Monday, March 14, 2011

LPSC Notebook: Participating Scientist Programs

Now that I'm back in Toronto, it's time to clear out some of the backlog! I had a good time at LPSC, but it was a much busier schedule than DPS and ultimately was a conference with a much different feel. I'll get to that in a few posts. But today I wanted to give a brief note prior to Ross Beyer's blurb.

When you're at a conference, your work doesn't stop or go on hiatus. Indeed, when you consider networking and meeting with colleagues and collaborators you could argue that conferences represent a heavier workload. In that vein, I want to mention a task being carried out behind the scenes by many of the conference attendees. Specifically, the preparation of applications for the upcomming Participating Scientist Program (PSP) opportunity for the Mars Science Laboratory. Without a doubt, this is one of the largest opportunities in years (and perhaps one of the few this decade) for members of the "Mars Chapter" of the Planetary Science Community. As such, many of us were scurrying to put together our documents over the last week. As the Canadian Space Agency recently decided to support Canadian researchers to play along, I can count myself in that group.

But what is a participating scientist? Well, the selection of science teams for planetary missions can sometimes come off a bit as a dark art. For competed missions, such as under the Discovery and New Frontiers AOs (and formerly Mars Scout) there is a "proposal team" which contains all the senior scientists who write the initial mission proposal. When that proposal is accepted, all those scientists immediately become part of the science team as Co-Investigators (Co-I's) on the mission. The situation is similar for Flagship-class missions, except here the scientists are associated with individual instruments instead of the whole mission.

NASA recognizes that getting on a proposal team is a tall order, especially for younger scientists who might not have sufficient connections or have as established a reputation as their more experienced peers. The agency has a vested interest in training these younger scientists to take on larger roles to support space exploration in the future. Furthermore, it is beneficial to provide access to older scientists working in related areas who can add value to the mission. Thus, an AO is often provided after the selection of a mission to allow these two groups to compete for funding and a place at the mission table. These individuals become full science-team members who are distinguished from the proposal team by terming them "Participating Scientists."

Participating Scientist programs are also a low-cost way to foster inter-agency collaboration and learn from the lessons of other space programs. In the recent past, US participating scientists have served on Japanese, European and Indian missions, just to name a few. In return, NASA allows foreign agencies to sponsor their own scientists on NASA missions.

Returning to Mars Science Lab and the late nights at LPSC: this year there will be 18 selections made of US researchers, and the CSA has announced that it will pick up to 4 Canadians to join them and the rest of the Co-I's. With a little luck, I might be one of them! So I wish the best of luck to those working behind the scenes at LPSC to finish proposals in advance of the March 22nd deadline.

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