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NASA's Planetary Science Shift Rattles Researchers

5 December 2013 5:15 pm
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Planetary shakeup. NASA is restructuring part of a program that focuses on studying planets such as Saturn, seen here in an image taken earlier this year by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Planetary shakeup. NASA is restructuring part of a program that focuses on studying planets such as Saturn, seen here in an image taken earlier this year by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Jim Green, the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, shook things up for planetary scientists this week by announcing a restructuring that will change how the division funds grant proposals. The change has drawn criticism from some researchers, who say that it threatens to delay funding for their projects by up to a year and could put some out of work. One of the fiercest critics of the restructuring, ironically, is the co-author of a report that Green says recommended the change in the first place.

The change will cause difficulties for some scientists, NASA acknowledges. But Green says the agency is preparing to provide bridge funds to accommodate those who may face a funding gap.

At stake is $210 million that the division gives out in grants every year for researchers to make sense of data collected by planetary missions. Because each of these grants is typically given for 3 years, the division makes new awards equal to roughly one-third of the budget—$70 million—every year. Now, the division puts out calls for proposals at steady intervals throughout the year on about two dozen narrow topics such as cosmochemistry and planetary astronomy.

At a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday, Green announced that 12 of these narrower current program areas will now be replaced by five thematic categories: emerging worlds, solar system workings, habitable worlds, exobiology, and solar system observations. Green says these themes were identified as fundamental areas of inquiry in the National Academies’ 2010 decadal review of planetary sciences. 

“The restructuring is all about making sure that the community is focused on fundamental science objectives,” Green tells ScienceInsider. “It allows us to take our limited resources and apply them to the goals that the best minds in the community have laid out.” At the same time, Green says, the restructuring doesn’t reduce opportunities for funding. For instance, those who previously applied for grants in response to a call on the topic of cosmochemistry will now be able to apply under emerging worlds and solar system workings. NASA will open up the new themes for competition—one at a time—starting February 2014.

However, the change will disrupt the rhythm of calls for proposals that the community has been used to. The worst affected may be those who work on topics such as planetary geology and geophysics and planetary atmospheres, which have now been bundled into the solar system workings theme. That theme—according to a timetable drawn up by NASA officials—will be the last of the five themes to be opened up for competition, and that will happen in February 2015. That means scientists working on certain topics, who were gearing up to apply for funding early next year—as per the old timetable—will not be able to apply until February 2015.

That’s why some researchers have been railing against the restructuring on Twitter and in the blogosphere. One of the more vocal critics is Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Sykes says the change Green has made is ill-considered because it doesn’t take into account the impact on the workforce. “There are many people whose research programs and salaries depend upon successfully proposing to several major programs in 2014,” Sykes says. “They have just learned that there will be no opportunity for these programs until 2015. I have had several people tell me that if there is no regular … call at the regular time in 2014, they will have to look for other employment in a year. There are postdocs whose positions are ending this next year, who would have applied to these programs to get started as independent planetary scientists. They need to find something else to do.”

Green says he’s surprised by Sykes’s criticism because the restructuring was done, in part, on a recommendation by a report that Sykes wrote along with another co-author in 2011.  “[M]any of the research and analysis programs overlap,” the report said. “Because the workload on the scientific community and NASA Program officers has increased substantially in the last decade with regard to proposal preparation, review, and implementation, the Planetary Science Division should consider consolidating programs to eliminate overlap as a part of the portfolio management strategy.”

Sykes says that Green is quoting selectively from the report, which recommended that any consolidation be done only after a careful analysis by senior NASA staff. And that, Sykes says, hasn’t been done. “I have no problem with the concept of realizing benefit from reorganizing programs,” Sykes tells ScienceInsider. “However, Jim [Green] continues to ignore the fact that we said it should be done in the context of a Senior Review. Research and analysis is too important to be treated as cavalierly as it is by NASA.”

Sykes says the net result of the restructuring could be that the community will see a decline in grant funding over the next year. In other words, the restructuring is a sly way of saving some money.

Green says that’s absolutely not true. “I’m not doing this to save any money,” he says. “I’m not going to return any of the $70 million to the treasury.” Having fewer categories will reduce the time it takes for NASA to evaluate proposals, he adds, and that will ensure that applicants who write winning proposals will get funded more quickly.

Green acknowledges that the change will make life difficult for some in the community who have been used to writing proposals at a certain time of the year and planning their research activities according to when they expect the funds to arrive. “We’ve now upset that, but we really can’t manage down to that level or we’d go crazy,” he says. Green says the division will be prepared to provide bridge funds to accommodate those who are adversely affected by the new timetable.

The change was long overdue, Green insists, noting that he’s simply asking the community to rise to the challenge of tackling the most important questions in fundamental ways rather than doing incremental science. “If I didn’t do this, I’d not be following the recommendations of the National Academies,” he says. “And if I didn’t do that, I ought to be fired.”

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