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The Intersection of Research and Politics Unexplored Territory:
Reading Between the Lines of National Science and Technology Policy
The Florida Multi-Object Near-Infrared Grism Observational Spectrometer
A BRIEF HISTORY OF FLAMINGOS
Giant Molecular Clouds1 are dominant sites for stellar formation in the Milky Way Galaxy. They have never
been thoroughly surveyed, however, because their sheer size and distribution in the Galaxy make them very
difficult to systematically examine. Until recently, this has impeded scientists from studying the distribution
and nature of the newly born stars they contain.
Using the FLAMINGOS instrument, the world's first near-infrared multi-object spectrometer, The Spectroscopy
Star Formation Survey Team has been able to obtain accurate surveys of many stars at one time within
several clouds2. The ability to image multiple objects at one time significantly reduces the amount of time
and resources needed to survey a spatial region, making what was once an impossible survey very feasible
Project Data Collection
FLAMINGOS is an instrument designed and built specifically to collect light in the near-infrared, between
0.9 micrometers and 2.5 micrometers. Astronomers involved with the FLAMINGOS project currently use
observations made at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Kitt Peak National Observatory in
During the observing run, team members target previously selected objects and image them in four
different wavelength bands - J, H, K and KS3. Each target is imaged several times over the course of the
observing run. It is important that the astronomers collect enough light to image and resolve faint objects.
Once the data has been successfully collected and uploaded onto the mainframe back at the University of Florida,
the process of image reduction and analysis begins.
Data Processing Introduction
To image multiple spectra of stars within the clouds and multiple spectra of galaxies within galactic clusters, the
team must first create special MOS multi-slit masking-plates that match the stars and galaxies in the fields
being surveyed. Before the masks can be machined, however, photometric star-field images must be
collected, reduced and analyzed in order to match the location of the target objects on the field with respect to
their real celestial position on the sky. Then, using star maps created by the National Naval Observatory and
2Mass4, the FLAMINGOS Pipeline5 assigns coordinates to newly discovered stars and galaxies with respect to
known stars within the field.
Once the target coordinates are determined, the masks are fabricated using the NdYAG laser, permanently
installed in the Bryant Space Science Center at the University of Florida. It is pertinent then that image reduction
be completed well in advance to subsequent observing runs in order to leave enough time for plate fabrication.
The team will not be able to fabricate plates at the observatory.
Due to inherent flaws in both the optical system and the infrared detector, the team members must spend
additional time recording flat field6 and dark field7 images while at the telescope. These pseudo data fields are
used to calibrate the raw data frames during the reduction phase, and help to eliminate noise. Noise is caused
by dust on the detector, variances in the sensitivity of the chip, dark current8 and stray cosmic rays that fall on
the detector during image acquisition.
After the data collection phase is complete, the reduction phase begins. Using specially written image
processing scripts, the raw data fields are sent through an image reduction pipeline9. After the dust, dark current
and stray cosmic rays are subtracted and the field is flattened to create an evenly distributed background, the
only thing left in the image is nebulosity, galaxies and stars. This final image, therefore, should contain nothing
but real data. Any extra noise in the field should be within reasonable levels and is usually rendered negligible.
Below are two data frames. Figure A is a raw data frame, and Figure B is a final drizzled image with all
noise subtracted and stacked, leaving nothing but real data with which to work.
Figure A. Raw Data Frame.
Figure B. Final Drizzled Frame.
To understand how research and politics intersect, it is necessary to speak with the people in the political
system. With the assistance of the University Scholars Program, I was able to visit Washington D.C. and
interview people at special interest groups, Congress and at the National Science Foundation. During the interviews,
I gained insight into the perspectives that each sector of government have about how the system works and
how they interact with the other governmental actors.
While some of the issues discussed were universally accepted by all who were interviewed, many of my
questions were answered differently by each institution. The following sections reflect data obtained during
personal interviews and e-mail correspondences, and discuss how perceptions and assumptions made by
politicians, granters and researchers mold the funding process.
