Today was the first day of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee meeting at NSF headquarters. The Committee is established by an act of Congress to oversee the interagency cooperation and interaction and etc between NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics and NASA Astrophysics (and also DOE Cosmic Frontiers). I learned a huge amount about science at the meeting, including about a conflict between VLBI and Hipparcos parallaxes to the Pleaides. That's Huge. Of course we looked at the outrageously awesome ALMA image of HL Tau showing actual Oh-My-God rings. I learned that the black hole at the center of M82 is no longer thought to be a black hole (need to learn more about that!) and that there is a too-massive black hole found at an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy. Wow, science rocks!
We went on to learn that science rocks a lot less than I thought, for various reasons: The proposal success rates in most individual-investigator money grants are at 15 to 20 percent, with DOE being higher but with most of their (DOE's) grants going to groups already working on DOE-priority projects. These low success rates may be distorting the "game" of applying for funding; indeed it appears that proposers are writing more proposals per year than ever before.
I learned (or re-learned) that the federal budgets (primarily from the executive branch) that involve ramping down work on NASA SOFIA are also budgets that involve ramping down the whole NASA Astrophysics budget by the same amount. That is, the honesty of the community and its willingness to make hard choices about what's important leads to budget reductions. Those are some terrible incentives being set up for the community. The agencies and the powers that be above them are creating a world in which honesty and frugality is rewarded with budget cuts. I guess that's why the defense part of the US government is so (a) large and (b) dishonest. Thanks, executive branch! Okay, enough goddamn politics.