Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo Observatory has been struggling under reduced budgets and threats of further cuts that would require mothballing or closing the facility. The observatory, used for ionospheric, planetary radar and radio astronomy studies as well as monitoring near-Earth asteroids, is trying to diversify its support base to offset future reductions. Credit: Richard Behnke

In the past 5 years, the National Academy has released important decadal surveys that have far-reaching implications on federal funding of existing and future large facilities in the fields of astronomy, space physics, and ocean science. Faced with constrained and possibly decreasing budgets, federal agencies struggle to implement the important recommendations contained in these community-based documents. Unsurprisingly, they are looking carefully at current and future funding for their existing large facilities.

Funding for large facilities is perhaps the easiest target for budget cuts. Facilities are expensive, and oversimplified or misguided metrics of costs versus benefits promote an idea of bloat and waste. This can lead to a tunnel vision approach to budget reductions with a lopsided focus on large existing facilities.

Discoveries in geospace are driven by breakthrough observations, and many are only made possible by large, powerful facilities.

The actual situation is more nuanced. Decisions regarding longstanding facilities must be made only after careful consideration of all possible impacts on the scientific enterprise because these facilities provide observing platforms, data streams, and educational assets for multiple users. We must also keep in mind that discoveries in geospace, as in astronomy and many other scientific fields, are driven by breakthrough observations, and many of these observations are only made possible by large, powerful facilities.

To ensure a balanced and fair outcome, the research communities must continue to be fully engaged in funding decisions by providing objective and thoughtful input to relevant agencies.

Facilities Versus Research Costs in National Science Foundation Divisions: Taking Stock

The Astronomy Decadal Survey, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics [National Research Council, 2010], resulted in a comprehensive portfolio review by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST). The portfolio review committee was asked to “examine the balance across the entire portfolio of activities” and “maximize progress on the compelling science” described in the report by “balancing the recommendations for new facilities, instrumentation and programmatic enhancements with the capabilities enabled by existing facilities, grants programs, and other supported activities.” AST is currently implementing the recommendations of the portfolio review by evaluating the past and future effectiveness of several long-standing observatories.

Similarly, the Ocean Science Decadal Survey, Sea Change: 2015–2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences [National Research Council, 2015], recommended rebalancing the funding in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences between facilities and grants to best accomplish its science goals. Subsequently, on 11 May 2015, NSF committed to diverting ocean science funding from facility support to individual investigator awards.

Currently, the Geospace Section (GS) within NSF’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which supports the bulk of NSF-supported space physics research, is conducting its own portfolio review in order to create a funding wedge to implement the recommendations of the Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey, Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society [National Research Council, 2013]. This portfolio review will inevitably be faced with the same problem of determining the appropriate balance between facility support and individual investigator awards.

At the highest level, NSF investment in facilities adheres to National Science Board guidance that it should remain within a range of 22% to 27% of the agency budget. However, the fractional investment in facilities supported by different NSF divisions can vary greatly. Figure 1 shows the relative level of funding for facilities in selected NSF divisions, according to the 2012 facilities portfolio review by the National Science Board’s Subcommittee on Facilities [National Science Board, 2012]. Figure 1 demonstrates the wide range of facility support within different disciplines. Clearly, some research areas are more dependent on facilities than others.

Fig. 1. Research infrastructure costs for selected National Science Foundation divisions as a percentage of division budgets. Divisions represented are Emerging Frontiers (EF) from the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO); Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI) and Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems (ECCS) from the Directorate for Engineering (ENG); Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS), Earth Sciences (EAR), and Ocean Sciences (OCE) from the Directorate for Geosciences (GEO); and Astronomical Sciences (AST), Materials Research (DMR), and Physics (PHY) from the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). Also shown is the Antarctic (ANT) program of what was then known as the Office of Polar Programs (OPP). From National Science Board [2012].

How Can We Gauge the Value of Facilities?

In the absence of an optimum proportion of facility funding that could be applied to all disciplines, communities must establish their own criteria for gauging the appropriate level of facility support. Given that facilities are intricately woven into the fabric of research communities, any criteria need to capture all the potential impacts.

The facilities supported by NSF’s Geospace Section represent an excellent case study for evaluating how to allocate costs. Already operating under reduced budgets, facilities that could face cuts include incoherent scatter radars, a global array of upper atmospheric lidars, and the high-frequency Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN), as well as the Active Magnetosphere and Planetary Electrodynamics Response Experiment (AMPERE), a program that makes use of data from the Iridium satellite constellation. The funding level for facilities in the Geospace Section has historically been between 30% and 35% of its total budget. As with all estimates of facility investments, these percentages include a significant amount of funding for staff scientists beyond the direct costs of maintaining operations, but they still serve to elucidate investment trends over time.

