UCSC astronomers help shape influential report on national priorities for their field

The Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics identifies the most compelling science goals and provides recommendations for funding agencies

cover of Astro2020 report
The Astro2020 decadal survey is a highly influential report presenting the astronomy community's top priorities for the coming decade.
Jonathan Fortney
Jonathan Fortney (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)
Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz
Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz (Photo by Steve Kurtz)

Every ten years, a committee of U.S. astronomers produces a Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, presenting funding agencies with the astronomy community’s key science goals for the next decade and recommendations for the programs and projects needed to achieve those goals.

Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, served on the 20-member steering committee for the “Astro2020” decadal survey, “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s,” released on Thursday, November 4. The highly anticipated report identifies the most compelling science challenges and frontiers in astronomy and astrophysics and presents a comprehensive research strategy to advance the field in the next decade and beyond.

“It was a huge honor to be asked to serve on the steering committee,” Fortney said. “It’s going to be a really exciting next decade for the field of astronomy and astrophysics.”

A top priority in the report is a large space-based telescope mission with the goal of searching for signs of life on other planets outside our solar system and providing a powerful infrared/optical/ultraviolet space telescope for general astrophysics.

“The question of life on other planets is something people have wondered about since we first started looking up at the stars, so it’s not just the science community but we think the public also sees this as an important thing to investigate,” said Fortney, who directs the Other Worlds Laboratory at UCSC.

This is the seventh decadal survey in astronomy, and for the first time the report addressed issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC, co-chaired a panel on the “State of the Profession and Societal Impacts” which addressed these issues.

“Our guiding principle was that the pursuit of science is inseparable from the people who animate it, and if they are not supported we will not get the best science,” Ramirez-Ruiz said.

The survey recommended several programs to support early-career researchers, with a strong emphasis on broadening access, removing barriers to participation, and creating an environment that eschews harassment and discrimination of all kinds. Among other things, the report recommended that funding agencies and professional societies should address harassment and discrimination as forms of scientific misconduct. All of the panel’s recommendations can be found in Appendix N of the report.

“The health of our field depends on thinking about these priorities,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “We need to remove barriers where there are bottlenecks in our field that are keeping people from fully participating and causing major losses of talent. This is long overdue, but I give a lot of credit to Fiona Harrison and Rob Kennicutt [co-chairs of the steering committee] for creating this panel and supporting us.”

Organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Astro2020 decadal survey was sponsored by the major funding agencies for the field—NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE). To produce the final report, the steering committee weighed recommendations from 13 panels, as well as hundreds of white papers submitted by the astronomy community at large. Each of the panel reports is published as an appendix to the survey.

“The agencies really try their best to align with the decadal priorities, so the highest priority recommendations typically get done,” Fortney said.

The key science challenges identified in the survey include understanding planetary systems, identifying habitable worlds, and searching for signs of life on other planets; using a range of complementary observations—from radio to gamma rays, gravitational waves, neutrinos, and high-energy particles—to investigate the most energetic processes in the universe and address larger questions about the nature of dark matter, dark energy, and cosmological inflation; and understanding the origins and evolution of galaxies, from the cosmic webs of gas that feed them to the formation of stars.

The survey’s recommendations include a new approach for planning and implementing the next generation of space telescopes, encouraging NASA to create a new “great observatories” program that would provide early investment in technology development to lower the risks and costs of projects.

For ground-based facilities, the top priority recommendation is for a major investment in the U.S. Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) Program. The report said NSF should invest in at least one and ideally both of the ELTs—the Thirty Meter Telescope (sited in either Hawaii or the Canary Islands) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (sited in Chile). The survey also recommends a new array of radio telescopes and a next-generation facility for observations of the cosmic microwave background.

Fortney said the committee began meeting in 2019 and soon had its plans disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “We had two in-person meetings, and then everything else was online,” he said. “It would have been nice to be able to see everyone in person more.”

More details of the Astro2020 decadal survey are available online at nap.edu/resource/26141/interactive.