Ep. 403: Funding Big Science: from Alma to LIGO to TMT

How much of a challenge is it to get funding for large projects like LIGO? Fraser and Pamela discuss the difficult issues finding “Big Money.”

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Female Speaker 1: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online. The world’s longest running online Astronomy Degree program. Visit for more information.

Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast Episode 403: Funding Big Science. From Alma to LIGO to TNT. Welcome to Astronomy Cast; our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos. We help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Frazier Cain. I’m the polisher in the universe today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the Director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, how you doing?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well, how are you doing?

Fraser Cain: Awesome. Super excited about the Gravitational Waves Announcement. We, of course, predicted this years ago in Astronomy Cast. But it’s nice to see modern times catching up with the stuff that we’ve explained for our listeners over the last couple of years.

Dr. Pamela Gay: But ya’ know? It still wasn’t a sic sigma detection. They have spent billions – well at least many, many millions and they have like one, low signal. It’s a noise.

Fraser Cain: They’ll be more. Don’t worry.

Dr. Pamela Gay: There’s no way to predict that. That’s the thing. Anyways, I’ll shut up. I’m being a curmudgeon. I admit to this.

Fraser Cain: You are being a curmudgeon.

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Fraser Cain: Big science takes big money and big observatories make some of the biggest science there is. So, how do projects like this get conceived and funded and where does the money come from?

We’ve been doing this show long enough and you’ve been involved in this long enough and you’ve actually gone through whole cycles. You’ve been involved in helping pick big concepts. Helping suggest missions. So, this is really exciting. You’ve been a part of this whole cycle which is great.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. I’m starting to feel old.

Fraser Cain: Like one of the elder states people of this whole situation. It’s weird. So, let’s go back. Let’s talk about a big mission. Like the 30-meter telescope which is one of the ones or the absurdly overwhelmingly large observatory. In the end here’s this great big telescope perched atop a volcanic Hawaiian island. How did it get from concept through funding to get to an actual construction?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, so the TNT is actually currently cancelled but its budget is sitting there.

Fraser Cain: Well, let’s imagine, you know, it sits on the Canary Islands. Whatever. A big telescope perched atop of a Hawaiian volcanic island.

Dr. Pamela Gay: So, I think the key thing you brought up; this is a long process. And our funding for these massive facilities comes from two different places. It comes from the National Science Foundation and it comes from Nasa here in the United States. And globally we’re looking at beyond the United States, the funding comes from government agencies and from universities in other nations.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. We have the National Research Council here in Canada, is ours.

Dr. Pamela Gay: So, when we’re looking to build these giant facilities like the Canada, France, Hawaii telescope, which is oddly located in Arizona; in these cases, you’re looking to build – actually no. I lied. That one is located in Hawaii. It’s Win which is in Arizona. When you’re looking –

Fraser Cain: Hawaii is our Nix Provence.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. So, you have the Kenna, Hawaii, France telescope in Hawaii, you have Win which is, I believe, Wyoming. Yale, something that begins with an I, National Optical Astronomy Observatory. These are consortium telescopes. And as we build bigger and bigger and bigger facilities, they stop being four-letter acronyms and they become groups of 30, 40, 50 different institutions and nations, each adding in their own chunk to the pie.

Fraser Cain: But I mean that’s two different creatures, right? There’s the one of just having a like a single country like the United States, choosing a telescope, funding it and getting it built and then a consortium is like a whole other level of complexity. You just added orders of magnitude to the complexity. Can we just go back and figure how the single-country versions gets done?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, the single-country one is getting more and more rare. So, in either case the starting point is; you have a national vision for where science is going and you start with that vision. Here in the United States we call it the decadal survey. More and more nations are starting to come up with their own version of the decadal survey. And these are where you get key players in the scientific field of your respective nation and make them write reports and white papers and more reports and more white papers until you end up with a massive document that details what they see as the most important science questions to be answered in the next ten years and detail what are the spacecraft? What are the ground-based facilities that are needed to answer those questions?

Fraser Cain: And you were actually involved in the decadal survey. So, how did that happen? Like, did you get a call?

Dr. Pamela Gay: That’s actually how it happened.

Fraser Cain: Right. So, someone call you and said, Pamela we need your help?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Pretty much. At the highest levels the National Research Council or National Academies of Science in the United States will enjoin panels. And they start at the highest levels and these are the key players who then are like okay; so we need – no one person is an expert in everything and we admit to that most of the time. And so, that top panel will be like, and we need to enjoin people to discuss star formation. People to discuss gravitational lensing. People to discuss extragalactic astronomy and star formation.

