When NASA made deep cuts last year to its budget for research grants, scientists whose livelihoods depend on receiving a share of the roughly $175 million in awards the U.S. space agency disburses each year screamed bloody murder.
Most NASA-funded scientific disciplines saw their share of the agency's research-and-analysis (R&A) budget drop 15 percent in 2006 with further reductions planned for subsequent years. Astrobiology, a relatively new discipline concerned with the origin and evolution of life, suffered a 50-percent cut. Making matters worse, NASA made all the cuts retroactive, so scientists who thought they had funding lined up for the year suddenly were scrambling for new grant dollars.
Alan Stern, the seasoned principal investigator who became NASA's associate administrator for science in April, took office pledging a reinvestment in research and analysis as one of the main thrusts of his strategy for getting more out of the agency's flat science budget.
Toward that end, Stern created within the Science Mission Directorate a new position senior advisor for research and analysis and staffed it with a pair of scientists well acquainted with the annual scramble for grant dollars.
Yvonne Pendleton and her deputy, Max Bernstein, together ran the Space Science and Astrobiology Division at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif., before moving to Washington this year to help re-invigorate the ailing research-and-analysis program. For much of their careers, they were full-time researchers, relying on grant dollars to pursue scientific discoveries and publish the results. When the dollars stop flowing, science suffers.
"R&A is only a very tiny part of the overall science budget but when you cut it you feel the effect very quickly," Pendleton said in an interview. "The people who live off this money have very little else to fall back on." When research-and-analysis spending is cut, it not only affects the scientist who sent in the proposal, she said, but also the graduate students and post docs that would have been fed out of that grant.
Since taking the helm, Stern and his four division chiefs have taken steps to undo the 15-percent cuts most disciplines sustained and return astrobiology research-and-analysis spending to 80 percent of its prior level.
What's more, Pendleton said, Stern has declared the research-and-analysis accounts each division controls off-limits when more money is needed to cover cost growth on missions in development.
"The forecast is that when the inevitable cost overruns come in the door, R&A is off the table," Pendleton said. "What Alan has pledged is while he is at the helm there will be no cuts from R&A. I think that's good news for every researcher out there."
Pendleton said restoring last year's cuts is only part of the plan for getting more out of NASA's research-and-analysis budget, which funds about 1,000 new grants every year worth amounts from $100,000 to more than $1 million annually, depending on the scope of the project.
At any given time, NASA has nearly 3,000 active multiyear grants on the books. And every year, another 4,000 proposals come through the door.
Sorting through that many proposals and deciding which ones to fund and which ones to reject takes time too much time, as far as Pendleton is concerned. "Some researchers were writing new proposals before they even knew the status of their old ones," she said.
For the 1 in 4 scientists whose research proposals are deemed worth funding, the wait for money can be frustratingly long. "There were some programs that were taking well over a year to get the money into the hands of the researchers," Pendleton said.
One of the areas where Pendleton and Bernstein will focus this year has been identifying and eliminating the bottlenecks and process breakdowns that stand in the way of timely decisions and expedient disbursement of grant money.
"We want scientists to be spending their time doing science, not writing an endless number of proposals," she said.
The first big test of some of the reforms Pendleton has set in motion is coming up. NASA intends to issue its annual Research Opportunities for Space and Earth Science call for grant proposals in mid February, with each discipline staggering its submission deadlines and award decisions over the course of the year.
To help ensure scientists spend more time on the ground-breaking science that could point the way to new space missions, NASA is planning to extend the length of awards from three years to four years.
NASA also is experimenting with what Pendleton termed demand-driven balancing to ensure that all scientists, regardless of their disciplines, have a roughly 1 in 4 chance of winning a grant. As the situation stands now, some of NASA's so-called program elements fund nearly every proposal they receive, while others only can afford to fund perhaps 1 in 10. By moving money around, she said, the Science Mission Directorate expects to give every scientist an equal chance of winning a grant while at the same time ensuring that the hottest disciplines get a proportional share of available funding.
Pendleton also wants to make sure that the science community has an open line of communication direct to NASA headquarters. To help make that happen, she established a dedicated Web site (http://science.hq.nasa.gov/research/sara.html) that is kept up-to-date with the kind of information researchers need to stay on top of research opportunities, apply for grants and, perhaps more importantly, talk to the NASA officials they need to talk to.
Mark Sykes, the director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Planetary Science Institute, was one of the most vocal critics of last year's research-and-analysis cuts. The approximately 40 scientists Sykes works with at the institute sink or swim on their ability to attract NASA grants.
Sykes praised Stern for making R&A a priority and bringing in two such well-respected researchers, Pendleton and Bernstein, as advisors. He also said that speeding up the process for proposal selection and notification, and extending the length of grants were all steps in the right direction.
But what matters most, he said, is that research and analysis is adequately funded. While Stern has taken steps to restore some of the cuts, Sykes said he has yet to see the money trickle down to researchers in his discipline. "The proof is in the pudding," he said.
Daniel Baker, the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee this May that he was worried about where NASA research and analysis spending was headed.
Contacted by Space News to comment on the changes Stern and his team have attempted to make since that spring hearing, Baker said fixing research-and-analysis is a small but important part of fixing what ails NASA's science program in this era of constrained budgets. "Whatever is done on R&A, it should be considered in the context of a balanced portfolio for [the Science Mission Directorate]," he said. "In my view, there should be a careful look at flight programs, technology development, and R&A. I don't believe this is being done fully and systematically. More efficient flight project development and explicit restoration of technology development funds for NASA would allow the R&A program to be more healthy and more effective."
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