toward. There is one clue in the single paragraph that describes the funding for this division (p. MPS – 11):
“OSI will supplement facility funding related to deferred and major maintenance projects as well as design and development of next generation facilities.”
The NSF budget documents lack transparency regarding where funding is going. This is a stark contrast to NASA who made it clear that Mars Sample Return overruns will be paid at the expense of the astrophysics and heliophysics programs. We cannot be certain where the $30 million Congress allocated to NSF for astronomy has been placed within the NSF budget. Nor can we be certain how NSF is funding facility O&M costs such as those for the Rubin Observatory. The AST Division budget has not increased to include these amounts. We have a few clues that the Facility Operation Transition program likely funded some O&M costs. OSI also seems a likely place for astronomy facilities funding given its large funding increases.
NSF must develop a sustainable plan for supporting the design and development, construction, and operations and maintenance costs of its large facilities, while preserving an appropriate balance with funding foundational grants programs, to maintain American leadership in building world-class scientific facilities, as recommended in both the Astro2010 and Astro2020 decadal surveys. NSF must invest in multi-billion, globally competitive, world-class scientific facilities to maintain US leadership in the astronomical sciences, ensure equitable access to observatories and data collections, and inspire the next generation of the STEM technical workforce.