Stern Takes Steps to Restore NASA Research Funding

When NASA made deep cutslast year to its budget for research grants, scientists whose livelihoodsdepend on receiving a share of the roughly $175 million in awards the U.S.space agency disburses each year screamed bloody murder.

Most NASA-fundedscientific disciplines saw their share of the agency's research-and-analysis(R&A) budget drop 15 percent in 2006 with further reductions planned forsubsequent years. Astrobiology, a relatively new discipline concerned with theorigin and evolution of life, suffered a 50-percent cut. Making matters worse,NASA made all the cuts retroactive, so scientists who thought they had fundinglined up for the year suddenly were scrambling for new grant dollars.

Alan Stern, the seasonedprincipal investigator who became NASA's associate administrator for science inApril, took office pledging a reinvestment in research and analysis as one ofthe main thrusts of his strategy for getting more out of the agency's flatscience budget.

Toward that end, Sterncreated within the Science Mission Directorate a new position – senior advisorfor research and analysis – and staffed it with a pair of scientists wellacquainted with the annual scramble for grant dollars.

Yvonne Pendleton and herdeputy, Max Bernstein, together ran the Space Science and Astrobiology Divisionat NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, Calif., before moving to Washington this year to help re-invigorate the ailing research-and-analysis program. Formuch of their careers, they were full-time researchers, relying on grantdollars to pursue scientific discoveries and publish the results. When thedollars stop flowing, science suffers.

"R&A is only avery tiny part of the overall science budget but when you cut it you feel theeffect very quickly," Pendleton said in an interview. "The people wholive off this money have very little else to fall back on." Whenresearch-and-analysis spending is cut, it not only affects the scientist whosent in the proposal, she said, but also the graduate students and post docsthat 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 cutsmost disciplines sustained and return astrobiology research-and-analysisspending to 80 percent of its prior level.

What's more, Pendletonsaid, Stern has declared the research-and-analysis accounts each divisioncontrols off-limits when more money is needed to cover cost growth on missionsin development.

"The forecast isthat when the inevitable cost overruns come in the door, R&A is off thetable," Pendleton said. "What Alan has pledged is while he is at thehelm there will be no cuts from R&A. I think that's good news for everyresearcher out there."

Pendleton said restoringlast year's cuts is only part of the plan for getting more out of NASA'sresearch-and-analysis budget, which funds about 1,000 new grants every yearworth amounts from $100,000 to more than $1 million annually, depending on thescope of the project.

At any given time, NASAhas nearly 3,000 active multiyear grants on the books. And every year, another4,000 proposals come through the door.

Sorting through that manyproposals and deciding which ones to fund and which ones to reject takes time –too much time, as far as Pendleton is concerned. "Some researchers werewriting new proposals before they even knew the status of their old ones,"she said.

For the 1 in 4 scientistswhose research proposals are deemed worth funding, the wait for money can befrustratingly long. "There were some programs that were taking well over ayear to get the money into the hands of the researchers," Pendleton said.

One of the areas wherePendleton and Bernstein will focus this year has been identifying andeliminating the bottlenecks and process breakdowns that stand in the way oftimely decisions and expedient disbursement of grant money.

"We want scientiststo be spending their time doing science, not writing an endless number ofproposals," she said.

The first big test ofsome of the reforms Pendleton has set in motion is coming up. NASA intends toissue its annual Research Opportunities for Space and Earth Science call forgrant proposals in mid February, with each discipline staggering its submissiondeadlines and award decisions over the course of the year.

To help ensure scientistsspend more time on the ground-breaking science that could point the way to newspace missions, NASA is planning to extend the length of awards from threeyears to four years.

NASA also isexperimenting with what Pendleton termed demand-driven balancing to ensure thatall scientists, regardless of their disciplines, have a roughly 1 in 4 chanceof winning a grant. As the situation stands now, some of NASA's so-calledprogram elements fund nearly every proposal they receive, while others only canafford to fund perhaps 1 in 10. By moving money around, she said, the ScienceMission Directorate expects to give every scientist an equal chance of winninga grant while at the same time ensuring that the hottest disciplines get aproportional share of available funding.

Pendleton also wants tomake sure that the science community has an open line of communication directto NASA headquarters. To help make that happen, she established a dedicated Website (http://science.hq.nasa.gov/research/sara.html) that is kept up-to-datewith the kind of information researchers need to stay on top of researchopportunities, apply for grants and, perhaps more importantly, talk to the NASAofficials they need to talk to.

Mark Sykes, the directorof the Tucson, Ariz.-based Planetary Science Institute, was one of the mostvocal critics of last year's research-and-analysis cuts. The approximately 40scientists Sykes works with at the institute sink or swim on their ability toattract NASA grants.

Sykes praised Stern formaking R&A a priority and bringing in two such well-respected researchers, Pendletonand Bernstein, as advisors. He also said that speeding up the process forproposal selection and notification, and extending the length of grants wereall steps in the right direction.

But what matters most, hesaid, is that research and analysis is adequately funded. While Stern has takensteps to restore some of the cuts, Sykes said he has yet to see the moneytrickle down to researchers in his discipline. "The proof is in thepudding," he said.

Daniel Baker, thedirector of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the Universityof Colorado, Boulder, told the House Science and Technology space andaeronautics subcommittee this May that he was worried about where NASA researchand analysis spending was headed.

Contacted by Space Newsto comment on the changes Stern and his team have attempted to make since thatspring hearing, Baker said fixing research-and-analysis is a small butimportant part of fixing what ails NASA's science program in this era ofconstrained budgets. "Whatever is done on R&A, it should be consideredin 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 fullyand systematically. More efficient flight project development and explicitrestoration of technology development funds for NASA would allow the R&Aprogram to be more healthy and more effective."

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