And so, you get all of these different panels together. Some of them are discussing ideas like increasing diversity. Increasing education. Others are trying to figure out what are the facilities that we need to move forward? And so you end up with this tier of panels reporting to larger committees reporting to a core committee at the top that edits together a massive document that then goes to the National Science Foundation and to Nasa, and is used to set up funding goals. And this is where you start seeing looking at how the National Science Foundation breaks apart the funding that they get from Congress and says okay; so now we’re going to spend this much on extragalactic. This much on facilities. This much on planetary science. And that breakup reflects what’s needed to meet these decadal survey goals.

Fraser Cain: Okay. So, you know, again, you got the call. You joined the panel. You guys make a bunch of recommendations. Those recommendations they go to which? To the funding agencies? To the National Science Foundation and such? Is that right?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yep. Yes.

Fraser Cain: Okay. So, let’s imagine; let’s say that you know, someone says we would like to understand dark matter better and so someone says we should make the Dark Matter Observatory.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. That actually happened. That’s pretty much how it occurred. So, in this case dark energy was detailed as one of the most important problems we can try and solve. And so, funding was set aside to go for the W First instrument and for the Dark Energy Explorer, the het decks on the Hobby Eberly telescope. And so we have first of all, a many million-dollar instrument being built to go on a 9-meter telescope down in Texas and then an entire spacecraft that is working its way slowly towards construction and launch.

Fraser Cain: Okay. So, somebody – a panel, a group at the National Science Foundation sets aside this budget?

Dr. Pamela Gay: We’ll put out a call for proposals. Yeah.

Fraser Cain: You’ll put out a call for proposals. But who has approved the budget? Is it the executive of the National Science Foundation or is it the government? Who decides how much money is going to be spent?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Actually, at a certain level, is a mix of Congress and bureaucrats. So, you have the President’s budget will say ‘and we wish to give this much to the NSF and this much to Nasa’ and there’s a certain amount of more detailed goals. For instance, James Webb Space Telescope is a line item request. And with all of these budgets put in, there is large chunks that are set aside, like this amount will go towards facilities.

And then it’s in the hands of the folks at the National Science Foundation working through a competitive process to try and figure out; so of all of this facilities money that isn’t line-item allocations, how much of it goes towards things like the Arecibo radio telescope going? How much of it goes towards keeping the VLA going? And there are competitive processes where they say okay. Let’s compete to run these different organizations. And hey, anyone who has a good idea can compete.

Now, you many not necessarily win if you don’t have the staffing and the support and the institution to support you. But, it’s a competitive process where they come in and say we can do it for this amount of money. We’re getting this amount of additional funding from our university, from our institution from partnerships with other institutions. And over time you’ll actually see some facilities amount of funding change in terms of what’s paid for by the National Science Foundation versus what’s paid for out of individual university funding.

Fraser Cain: Right. So, I can kind of imagine that the decadal survey comes together. The recommendation is to build a dark energy, detect some kind of mission. So, then the National Science Foundation or Nasa goes out and says, hey everybody. Give us proposals for a mission that will help understand dark energy better. And then people will come back and say, we can do it for $100,000,000.00. We can do it for. If you give us $5,000,000,000.00 we can come up with a really cool spacecraft.

Dr. Pamela Gay: They usually do cap it.

Fraser Cain: They cap – so, they say like, but don’t spend more than 300 million dollars. Like, go crazy. But not that crazy. Because we’re not gonna listen.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly.

Fraser Cain: Okay great. So, the all the proposals come in and they pick one of the proposals? And then they turn around –

Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s one more –

Fraser Cain: So, one more proposal and then they turn around and say hey, we like this idea of this $300,000,000.00 mission. Start building it? Or like, give us another proposal or do they wanna turn around and take that idea and farm that out to a bunch of people? And say okay. We now know what that mission is gonna be. We want all of you 10 people to propose to build this mission? Or it’s the person who’s proposed the mission the one who’s then gonna build it?

Dr. Pamela Gay: It can go both ways or all of the above actually. So, for instance, if you have something that already exists that’s been around for a while they will re-compete management of it on a six to ten-year basis depending on what the facility is. So, the people who are running the very large array today, who are in fact running the National Radio Astronomy Observatory today. Those may not be the same people. Those may not be the same organizations. So, they will re-compete the entire organization on a regular basis.

