More than 100 US astronomers have put their heads together and come up with a prioritized wish list for public investment in their field during the next decade (see page 381). This ‘decadal review’ of astronomy and astrophysics, produced under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, is to be applauded. It is one of science's most effective priority-setting exercises: a model for astronomers in other regions to follow and for other disciplines to consider.

The process is all-important. Washington is drowning in reports, and the last thing congressional staffers or White House budget examiners want is to settle differences among squabbling scientists. So a coherent approach within the community is essential for making others sit up and listen.

This has necessitated a year of full-time leadership by some key individuals. Each of the nine sub-panels — organized mostly by observational technique — held three meetings. There were also ‘town meetings’ and public sessions to gauge the community's views. Each sub-panel voted on priorities for its category, ranking projects primarily on their scientific usefulness.

These recommendations then went up to the main committee, which held five meetings over an 11-month period. All agree it was hard to make choices. Each of the sub-panel reports went through the full academy review process, and the 23 reviewers of the main report had credentials equal to anyone on the committee.

They generated 120 pages of comments — a painful process, but all part of shoring up the report's credibility. And the knowledge that this is a chance to feed one's ideas into such a well-regulated and influential process ensures that some of the best of the community's creative vision gets captured.

The plan presented last week contains plenty of exciting science. An 8-metre infrared telescope in space could look back to the dawn of the Universe to see the first galaxies that formed. Its ground-based companion, a 30-metre segmented telescope, would see protoplanetary disks as sharply defined rings instead of blurry blobs. The Terrestrial Planet Finder — which the committee would like to see get under way at least in the next decade — would be capable of finding the first Earth-like worlds.

The astronomers who served on the review committee believe that, in the coming decade, astronomy can lead the way in stimulating the public's interest in science. But the community will have to show that it is being frugal with public money. That leaves little room for duplicative projects or those born of institutional or national pride. The review panel is right to make a strong case for cooperation, not only among US astronomers and their international colleagues, but also between privately and publicly owned observatories.

The decadal review committee's plan would go a long way towards achieving that goal. We could look forward to having a powerful array of instruments scanning the Universe across the electromagnetic spectrum. Many of these projects are already planned to be international, which, like the survey itself, reflects a welcome maturity in the astronomical community.

The report also emphasizes the need to follow through with the recommendations of the last review while getting these new projects under way. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array, although approved, is the only one of that committee's four major recommendations that is not yet under construction. It must not fall by the wayside.

The presentation of this work is what matters now. There is going to be a glossy version of the report, published later this year, aimed at the general public. As for the leading astronomers who compiled the report, they will be astronomy's ambassadors. They've already met with the National Science Foundation and the space agency NASA, and will brief Congressional staffers and the Office of Management and Budget. As hard as they've laboured in the past year, in some important ways their work has only just begun.