/ Modified jan 29, 2014 4:21 p.m.

NASA Changes Worry Tucson Planetary Science

New grant-funding structure promises more money for planetary research, but local scientist negative impacts.


NASA is changing the way it awards research grants for planetary science data and analysis, and the changes could affect the Tucson planetary science community.

The space agency is consolidating the number of programs it offers for research, but is offering more money next year for grants, and intends not to drop any specific research programs, said Jim Green, director of the planetary science division of NASA.

But the changes worry Mark Sykes, CEO of Tucson's nonprofit Planetary Science Institute. They could lead to oversight of some grant programs, and they mean researchers may be competing against very different projects than they traditionally have competed against. This is how he defines planetary science:

"In planetary science we study the solar system and even other solar systems. how everything works, how it formed and evolved, where life might arise, we might take advantage of resources out there and avoid the hazards that are flying around us," Sykes said.

Sykes and Green have known each other for years, the planetary science community is relatively small, with 2,000 people worldwide. Sykes employes 85 planetary scientists with doctorate degrees. Many of them work in Tucson, but the organization has offices in many countries.

The two scientists know each others' arguments well, and tried to debunk the counter-argument in interviews in Tucson.

Green was in town to give a lecture at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Sykes attended, and the two have been sparring in online news stories about the grant-funding changes for months.

The changes are necessary to update a program that hasn't been changed since NASA started in the 1960s, Green said.

“The planetary science division, which dates back to the beginning of the space program, in the ‘60s, in particular, began supporting the research community by providing them opportunities to propose, analyze data and then report back those results," Green said. "That is a critical element of our program that has started from day one. And this part of our program is called the research and analysis.“

It's exactly that point, that NASA created planetary science, that caused Sykes to worry. Without support from NASA, which Sykes is concerned could be reduced with the changes, planetary scientists have no other career option, he said.

"These research programs are important because almost half of the planetary science profession in this country rely on them for more than half of their salary," Sykes said. "They’re not deeply embedded in universities and such around the country like astronomers are, because planetary science is an invention of NASA. It was only back in the '60s we started sending spacecraft to other planets and other worlds for the first time. So this started creating this whole new field."

NASA is taking its objectives and consolidating the number of times it issues calls for grant proposals, which Green referred to as "calls" for short.

"We’ve been asked by the national academies to really focus our calls, to focus our science objectives," he said.

That meant reorganizing the grants into new groupings, and resulted in fewer application periods each year, Green said.

“We’re consolidating several groups, and instead of having 24 calls we’re having 17 or 18 calls for proposals that are more focused, but still encompass the entire scope of our program," Green said. "And it’s not our intention to leave pieces of our program out. We actually started this restructuring several years ago.”

Sykes was part of that years-long process. He served on a NASA planetary science subcommittee that made recommendations for the government agency to use as a model for organizational changes, but Sykes said those recommendations were never meant to be taken as a restructuring guideline for grant funding.

"What NASA wants to do is create these programs based on these goals. When I was on the National Research Council we said that mapping these goals isn’t enough. We said you need to take areas like 'what’s out there and how does it work,' and break it down," Sykes said. That means figuring out "what are all the requirements you need to meet to answer that question? What are the activities to meet the requirements and you make this whole flow down to define all the things that you need to do in order to advance solar system exploration."

But he said research topics used to be organized in a logical way.

"What NASA is currently doing is taking these research programs that have been around a number of years, and they’re devoted to a variety of different things like planetary geology and geophysics; fundamental research on Mars; outer planets and their atmospheres and structures; cosmo-chemistry which may involve meteorite studies, and they have merged all these together, some into a very large program," Sykes said.

What doesn't make sense, to him, is that the new program mixes genres such as meteorites, Mars and atmospheric studies, which used to be separate areas of study.

Sykes said restructuring NASA's planetary science grants should have started with the question: "What makes sense for grouping together? Do we group together meteorites and atmospheres? Probably not, but group together things that make sense from a managerial and a scientific standpoint and that would be the basis for restructuring."

He is also calling for a workforce-impact study, and lots of review before the changes are made.

Green chalks the opposition up to general fear of change, and said no research topics will be lost during the consolidation of grant proposals.

"I feel a great deal of empathy for the proposing community, because I’ve been there. I know the angst. And so when you start making changes in the program it’s easy to misunderstand what we’re trying to do," Green said.

But in fact, Green said, the changes will be subject to a lot of review and alterations if things do not translate from the existing grant structure to the new grant-proposal structure.

"We’re trying to bring the disciplines of our field together. The planetary science subcommittee will review the language and give us recommendations and point out places where we need to update that and then we’ll update it and then we’ll issue the final calls," Green said. "But then we’re not done with the review either. Then the community will write their proposals, they’ll send them in and we’ll go through the reviews. And then everything that we do in this area is peer reviewed."

NASA will continue to make changes to the program after that stage and ask, "How well did this work?" so the following year all the problems are worked out, Green said.

Ultimately, Sykes said he wants the agency to hold off one year on the changes. He would rather see all the problems worked out before NASA hits the launch button.

"They should delay this whole thing for at least a year, and rethink what they're doing, because I don't think it makes administrative or scientific or any other sense. They haven’t really demonstrated any benefit other than they can better explain how it relates to the strategic goals of the planetary division to people," Sykes said.

Green said waiting doesn't make sense.

"Well if we delay it a year, why don’t we just delay it two years, why not just not do it? That’s not what we’re trying to do," Green said. "We’re trying to be accountable for our program. We have to communicate to Congress, and the American public, and the people the things that we do, and those things are our top level goals and objectives, our strategic goals and objectives.”

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