Now, at a lower level, they will also say; okay, so, we really like your idea for this big-picture instrument. And say, Nasa is the person funding the spacecraft; because Nasa funds spacecraft. Now, we’re gonna compete out all the instruments on that spacecraft. So, they fund one body to be the main cooperative agreement or grant holder depending on the size of the spacecraft. And not they’re gonna compete out the instruments.

So, this can go down to a very fine level of; we like your idea but. Or hey, it’s a small project. Go for it. We trust you to do it on your own. It all depends on how much money is involved. How much they’re gonna micro-manage you and how much they’re likely to re-compete your idea along the way. Potentially even removing you from your own idea.

Fraser Cain: Well, that’s it. That’s gotta be heartbreaking, right? Is that you proposed a really clever idea for some cool coronagraph that nobody’s thought of, and it’s intriguing enough of an idea that you really need to put it back out to ten different people to see who can build you a coronagraph for the amount of money that you can afford who has the – you know, the person who comes up with the idea isn’t necessarily the team that’s best equipped to actually build the final project. So, I can imagine that’s a little frustrating.

So, okay. So, we’ve got the situation. We’ve got the – they’ve gone out for proposals. The proposals come back. One of the proposals is chosen for say $300,000,000.00. How does the funding then flow to the people who are gonna build this thing?

Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s usually through a cooperative agreement process. And it’s not gonna be $300,000,000.00. The entire budget for facilities for the National Science Foundation is like $150,000,000.00 to fund everything.

Fraser Cain: Well, I was thinking; okay, like a new telescope, a 30-meter telescope. That’s gonna cost big money to build.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. But they’re not gonna fund all of it up front. And it’s still not gonna cost that much money. A lot of people don’t really understand the full range and cost for these different facilities. So, we’re used to dealing with numbers like the Hubble Space Telescope; $2,500,000,000,000.00. But when we start looking at ground-based facilities, our most cutting-edge crazy facilities where we had to build the road there. Things like that we’re looking at the Atacama Telescope, ALMA. The radio array down in South America. That is as hard a project as you get. That was $1,400,000,000,000.00.

When you look at the large synoptic survey telescope, it’s entire cost for the National Science Foundation part is $466,000,000.00. So, it’s a much less expensive project. And that’s spread out over a couple of decades. Where the most expensive year that it has slated, they’re looking at $100,000,000.00 and that year it pretty much eats all the facilities budget for everybody by itself, already.

Fraser Cain: Right. So, but the point being that they are feeding that money in tranches over very long periods of time.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. And this is how we can do these projects.

Fraser Cain: Right. And if you failed to deliver on your milestones, somebody else can be selected to take over and finish the project.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Or, they just can it. There is a history of that happening. We were working in Texas. And by we, I mean people much older than me because I was still in college. There was a large synchrotron cyclotron that was being built under Texas. It was out of Waco ?

Fraser Cain: The super-conducting, super-collider?

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. And Congress didn’t like it. It was going over budget. It was behind schedule and they didn’t like it. And so they cancelled the project and it probably actually cost them more money to close out the project than it would’ve for them to let it just keep going.

Fraser Cain: Right. Okay. So, now I will permit the more complicated version of this story, which is the international-collaboration-size. So, like you just discussed, that’s how it works if it’s just an American-only or just a Canadian – and it’s only our National Research Council. So, what if it’s gonna be an international collaboration? How does that come together? And how does the money flow?

Dr. Pamela Gay: So, there you end up usually working with a central organization that gets formed to run the facility. And it may be running through a single university that has to put together all of these partnerships and that central university is the one that maintains the risk. You put together in some cases, full international treaty’s on ‘and German shall provide this much money, and Italy shall provide this much money’ and in exchange for providing that much money they get a certain share of the scientific time on the instrument.

So, you’re looking at a certain number of nights where they get as particular as ‘this institution will get this many dark nights, and this many grey nights and this much bright time’ and it’s very particular. So that you know exactly what you’re getting for your dollars. And sometimes, it’s not a specific ‘and we’re going to contribute this much money’. It’s going to be instead ‘and we’re going to contribute this instrument and in that case the institution that’s supplying the instrument is taking on, in some ways, even a greater risk. Because it could be that that instrument ends up costing them more than they thought.

