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NASA ditches Earth observation missions amid 'troubling' US science budget

24 May 2017

Trump proposals slammed but space agency and others remain committed to some key optics-related developments, including LIGO and telescopes.

NASA is to pull funding for several Earth observation missions that were due to carry optics and photonics equipment, but remains committed to many other high-profile projects – including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and direct exoplanet imaging.

Robert Lightfoot, the space agency’s acting administrator, said that he was pleased with a top-line budget figure of $19.1 billion for fiscal year 2018, representing only a slight decrease in NASA’s current spend, but admitted that some tough decisions would be needed.

“The hard choices are still there. We can’t do everything, but we can certainly do a lot,” he said, as several other federal agencies detailed much larger cuts to science spending envisaged in the Trump administration’s proposals.

Support for laser comms
In his “state of NASA” report, Lightfoot confirmed that several Earth observation missions would be ditched. They include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI).

Optics-related equipment that had been due to fly on those missions includes three high-resolution grating spectrometers on OCO-3 that would have collected space-based measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide gas for climate studies. It was due to launch in 2018.

Kit on board CLARREO PF – another mission dedicated to climate studies – was to have included an infrared spectrometer and a reflected solar imaging spectrometer, and would have acted as a “NIST in space”, providing reference standards for other sensors in orbit.

PACE was to have used an industry-built multi-angle polarimeter to characterize aerosols – airborne particles that are central to cloud formation and another key element of climate science and modelling studies.

On the other hand, Lightfoot confirmed plans to launch JWST - currently being prepared for cryogenic testing - next year, along with the future WFIRST mission, and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

In terms of space technology development, Lightfoot added: “The budget supports our diverse portfolio, which is creating a technology pipeline to solve the most difficult challenges in space - from solar electric propulsion to laser communications and cross cutting technologies that benefit our work across the board.”

NASA also announced that it would support “novel partnership opportunities” with commercial partners focused on small satellites (including CubeSats) to work on high-priority science goals, and – more specifically – the development of adaptive optics technology to detect exoplanets, look for signs of past or present life on Mars and other planetary bodies, and to “take the pulse of our planet.”

Science budget ‘troubling’
Lightfoot’s remarks came in response to the Trump administration’s overall budget proposal, which confirmed widespread expectations of a sharp decline in science and technology development funding: in that context, NASA appears to have escaped relatively unscathed.

Reacting to the wider budget, described as “dead on arrival” by some and potentially subject to major changes as it passes through Congress, optics.org publisher SPIE described the proposed cuts as “troubling”.

At just over $6.6 billion, the fiscal 2018 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) would be 11 per cent below the fiscal 2016 level, and support 8000 new research grants – down from the current 8800.

“At first glance this is a very troubling proposal, which calls for historic cuts to US research and development funding,” said SPIE’s CEO Eugene Arthurs. “For science and technology, it seems a turning away from investing in the future, from what has brought prosperity and health to our nation and to the world. The final say is with Congress, which we hope will have a different view of the path to a better future.”

The Optical Society (OSA) also weighed in, with its CEO Liz Rogan saying: “The proposed budget will cut critical investments in research and development at a number of science-related government agencies, including the National Institute[s] of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

“Reduced federal funding to these and other agencies will impact optics and photonics enabled innovation and hinder US competitiveness in [the] global marketplace.”

Looking on the bright side, NSF director France Córdova confirmed that construction of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), set to become the world's largest solar telescope, would continue, alongside ongoing support for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile.

In addition, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), described by Córdova as NSF's largest ever investment, will continue to receive backing. "We will continue commissioning planned upgrades to the laser interferometer systems for the LIGO experiment, which discovered gravitational waves in 2015," she said. "These upgrades will allow improved sensitivity to cosmic phenomena at vast distances from Earth."

BRAIN initiative protected; DOE research slashed
Among other major administrative funders of optics-related technology development and applications, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – key to high-profile projects like the Cancer Moonshot and the BRAIN initiative – could have its overall budget slashed by more than one-fifth.

At $26.9 billion, the 2018 request is $7.7 billion below the fiscal 2017 total, with Science magazine reporting that the Trump budget envisages significant savings by cutting the overhead payments currently made to universities, on top of basic research grants.

However, the budget proposal does at least protect planned support for the Cancer Moonshot and BRAIN initiative, and those projects should receive close to $500 million in 2018 funding, via a separate stream to the main NIH budget.

Also set to suffer major cuts is the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. At just under $4.5 billion, it would be down 17 per cent if enacted, and at its lowest level – in terms of absolute dollars, unadjusted for inflation – in a decade.

Those cuts appear to be heavily skewed towards environmental and biological work, which are braced for funding squeezes in excess of 40 per cent. The “ARPA-E” program, the energy equivalent of the defense department’s DARPA efforts, also appears earmarked for closure.

The DOE’s basic energy sciences program – which supports user facilities including synchrotrons – would also take a significant hit, with Science reporting that two of five nanoscience centers at the office's ten national labs would close and that the Stanford Synchrotron-Radiation Lightsource would be mothballed after three months.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also looking at a dramatic cut in research spending, with the budget for its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), dropping from $514 million to $400 million under the proposal.

Reaction: Congress should oppose ‘devastating’ cuts
Overall, the White House regime is calling for what amounts to a 13 per cent cut in federal spending on basic research, equivalent to a decrease of $4.3 billion.

Among several organizations to slam the proposed spending plan – aside from optics-focused SPIE and OSA – was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Its CEO Russ Holt said that the double-digit cuts would “devastate America’s science and technology enterprise.”

The Washington, DC, based Science Coalition added: “The extreme funding cuts to science agencies and related programs included in the budget released today would harm America’s research enterprise and our nation’s leadership in scientific discovery.”

The American Physical Society (APS) joined the criticism, urging Congress to reject the proposed cuts and saying that they would “jeopardize the country's standing as a global leader.”

“The president made his proposal, but it’s up to Congress to determine the budget," said APS president Laura Greene. Referring to Congress’ prior rejection of Trump's proposals for the fiscal 2017 budget, she added: “Congress has already shown that it recognizes the crucial role that science plays in US competitiveness.”

SPIE’s government affairs director Jennifer Douris echoed those thoughts, noting that final decisions on funding levels for fiscal year 2018 would ultimately be decided by Congress.

She pointed out: “Along that line, in the recently finalized fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill, Congress provided for an increase in federal R&D by five percent above fiscal year 2016 levels – despite a request for significant cuts by the Administration.”

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