Friday, December 21, 2012

Troubling Times in NASA R&A

UPDATE: NASA PSD Responds to the concerns raised by many within the Planetary Science Community!

I can still recall the shock and the dismay within the planetary science community when it was revealed in the President's request for 2013 that funding for Planetary Science in the US would fall by about $300 million, or about 20%. Certainly, those of us in the community foresaw declining mission selection rates. In particular, the Mars program was expected to be deferred by removing the money which was originally to be reinvested once MSL's funding profile dropped off. Additionally, horizons for the Discovery and New Frontiers programs have been pushed out significantly and there are no flagships in the works this decade aside from the still undefined Mars 2020 Mission.

Traditionally, the NASA Research and Analysis (R&A) program has filled in the gaps between missions, preventing the cyclic loss of talent and information that occurs between flight opportunities. This was seed capital used to foster the continued training of graduate students, postdocs, professors and soft money researchers as they looked deeper into already-acquired data. Thus, the program also did good work by enhancing the science return of missions past.

But with sequestration on the horizon, the PSD is forced to play conservatively and, correspondingly selection rates for R&A proposals have plummeted to the 10% level. Where before proposals ranked as low as good (3/5) might be chosen for funding, there are reports of rankings of very good to excellent (4.5/5) being denied. The effect of this change has been documented by the Planetary Science Institute's Mark V. Sykes and you can read the testimonials here. If we look at the "budget wedge" for planetary science presented at the 2011 LPSC conference we can get a better idea of one reason why selection rates have necessarily declined:

The 2011 Fiscal Planning Wedge for the Planetary Decadal Survey. The empty white space beneath the heavy black line was thought to be the space we were planning. We were wrong. The request for 2013 nearly follows the colored bars down to below $1.2 billion forcing either no new starts or heavy reductions. We're only now finding out what that number means. Sequestration forces additional cuts.

Planetary R&A is the light blue wedge and in 2011, commitments totaled of order $200 million. If we assume the average length of an R&A grant is four years, that means that the total amount of new investment each year is about $50 million. What kind of sequestration would PSD be facing? Well, the cuts are proportional at the level of just under 10%. If it was spread absolutely equitably across the board, PSD would need to find savings of about $120 million (to my knowledge this may not necessarily be the case - NASA could choose to pick winners and losers for its total reduction of almost $1.8 billion meaning the cut could be smaller or much larger). 

Some of these wedges are more resistant to change than are others. The grey, yellow and green sections represent core functions and two missions with pending launch dates (inSight and OSIRIS-REx) and cutting heavily would endanger all of these. The orange Mars program itself has already been cut about as deeply as it can go by the 2013 request. Outer Planets needs to be maintained or else programatic balance will be lost. That means that only tough choices are left and R&A is likely not alone. Even if the selection rate was reduced to zero, it would be impossible to save as much money as is required by sequestration. 

I can understand why the planetary science community is disconcerted. In the Decadal, R&A was highlighted as the highest priority to be defended at the cost of everything else. The reason for this is that R&A is the funding that allows those working in the field to ride out the fiscal storms that sweep our monetary seas. If R&A goes away or is reduced, many will choose instead to work in more lucrative fields and it may be difficult to reclaim these people and this knowledge if the missions do come back. This is the same argument I've heard as part of the justification for Mars 2020 - that otherwise talented engineers would bleed away from JPL without a rover on the horizon.

One possible conclusion from the cuts to R&A, therefore, is that NASA believes that low funding levels may be here to stay. Another possibility is that the field may have grown too far too fast with all the activity in the late 1990s and early 2000s leading to more quality proposals from more people for the same or declining funds. As Andy Rivkin points out, R&A success rates have been falling for years from almost 45% during the year I entered graduate school in 2003. That means that not only is there less funding to go around, but more time is required by each researcher to chase that funding and therefore fewer "unconflicted" high quality people are available to review the glut of proposals that do come in. This is a recipe for troubling times and I am less certain than my colleague that this too will pass.
Disclaimer: I work in Canada where the funding profile is different. The CSA has considerably improved the lot of the planetary scientist in Canada which in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was wholly depending on the vagaries of the mission cycle of feast and famine. Still, we have nothing like the US's R&A program to speak of and there are those who look south of the border with something like envy. 

Though our grants may be smaller, we also do not have to fight for as large a proportion of our salaries as those who describe their plight in the testimonials.  Still, given the fewer permanent jobs available here there is the sense that ours is a field that has been comparatively culled. Without much in the way of soft money and the continuing reduction in government research, academia is left to pick up the pieces. 

I'm one of the lucky ones. Still, I have an abiding interest in the US situation. Their missions provide the data on which we too work. And when called upon, we make contributions as well at no cost to the US (My current work on MSL is an example of such "no exchange of funds" agreements). Thus, if not shareholders, we are still stakeholders and as such, I am concerned as well.

More Information:
I highly reccomend you take a detailed read of Andy's insightful column in Scientific American
You can also get information directly from Mark Sykes' work compiling the state of the community in a report here and in the reaction to that report here.
A valuable crunching of the numbers can be found by two more of my grad school friends Catherine Neish and David Choi here who wonder if the part-time scientist is the wave of the future. 

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