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NASA budget cuts create havoc in Planetary Science Research & Analysis Division

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On Tue, Dec 3, Jonathan Rall, Program Lead for NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) Research & Analysis (R&A) Program held a virtual town hall meeting to explain proposed program restructuring. The primary purpose of the meeting was to explain to researchers how the R&A program will be restructured in an attempt to introduce efficiency and quicker through put into the proposal process. Dr. Rall presented an analysis of the past portfolio model and proposed simplified structure. Simplification and efficiency are important goals for a government agency. The restructuring also attempts to bring the program elements into alignment with NASA strategic goals so that the programs are easier to explain to outsiders.

Unfortunately, political gridlock has made it impossible for NASA, or any other government agency, to do any substantive planning. Sequester and funding via continuing resolutions appears to have reached the point where it might be fair to say nobody knows what the discretionary budget for 2014 or 2015 will actually be. A stark issue for all agencies is that most of the appropriations they receive have already been earmarked for obligatory programs. Planetary research and analysis activities often come out of the dwindling leftovers.

About half the grants funded by PSD R&A go to research on Solar System Workings, which covers “the physical and chemical processes occurring on planetary bodies, satellites, and minor bodies”. Logically, from an administrator’s viewpoint, PSD has elected to schedule proposal reviews starting first with proposals for the other, smaller programs, as they work through the details of the new process. This leaves many researchers in the Solar System Workings group with a significant funding gap, which was not widely anticipated by early career researchers. A significant part of the discussion, as well as twitter chatter (#PSDRandA) highlighted the personal disappointments.

To scientists, it’s obvious that post-mission R&A is critical if there is to be any benefit derived from expenditures on massive NASA missions. Forty years after the last flight, many Apollo samples remain untouched. That analysis will compete for funding with work on more recent data from Curiosity (Mars). Unfortunately, this slow, painstaking research doesn’t generate much excitement in the broader scientific community, and none among the general public. The underlying issue appears to be massive disrespect for STEM in the US. Politicians and their staffers seldom have an understanding of basic science. They’ll support only programs that make the headlines or generate pork jobs for their constituency.

Most of the public doesn’t know how research scientists get funded. Many think that tenured positions at major universities drive research. As Richard Panek describes in The 4 Percent Universe, the big guns, those who have the charisma to develop name recognition, have those secure positions and often use their name as PI (principle investigator) on projects. Actual research is done by graduate students, post docs and non-tenured instructors who are funded by “soft money.” In practice, that means researchers are part of the growing “contingent workforce” of temps and contractors that staff most large industrial projects in the US.

It’s time for the business and scientific community to take stock. Where do we, as technologists and business leaders, want to position the US within the spectrum of growing international STEM capabilities? Will we only support virtual (Dot Net) projects that have low cost and quick results? Is America able to consistently support fundamental research that may take decades to pay off, or should our young researchers look for work in emerging economies just starting serious space programs? The turmoil at NASA is just the tip of that very dangerous iceberg. Since the Apollo-driven boom in science and engineering in the 60’s, the US has continuously lost ground. STEM careers are no longer a path to a solid middle-class life style for either researchers or those going into industry, as STEM unemployment remains high.

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