Casey DreierDec 04, 2013

What's Going on With Planetary Science Research?

Something major is happening in the world of planetary science. It will directly affect nearly every scientist working today, but ultimately it will impact every supporter of planetary exploration through its long-term influence on the scientific community.

There are two things going on here:

So why is this a big deal for non-scientists? Well, the restructure itself isn't necessarily bad on its merits (though many scientists are irked by the secretive process which created it). But #2 – the skipping a year of grants – will make it harder for a number of scientists to pay their bills, maybe leading to fewer scientists. Fewer scientists will do less science, lead to a loss of institutional knowledge, and squander years of training and investment by the nation.

Most scientists don't work directly for NASA. They are not federal employees – think of them more as contractors. They tend to be associated with either universities or research institutions which only support a portion of their salary. Nearly every scientist has to find ways to make up their remaining salary while also paying graduate students and buying equipment for their research. Planetary scientists depend on NASA's grant program to support all of these activities, no other part of government supports this. This is generally given the compelling name "Research and Analysis" or "R&A" for short.

If you know scientists (or follow some on Twitter) you'll notice that a few times a year they'll start to get pretty distracted. They'll start looking haggard, maybe they'll have big bags under their eyes, or develop stress lines, or just disappear from view for a while. When asked, they'll say something vague about working on a "proposal." This is grant-writing time. Scientists will propose to study a particular question (or set of questions) about the solar system to a particular grant-program at NASA. The competition is fierce; the rate at which proposals are selected for funding is around 10% – about the same chance of getting accepted into a competitive college.

Scientists go through this process multiple times each year, depending on how much funding they need. This tends to be a bigger deal for scientists early in their careers and "soft money" scientists, so-called because of their lack of any hard (i.e. guaranteed) funding. While most grants last around three years, very few pay for a scientist's entire salary. They need several simultaneous grants to support themselves and their research.

A decrease in these grants will disproportionately impact the next generation of planetary scientists. Early-career scientists are in a very vulnerable position. Most don't have faculty jobs. Those that do haven't yet been awarded tenure. They are just starting their research careers, and many have salaries paid for by grants won by more established scientists. The NASA representatives behind this reorganization stated that scientists can petition their grant sources for more money to help them cover this "gap year." But if you're a young scientist, you may not have any grant sources yet. You're on your own.

Mark Sykes, the Director of the Planetary Science Institute (which depends on a healthy R&A budget for its operations), made a rough estimate that the grant delay could free up nearly $60 million in 2015. This, I noticed, is about how much it costs to operate the Cassini orbiter at Saturn, a mission which seems to be on the brink of early termination. Is this the cost of continuing Cassini for another year?

No one at NASA is discussing the next budget, details about FY2015 are embargoed until next Spring. We just don't know exactly how bad (or, optimistically, good) the budget will be for planetary exploration next year. All signs currently suggest that cuts will continue. As NASA Planetary Science R&A Program Officer Jonathan Rall said during a recent town hall with the scientific community, "this is going to be a harsh wake up and a harsh reality."

For all of the details, you can download the slides detailing the exact changes to the grant programs for NASA's Planetary Science Division [pdf] or see the overview page for FAQs, presentations, and reports.

Of course, if NASA's Planetary Science program was funded our recommended level of $1.5 billion per year (its historical average) scientists wouldn't be facing this problem. You can write your elected officials right now to help.

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