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NASA Science: The Sick Man of Federal Research
Margaret Anne Baker

The Ottoman Empire during the 19th century is commonly referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe,” when wars and treaties with other nations pulled the empire in many different directions. NASA’s science programs, with their growing responsibilities increasingly mismatched with available resources, can be seen in a similar light. Especially at risk are some crosscutting programs, including the Astrobiology Institute, that are important in attracting young scientists.

Science has been a key component of NASA’s mission since its inception in 1958, with the initial incorporation of several military research groups, including the space group at the Naval Research Laboratory. Since that time, however, the breadth of science research at NASA has grown significantly.

Scientific research is currently managed under the Science Mission Directorate, which is divided into the broad areas of astrophysics, earth science, heliophysics and planetary science (the aeronautics and engineering research is managed by a separate program). The directorate addresses everything from the origins of the universe to observations of Earth for climate change research.

A recent report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed NASA’s science program in the framework of the fiscal year 2007 budget request and the accompanying strategic plan. This report, the third in a series requested by Congress, considers whether the agency’s science program: 1) includes an appropriate span of science disciplines; 2) has the resources to make adequate progress toward the goals outlined in the decadal survey; and 3) is “appropriately balanced to reflect cross-disciplinary scientific priorities” as recommended in the earlier NRC decadal survey.

Not surprisingly, in light of the growing demands being made on science at NASA, the report’s conclusions can be summed up by its first finding: “NASA is being asked to accomplish too much with too little.”

NASA is being pulled in too many directions, between its goals of expanding human space flight, completing the International Space Station, sustaining aeronautical research and maintaining a vigorous science research portfolio, as well as the use of NASA science to support a range of interagency programs. The NASA science programs, according to the report, are neither robust nor balanced nor capable of reaching the goals that were recommended in the decadal survey.

The authoring committee identified critical areas that have contributed to these shortfallings, among them funding cuts, delays and cancellations of small missions, and a reduction of work on technology and innovations needed for future missions. These issues pose an immediate threat to the health of research programs and to the science pipeline. Grants from the agency’s science programs are important sources of support for graduate students, postdoctoral students and junior faculty in a wide range of disciplines.

In its report, the committee specifically commented on recent severe cuts to the Astrobiology Institute, which was established in 1995 to address the general questions of how life begins and evolves, and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. Astrobiology requires that physicists, biologists, chemists, and geoscientists work together to understand what makes a habitable planet. NASA’s program has supported and inspired a generation of scientists interested in the interface of these disciplines. The recent budget request, however, would reduce the funding for this type of research by half, dramatically impacting the future of the field.

Astrobiology is a relatively new discipline and has a core of young scientists, including undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and early-career faculty. Drastic cuts to NASA’s program would force faculty members to refocus their research toward other sources of funding. Research on topics such as early Earth, atmospheric evolution and biogeochemistry likely would dwindle, and students interested in such fields could be turned away due to lack of funding. These crosscutting research programs have a large draw to current and future students, so the question becomes: What happens to the long-term endeavor of science research and the future pool of scientists?

The NRC report recommends that NASA move immediately to maintain funding for research programs. It states that “the scale of the short-term resource allocation problem is modest, probably slightly more than 1 percent of the total NASA budget, but addressing that problem will help correct the immediate threats to the health of the research program.”

The report goes on to suggest that funding for science at NASA be isolated from other accounts to help ensure that the money is used for science research and not to cover funding shortages in other elements of the agency. But these steps are short-term solutions to the larger issue of the resources not being sufficient to accomplish the wide range of charges assigned to NASA.

A key contributor to the Ottoman Empire’s downfall was its leaders’ resistance to changes and reform. The NRC report provides broad recommendations that NASA can follow to improve this disparity. Let’s hope that the leaders of NASA remember their world history classes and do not allow the agency become the “Sick Man of Federal Science Research.”


Baker is with the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: govt@agiweb.org.

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