So, it’s a very detailed set of contracts that go into place and you can end up on real trouble sometimes. The Gemini telescope ran into issues a few years ago where the United Kingdom was like, and we’re no longer going to be supporting this. So, suddenly you have a national government saying, we’re out. No more money for you. And Gemini still had to figure out how to pay its bills. And the US is actually kind of notorious for doing this to international collaborations to build spaceships where we’re like, and we’re no longer gonna be helping you build your spaceship. Or, we’re gonna do this all by ourselves.

Fraser Cain: We’ve got a new President.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. This happens. We’re kind of bastards.

Fraser Cain: Oh. So, I can imagine, right, the complexities of this. Like on the one end if you have something really simple, like it’s just a telescope and we’re all gonna collaborate our money. Some agency is the lead, right? And then – it could be government or it could be a university or it could be a research institution. And then they sign on part of it – I guess they do horse-trading to say; we need another $30,000,000,000.00. We’ll give you 1/7 of our observing time in exchange for your $30,000,000,000.00. You can have, you know, it’s like the way now my children negotiate; you can have every second Wednesday. You can use the observatory or they can say, we need a specific instrument. A very special kind of camera and you Italians are really have a lot of experience in making these kinds of cameras, so would you be willing to contribute that special camera to this telescope and in exchange you can use the telescope? Or your institutions can use it on these nights, those nights, whatever.

So, like on the one hand it really, it allows observatories to be built that just could never be built by any one country, any one research institution, whatever. But it generates a level of complexity and international trade law, etc. that’s just gotta be – you know, the bureaucracy’s just gotta be overwhelming.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it’s – the bureaucracy in the grand scheme of things, the Pacific Trade Agreements. Those are much more complicated. The real problem is the fact that once an instrument is going, once a facility is going, it really is possible for random partner to drop out and to essentially kill the entire project and everyone loses all of their money that has already been spent. And this is where you can get a lot of animosity.

Fraser Cain: Right. And these exist, right? There are half-build instruments out there that the funding just ran out and people pulled out and they just never got built.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. And in trying to look at all of this, the scientists are kind of caught in the middle. Because on one hand, we desperately want to see all of our facilities kept in place. But as the horse-trading goes on, we end up seeing things like right now, Arecibo is yet again, at risk. And it seems like Congress and NSF and NRAO have been systematically trying to get rid of Arecibo every year or two as long as I’ve been an adult.

Fraser Cain: Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s just one of those facilities they keep trying to kill.

Fraser Cain: And it’s the coolest facility.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it’s one of the cool ones and it’s doing solid science. It’s just not doing the sexy stuff that completely grabs every single headline. It’s doing the really necessary stuff and unfortunately –

Fraser Cain: But isn’t it the observatory that made contact with aliens? Or maybe I’m thinking of a book.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. I think that’s kind of a movie.

Fraser Cain: Okay. A movie. Yeah.

Dr. Pamela Gay: But it is the observatory that keeps imaging asteroids as they come tumbling past and help us to accurately measure their distances. Being able to accurately measure the distance to an asteroid kind helps us know if we’re gonna die or not and I’m in a favor – I’m in favor of knowing if we’re going to die.

Fraser Cain: Right. So, do you think though, I mean – with a lot of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked. The, you know, the easier discoveries. You know, we discovered Uranus, we discovered Neptune. We have determined a bunch of moons of Saturn. We’ve been able to see some Kuiper belt objects, that we’re moving into this future where the bigger and bigger science is gonna require much bigger, much more expensive instruments. Things like the 30-meter telescope. The ? was it the overwhelmingly large telescope? The, you know, whatever –

Dr. Pamela Gay: Extraordinarily large telescope.

Fraser Cain: Extraordinarily large. Whatever comes after the large hadron collider that these international collaborations of big science are gonna be the rule. And that’s the only way that you’re gonna be able to keep pushing the boundaries out is with ever more larger observatories. I mean you could build an observatory or the 30- meter telescope will Hubble’s butt when it finally gets built from the ground, right? It’ll kick it’s butt all the way from the ground up into orbit. But the thing has –

Dr. Pamela Gay: This is why we’re not replacing Hubble.

Fraser Cain: Right. But you need these. So, do you see this being, like, this is the rule? We better buckle down and get better an international science law?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I see it as actually a problem. So, right now we have this trend where in order to answer the cutting-edge, we haven’t got a clue, kind of problems. We need to build these many, many billion dollar facilities. And as we build more and more of these billion-dollar facilities, they eat up more and more of the overall facilities maintenance budget. LIGO which I’m a curmudgeon about cost $30,000,000.00 a year to maintain. Out of a budget that’s $100,000,000.00 to $120,000,000.00 a year from the National Science Foundation.