Assumptions and Perceptions
According to House Sub-Committee on Science and Technology member, Karen Lohman, and Deputy
Executive Officer for the American Astronomical Society, Dr. Kevin Marvel, Congress and the Administration rely
on special interest groups to help guide federal science research appropriations. Using the National
Research Council's Decadal Survey to list and rank in order of importance various proposed research areas
in astronomy and astrophysics, politicians and federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation, are spoon-
fed where to allot federal science research funds.
Many on the Washington front have claimed the Decadal Survey to be a non-biased, un-political conglomeration
of ideas that represent a broad spectrum of the astronomy community. According Ms. Friel, the Decadal Survey
is merely suggestions made by the astronomy community and never has much of an affect on what proposals
get funded. Dr. Marvel disagrees with Ms. Friel. He claims that since its inception, the survey has been successful
in securing funding for all projects its contributors deem important.
Lobbyists like Dr. Marvel talk with appropriations committees and use the Decadal Survey to show Congress what
is of imminent astronomical importance. According to Dr. Marvel, "If it isn't in the little black book [Decadal
Survey], then Congress won't fund it." He also maintains that the input provided by scientists when the survey
is written is a good representation of what the astronomy community as a whole wants funded. Therefore, Dr.
Marvel asserts, little to no politics go into attaining a position on the committee panels that write the survey.
Dr. Lada and Dr. Elston, however, have a different opinion. The Decadal Survey is composed of literature, written
by various panels and represents a broad base of astronomical areas. According to Dr. Lada, becoming a
Decadal Survey committee member is very political. She says that many astronomers seek a committee seat to
push their own agenda, making the publication more biased than lobbyists and congressmen perceive.
In a document published by the American Astronomical Society0o, Sethanne Howard of the National
Science Foundation's Astronomy Division, said that to be successful at writing research proposals, one should
"agree to serve (or actively seek to serve) on a proposal review committee or other advisory committee, [and
to] consider being a program director at NSF." Being actively involved in the funding process can make the kind
of connections necessary to be part of the top 30% that receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Dr. M. Ian Phillips, Associate Vice-President for Research and Graduate Programs, and a former National
Science Foundation Program Director, claims that the review process by which grants are awarded is as unbiased
as possible"1. He does assert though that the chances of acquiring funding are better at "big schools" and with
"high quality groups." Astronomy related projects are expensive and the National Science Foundation is more likely
to invest in people and institutions that have a higher certainty of producing successful projects.
The former Program Director also said that the National Science Foundation shies away from the interference
of lobbyists with the peer review system. He claims that "if grants are given on the basis of politics, science
would quickly diminish to science fiction." This is in direct contrast to how the rest of the system perceives the
role that lobbyists play on the funding process, furthering the contention that the process of government funding
of science programs is based on perceptions and assumptions made by each sector of government.
BEATING THE ODDS
The formal criteria that the National Science Foundation uses to decide who and what receives federal money
are straightforward and thorough. All documents that list and describe the explicit guidelines and requirements
for prospective grantees are easily accessible. If the National Science Foundation had unlimited monetary
resources, following the explicit grant proposal guidelines would be all that is necessary to secure a grant
award. Unfortunately, the number of applicants significantly outweighs the available resources. To narrow down
the number of qualified applicants, the National Science Foundation uses implicit guidelines that are extensions to
the explicit criteria.
A qualified proposal becomes a winning proposal when the applicant appeals to the program directors and
peer reviewers in the right way and at the right time. An unwritten rule is to communicate with the granting
agency and research what the committees are looking for and adapt the proposal to fit the mold. The granters
are not necessarily experts in the same field as the applicant, so writing clearly is essential.
