A rendering of the planned Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which could add pressure to already strained federal science budgets. Credit: LSST Corporation

ANCHORAGE—Much of the hand-wringing about budget cuts to astronomy in recent years has centered on the big, costly space missions and telescope projects that have been diminished, delayed or canceled. But the newest round of bad news may hit closer to home for many astronomers.

Jim Ulvestad, who directs the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, warned his colleagues Monday at the American Astronomical Society meeting here that their odds of securing federal research grants are falling fast. Along with NASA, NSF is one of the two major U.S. funding agencies that facilitates astronomical sciences by doling out grants to individual astronomers and collaborations for specific research campaigns. But the agency is approving fewer and fewer of the applications it receives.

"Our success rate has been slumping gradually down to 20 percent over the past few years," Ulvestad said. "In 2012 it's going to go down precipitously." Only 13 percent of astronomy grant applications are likely to be approved this year, he noted. And with many research dollars for the coming years already allocated as part of past multiyear awards, the outlook for the future is just as bad, if not worse. "This is highly unlikely to turn around in the next three years," Ulvestad said.

In 1992, NSF approved nearly half of the 266 grant applications it received for astronomical research programs. On average, each grant provided $152,000. By 2011, though, the size of the average award had more than doubled, to $367,000. And the number of proposals had skyrocketed to 658. "We're getting a huge increase in the number of proposals, a huge increase in the average award," Ulvestad said. "There really is just no way for us to keep up."

Ulvestad said that no one factor was responsible for the surging number of proposals, which now increases by about 10 percent annually. But with NSF's astronomy budget decreasing slightly in each of the past several years, the flood of applications has made the grant program more and more competitive. That is unlikely to change. In fact, NSF will soon be on the hook for expensive telescope facilities, such as the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which could further eat away at the research dollars available for individual investigators.

The trend toward big, expensive projects is prompting NSF to review its ongoing programs and figure out which should proceed and which will fall victim to cost-cutting. A report on the outcome of that portfolio review should go public in late summer. "We have to make some choices, and we want to make them strategically," Ulvestad said. "We're moving toward a situation where, if we're not careful…if we have a lot of facilities and they don't have any ability to support grad students or postdocs, then that would be pretty devastating to the field."