So, you’re looking at one facility that has been running since the mid-90’s and has made a single detection in that entire time that wasn’t even a sic sigma detection. I am a curmudgeon.

Fraser Cain: Totally.

Dr. Pamela Gay: I am into this. But it’s eating a huge, huge portion of the budget in hopes of making detections that confirm theories. It’s not even trying to push our understanding into new directions. It’s trying to say, yes, our understanding is correct.

As we build more and more of these single-purpose, single-science facilities, we are losing our ability to find out what we don’t know. Which is a really weird thing to say. But if you think about it, LIGO is my pet peeve because I look at its entire budget and I’m like, why didn’t we kill this and build LISA and just have higher quality in orbit? Personal problem. I admit to this. I’m a curmudgeon about LIGO.

Fraser Cain: Get over it already. Come on.

Dr. Pamela Gay: No.

Fraser Cain: Work through it. Talk to your therapist.

Dr. Pamela Gay: So, we have Planck and we have WMAP which have done outstanding things that have changed our understanding of the expansion of the universe. But at the end of the day, these were instruments that were built to study a single thing; the cosmic microwave background. They did have some ancillary science they could do but it was limited ancillary science.

With the hadron collider we have something that was designed to look for the Higgs boson. That’s where the majority of its budget ended up going. It is going to potentially do ancillary additional science looking for additional particles. But we’re spending huge portions of our budget on these facilities that can do a thing.

Now luckily we do have other things out there like the large synoptic survey telescope that has a primary purpose of making sure we don’t die by asteroid. But in the process of doing that primary purpose, it’s going to do probably more discovery of things we don’t even know exist than like, everything else out there.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. We talked to a guest on the Weekly Space Hangout that it’s gonna potentially find thousands of supernova each pass.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Now, we have a problem with this, though. In putting such a huge portion of our budget into these single-purpose instruments, LSST is a survey instrument. We don’t have any telescopes left to follow-up on what they discover. There’s a few out there. But universities are closing them up in favor of these giant systems. If we don’t have those 4-meter telescopes out there on what LSST discovers, how the heck do we turn these discoveries into real understanding?

Fraser Cain: But that sounds like it’s a sort of a balancing act that will never be complete, right? That you’ll be like, you’ll get ahead on the one place. You’ll be like oh, we’ve got too many single-purpose instruments that are turning out too much data and we don’t can’t do follow-up observations, so then the next round of funding will encourage a bunch of the more general-purpose instruments, and then you’re like, yeah but we’ve got these specific questions we really need answered and it’ll just go back and forth.

Dr. Pamela Gay: See, there’s a problem with that logic versus reality. And the problem is reality is we’re in a flat-budget scenario. If you’re in flat-budget scenario every time you build a new instrument you have to kill an old one. So, this means that we don’t get to keep the general-purpose telescopes that allow us to follow-up on what the single-purpose ones find, if we build the single-purpose ones. And as we’re building more and more of this hyper-expensive facilities, the ALMA’s of the world, these hyper-expensive facilities, they wipe out a large number of the small facilities.

One of the most terrifying things I saw is all of Kitt Peak National Observatory is currently somewhat in jeopardy. All of it. This is one of the great observatories in North America. And we may have to shut it down because we have too many other things like LSST that we’re trying to figure out how to pay for.

Fraser Cain: Okay fine; you’re in charge. You’re in charge. I hereby elect you Queen of Funding. And you can magically disappear any parts that you don’t like. And every project will come in on budget, on time. What would you do?

Dr. Pamela Gay: I have to admit that I would want things that were highly productive. LSST fits that model of highly productive science.

Fraser Cain: Yeah. Don’t you take that away from me.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. So, things that are out there and the data-per-dollar is high. I am in favor of using that as something of a criteria and this is what makes me so curmudgeonly about LIGO is you don’t have a lot of data-per-dollar. I thing that when it comes to projects that are low data-per-dollar, we need to spread out that budget so far that no one nation is really suffering under the weight of it.

When we look at things like LIGO, those are international collaborations, but that is $30,000,000.00 a year that we’re looking at in the numbers I found. And I admit I didn’t reconfirm them on the NSF website because the NSF website left me scratching my head. But he number I was finding was $30,000,000.00 a year to maintain it and that’s huge. That could go into so much other science.

Fraser Cain: All right. Well, on that note, thank you so much Pamela.

Dr. Pamela Gay: Thank you.

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