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The following article consists of notes on a talk by John Bahcall, an astronomer at the Institute of Advanced Studies. The talk was given at the 1996 Joint Mathematical Meetings in Orlando, Florida, and the notes have been compiled by Gene Klotz, Project Director of the Math Forum.


 Issues at Stake

The astronomy community has established research priorities by consensus. The process facilitated some projects, and stimulated and organized thought, but it was difficult. The work was begun in 1988 and was completed in 14 months.

It seems to Bahcall that mathematical activities are already prioritized, that there's a finite amount of money which is distributed to math institutes, research areas, computers, conferences, postdocs, travel, etc. At this time, however, activities are not prioritized in a logical way, but by history and other forces. The question is whether to accept existing priorities or to try to do things more rationally.

 How Astronomers Established Research Priorities

The astronomers began by building a consensus. Letters were written to department chairs and visits were made to agencies, in part to discover what information they would like, what form they would like it in, etc. Visits were also made to members of congress and OMB. Selected advice was solicited from abroad (regarding judgment and research ability), and from representative and respected researchers. Fifteen panels comprised of some 300 astronomers were formed. The vice-chairs of the panels all served on a survey committee. The panel members solicited advice, articles were published in newsletters, and there were open sessions at meetings. Every astronomer had the opportunity to provide input.

Before the panels commenced, their members wrote essays on what their panels should do. The panels gave presentations and solicited community input. A core group of three persons per panel wrote up each panel's recommendations. Bahcall wrote an article on the operation for the National Academy of Science, which appeared in Science (Vol. 251, March 22, 1991, pp. 1412-1413).

Some technical steps that worked: an executive secretary played an important role. Scientific potential was made the sole criterion for prioritization. Small projects were considered before large ones. By way of preparation, after studies were made straw ballots were taken. For fine tuning, a strawman list was made. A policy panel and working papers served as lightning rods.

Bahcall recommended that mathematics consider the following potential funding sources: NSF, DOD, EPA, DOE, NSA, Wall Street, and the aircraft industry.

Astronomers have apparently achieved considerable success, particularly in setting their own priorities.

A question from the floor asked whether areas of theoretical research were also prioritized. They were. A primary goal was garnering more money for their discipline. Astronomers now have a very good name on The Hill and are protected. Agencies think they have their house in order and they are well regarded.


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