Commentary | The Diminishing Space Science Workforce: A Crisis in the Making

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In the last two years, decreasing space research budgets have put unprecedented pressure on core parts of the U.S. civil space program. NASA’s continued emphasis on large flight missions has meant that money needed for support of individual space scientists, their students and the university research infrastructure has been cut to the bone. Thus, a crisis has descended on space and Earth sciences in this nation that is more pervasive and profound in many ways than any faced in past decades.

The challenge confronting our nation’s space program most deeply impacts the cadre of our nation’s younger scientific researchers. It is this group who have carried the load for NASA and who daily are pushing back the frontiers of solar science, space physics and planetary exploration.

In the U.S. National Academies’ 2012 decadal survey in solar and space physics, we argued strenuously that NASA and other space agencies needed first and foremost to have a healthy, vibrant and productive scientific workforce. For NASA, this focus was embodied in a low-cost, but highly leveraged, initiative labeled DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate). The decadal survey urged that before new major spaceflight missions are undertaken by solar and space physics, NASA should focus on data analysis, modeling, small spacecraft and numerous other affordable and effective science activities that directly and efficiently support individual scientists, their students and young researchers. This is counter to the usual advice given to NASA that has emphasized large missions. We believe this is the right and prudent thing to do in these fiscally challenging times.

Despite the clarity and simplicity of the National Academies’ advice to the nation and to the relevant agencies of government, research and analysis funding continues to be neglected. We have seen success rates for early career scientists plummet from 30-40 percent just a couple of years ago to numbers hovering around 10 percent today. And it is not a question of suddenly there being too many scientists. Rather, there is an engaged and right-sized community, poised to accomplish the important needs of the nation as detailed in the decadal survey. However, the community is not able to do this owing to an imbalance of resources. This situation means that young scientists may have to write 10 or more proposals just to get one science proposal funded. This is driving away bright young researchers and will surely destroy our world-leading space science community.

To have a successful and thriving U.S. space program, we need balance. One form of balance is the long and successful three-way partnership of government-industry-academia. But another way to view the issue is to recognize that small-end research needs must be balanced against costly flight missions. Both are necessary for a healthy space program, but placing too much emphasis on large missions can essentially eliminate individual researchers, students and postdoctoral scientists. What kind of future space program will we have in this nation without a workforce to exploit the data from large missions?

From the point of view of our discipline of solar and space physics (known as heliophysics within NASA), the progress made in the last decade has been truly astounding. Successful missions have given researchers striking new views of the sun’s outer atmosphere and surface layers. Techniques have been honed through helioseismology to peer deep within the sun’s interior. Earth’s space environment has been examined on essentially all spatial and temporal scales by key magnetospheric missions. Stunning new discoveries about the Van Allen radiation belts have rewritten the textbooks about how particles are accelerated, transported and lost in cosmic systems. New measurements are revealing how our solar system fits into the local part of our galaxy, and the venerable Voyager spacecraft are directly probing the local interstellar medium. By any measure, the heliophysics community members have been excellent stewards of the resources granted to them. But the failure now to nurture the research workforce in this community is fundamentally threatening continued progress and success.

We call upon NASA (and other agencies such as the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in the most urgent terms to adopt the guidance of the 2013-2022 decadal survey. Look first and with the greatest care to restoring vigor and balance to the research workforce. Put resources immediately into rebuilding the NASA Explorer line of small spacecraft. Utilize the myriad opportunities for sounding rockets, balloons, cubesats and hosted payloads on commercial space vehicles. Fund data analysis and modeling efforts for existing missions so that heliophysics can extract full scientific measure from investments already made. By undertaking these initiatives we will revitalize the scientific community on which we depend, and assure that progress on space weather will continue to safeguard our technological society to the greatest extent possible.

In our view, increasing the annual NASA investment in heliophysics by as little as $20 million could allow all these basic and applied research aspirations to be met. Stated bluntly, it requires an increase of less than 3 percent of the annual heliophysics budget, or only 0.4 percent of the NASA science budget, to restore health and vitality to the space physics workforce. The administration and the Congress could never make a better investment than this one.

 

Daniel N. Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Lennard A. Fisk is the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished Professor of Space Science at the University of Michigan. Harlan E. Spence is director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire. Baker was chairman and Fisk and Spence were members of the decadal survey steering committee.