It is difficult to tailor a grant proposal to the reviewers without knowing what they are looking for and
without knowing the budget constraints. Researching the right time to apply for a particular project can boost
the chances of receiving a grant award. Interpersonal communication with the granting agency, while not required,
is an integral part of the granting process. Successful grant proposal writers often spend time as peer reviewers
and fight for positions on panels that write literature communicating to those who allocate money what should
Without the knowledge of the internal workings of the granting agencies, researchers are at a loss when applying
for grants. Though it has been suggested that the granting process is unbiased and free from political influences,
not knowing what the granting agency is seeking to fund can be detrimental to a prospective proposal writer.
Not emphasizing the broad social impact of the proposed project, discussing how it will increase representation
of minorities or proposing a project at a time when funding is depleted are all informal mistakes that proposal
writers can make, causing a declination by the granting committee.
The positive impact that the political funding process has on the science community is only the best and
brightest individuals and institutions receive grant awards. The scientists and researchers who apply themselves
and become actively involved in their respective fields are the ones who become successful at obtaining
federal money. The positive results benefit both society and those that provide the funding. The cycle of funding
and advancement secures future funding to universities, provides legitimacy to the government, new tools
for industry, and ensures that the United States continues to create new and innovative ways to solve problems.
1. Giant Molecular Clouds are dense clouds containing 90% H2, 10% He, and many other molecules. Molecular
clouds are typically 100-106 solar masses, 10-20 K, size of ~100 pc, and have 10-106 molecules cm-1. The free-
fall time for such clouds is 106 years. However, magnetic fields support the cloud and support the collapse,
regulating star formation. Molecular clouds with masses in the range 103-106 solar masses are sometimes
called giant molecular clouds.
2. Surveyed Giant Molecular Clouds include: The Orion Nebula, Monoceros, Rosette Nebula and Cetus.
3. Each letter corresponds to an individual near-infrared wavelength
4. The Two Micron All Sky Survey
5. A set of image reduction and analysis scripts
6. Image of an evenly illuminated surface mounted on the inside of the telescope dome.
7. Image taken with the shutter closed.
8. Noise caused by stray infrared photons falling onto the detector.
9. See FLAMINGOS Cookbook
10. Hints on Preparing Research Proposals - http://www.aas.org/grants/hints.html
11. Dr. M. Ian Phillips, Associate Vice-President for Research and Graduate Programs, and a former National
Science Foundation Program Director.
1. AAS, 2002, Hints on Preparing Research Proposals. http://www.aas.org/grants/hints.html. visited August 23, 2002.
2. Breckenridge, J., 2002, Director, Advanced Technologies & Instrumentation (ATI) (MPS/AST). Personal
Interview. National Science Foundation.
3. Boehlert, S., 2002, Chairman, House Science Committee. Personal Interview. House of Representatives.
4. Byers, D., 2002, Professional Staff, Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Research. House of Representatives.
5. Friel, E.D., 2002, Executive Officer, Division of Astronomical Sciences. Personal Interview. National
6. Guzman, R., 2002, Assistant Professor, University of Florida Astronomy Department. Personal Interview. University
7. Lada, E., 2002, Professor, University of Florida Astronomy Department. Personal Interview. University of Florida.
8. Lohman, K.N., 2002, Professional Staff, Committee on Science. Personal Interview. House of Representatives.
9. Marvel, K., 2002, Deputy Executive Office, American Astronomical Society. Personal Interview.
American Astronomical Society.
10. National Research Council, 2001. Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium. Washington, DC:
National Academy Press.
11. Phillips, M.I., 2002, Associate Vice-President for Research and Graduate Programs, University of Florida.
Personal Interview. University of Florida.
12. Ratay, D., 2002, Post-Doc, University of Florida Astronomy Department. Personal Interview. University of Florida.
13. AJ, 2002, The Astronomical Journal. http://www.astro.washington.edu/astroj/. visited July 8, 2002
14. ApJ, 2002, The Astrophysical Journal. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/ApJ/. visited July 8, 2002.
15. Wiseman, J.J., 2002, APS-AAAS Congressional Fellow, Committee on Science. House of Representatives.
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