First Thoughts on The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey

The National Academies of Science has just released its latest Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics. This survey is commissioned every 10 years to review the state of the profession and recommend national priorities in astronomy for the next decade.  The survey recommendations are in a weighty tome entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, which you can download free in PDF. I am going to try to digest and comment on it in coming weeks, from the point of view of computational astronomy.

New Worlds, New Horizons Cover Image

Today, I will post some initial comments. I was delighted to see recognition of astronomy archives and their contribution to research. The report pointed out the number of archival papers resulting from public 2MASS data and Space Telescope data. I was, however, disappointed in the lack of recommendations regarding of the impact that the tsunami of data will have on astronomical computing.

There is,  I think, a recognition in the community that we need to curate and preserve data sets, and our national funding agencies are indeed committed to this.  We are still a long way from curating all our data: witness the data products created by astronomers for publication, most of which are not available in electronic form and continue to be lost. But there are some serious issues to sort out in curating and preserving data. Curating data takes time and energy. It involves creating a complete record of the processing history of a data set (its provenance) in sufficient detail that an astronomer can reproduce the data set and evaluate its quality and usefulness. All this requires methodologies and standards to do right. But more than that, analyzing and combining the massive new data sets that are coming along to create new products and perform innovative research will require computing techniques and technologies that go beyond what can be done on desktop machines, and there needs to be an investment in them and in educating astronomers in how to use them. I would have liked to have seen a recommendation in the survey to do just this.

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