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NASA: Transformed or Deformed?

28 June 2004 (All day)
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Doing the shuffle. As part of NASA's reorganization, space science chief Ed Weiler (left) will head up Goddard Space Flight Center when Al Diaz (right) leaves to take charge of the new science office.

NASA's biggest organizational change in more than a decade has left scientists wondering about the fate of $6.5 billion worth of research programs. On 24 June NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe dissolved two of three science offices, replaced NASA's scrappy space science chief, and promised sweeping changes to the agency's dozen field centers scattered around the United States.

NASA spends nearly $4 billion on space science and another $1.5 billion on earth science systems. Under the new structure, earth science will be combined with space science into a new office of science, and some $1 billion of work in the biological and physical sciences, which now makes up its own office, will become part of a new exploration systems office. O'Keefe says the changes will streamline an agency top heavy with senior managers. And NASA officials insist that combining the earth and space science offices is good news for researchers. "This strengthens our position by elevating science," says Ghassem Asrar, former head of earth science, who becomes deputy of the new science organization.

Al Diaz will move from Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center, where he is now director, to lead the science office, while former space science chief Ed Weiler replaces him at Goddard. The new exploration systems office will be headed by retired Admiral Craig Steidle. Mary Kicza, the current head of the biological and physical sciences office, will move to a job overseeing integration of NASA missions. She says that her former portfolio belongs in exploration because of its role in ensuring safe and effective human travel beyond Earth orbit.

But many researchers fear the reorganization could weaken future support for several disciplines. "It is obvious we've been downgraded," says Gerard Faeth of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, an expert on combustion and a member of NASA's biological and physical sciences advisory committee. "But then, physical sciences is already getting beat up pretty badly--it could hardly get any worse." Faeth fears that physical science research "could easily be submerged" in the exploration office. Biologists are equally unhappy. "To make this less than an office is a very serious blow," says Jeffrey Borer, a cardiologist at Cornell University's Weill Medical College in New York City, and another advisory committee member.

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