Most important for determining the appropriate level of funding for facilities is to quantify the science they support.

Most important for determining the appropriate level of funding for facilities is to quantify the science they support. Facilities are instructed to keep careful records of the number of users, the experiments conducted, the number of hours of operations, the publications resulting from facility data, and other metrics needed to assess true scientific value. Scientific leadership is also important and can be measured by the extent to which facilities and facility scientists are involved in community-based activities and remain at the cutting edge of research in their respective areas.

Another metric for determining whether a discipline has a healthy ratio of facility support is whether such support has inhibited the initiation of new programs. For instance, over the past 20 years, the Geospace Section has maintained facility funding at nearly constant levels while simultaneously initiating many high-priority community-driven activities. Examples include proposal opportunities for space weather, incentives for research institutions to develop faculty positions in space sciences, and the development and launch of cubesats, all of which were carved from existing budgets without additional funding over inflation.

The current network of geospace facilities has been developed over many years on the basis of the observational needs of a research area that is truly global. The recent recognition that the geospace and heliophysics domains are intimately linked makes it necessary to have comprehensive, global measurements.

In other disciplines, the new facilities have enhanced capabilities over those that are being replaced. That is not the case for geospace facilities. Loss of facilities creates gaps in global observational capabilities. Although relying on foreign partners to fill these gaps is a tempting strategy, there will be a cost, both financially and politically, for U.S. access to facilities operated by other countries. Such a reliance on foreign partners represents a strategic movement in a direction that federal agencies should consider very carefully.

Facilities Do More Than Generate Data

For NSF’s Geospace Section, facilities do far more than provide data and observational support for “nonfacility” scientists. To be effective, each facility depends on some level of internal scientific effort to maintain and develop its capabilities.

If funds in geospace were to be shifted from facilities to the grants programs, these facility scientists would almost certainly write proposals and request funding in competition with other space science researchers. Having these scientists compete on an equal basis with others certainly has a great deal of merit, but in the overall financial picture it will most likely result in only limited cost savings. How much science support versus operational support should exist at each facility is complex and requires a careful study all by itself.

Other considerations in assessing the level of facility support include the role facilities play in supporting large national programs. For example, the geospace facilities play a key role in the high-priority scientific research enabled by NASA missions, including the current Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) and Van Allen Probes satellite programs and the future Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) and Global-Scale Observations of the Limb and Disk (GOLD) missions.

It is hard to imagine a thesis topic in geospace science that wouldn’t benefit from the availability of data from one or more of the geospace facilities.

Similarly, facilities support the education of young scientists and public outreach. The NSF geospace facilities have provided data and observations used for many master’s and doctoral dissertations. It is hard to imagine a thesis topic in geospace science that wouldn’t benefit from the availability of data from one or more of the geospace facilities.

The facilities also provide a home base for important summer schools and research experience for undergraduate programs, where students have an opportunity to have hands-on exposure to world-class instruments. An additional, less quantifiable factor is inspiration. What is the value, for example, of having more than 80,000 Puerto Rican school children each year gaze at, and be inspired by, the giant antenna at the Arecibo Observatory? We think it is immense, but such achievements are often neglected in assessing the value of a facility.

The Danger of Diverting Funds Away from Facilities

For the Geospace Section, the undeniable value of the facilities makes any reductions in the facility budgets risky. It is certainly true that some cost savings in the facility operating costs through consolidation of effort, partnerships with industry, and perhaps increased funding from other agencies should be possible. These are ongoing efforts that have worked extremely well in the past.

The case for geospace facilities is illustrative of similar challenges being faced by other disciplines that rely heavily on continually improving observational capabilities. Admittedly, not everything can be continued at present funding levels, but reductions should be based on meaningful criteria applied across all disciplinary investments while also minimizing any disruptive impact to ongoing science efforts.

Sunsetting of existing facilities that still have scientific value should be made only after thorough exploration of all possible funding alternatives. The scientific community must be steadfast in seeking solutions that strengthen, rather than weaken, the overall research enterprise.


National Research Council (2010), New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D.C.

National Research Council (2013), Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society, Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D.C.

National Research Council (2015), Sea Change: 2015–2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences, Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D.C.

National Science Board (2012), Annual portfolio review of facilities, Rep. NSB-12-44, Natl. Sci. Found., Arlington, Va., 18 July.

—Richard Behnke, SciencePrime, LLC, Arlington Va.; email: behnke@science-prime.com; and Robert Robinson, InSpace, Inc., Arlington, Va.

Citation: Behnke, R., and R. Robinson (2016), The case for multiuser facilities, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO044155. Published on 29 January 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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