NASA should continue to bolster its efforts to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in leadership of competed space science missions, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report outlines both near- and long-term actions that NASA should take to meet its stated diversity and inclusion goals, such as expanding mentorship and mission-related training opportunities; improving data collection, monitoring, and reporting; and investing in STEM pathways, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

NASA identifies critical scientific needs for a mission by releasing a public announcement of opportunity. Members of the scientific community can apply to these competitively selected opportunities, with teams led by a principal investigator (PI). The mission PI role requires a wide array of experience in the scientific research field, including mission design and operation knowledge and team leadership and management skills. 

“By strengthening and increasing its DEIA policy, oversight, and programmatic efforts now, NASA can take advantage of the great excitement of space exploration to lead the way forward in diversifying and strengthening the U.S. space sciences workforce,” said Wanda Ward, executive associate chancellor for public engagement at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “This will require a multi-generational commitment, and our report recommends strong immediate and long-term actions to accelerate the rate of change in obtaining a robust competed mission workforce.”

The report recognizes the value of NASA’s recent work in advancing DEIA, including the release of an equity action plan, emphasis on how diverse and inclusive teams help maximize scientific returns, and taking steps to require and evaluate DEIA plans as part of its announcements of opportunity.

These strides forward notwithstanding, between 2010 and 2019, only 28% of competed missions selected by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) had female PIs. Notably, two of SMD’s four divisions that fund competed missions – the astrophysics and earth science divisions – did not fund any female PI-led mission proposals during this period. No comparable data on race or ethnicity were available to the committee.

Inadequate data gathering and reporting are critical barriers to NASA’s understanding of the efficacy of its own DEIA efforts to date, and of the proposal leadership pool’s demographics, according to the report. These are necessary steps for measuring progress, and for identifying and eliminating barriers in the mission proposal process. The report recommends developing a systematic approach to routinely monitor and track the demographics of those participating in NASA-funded research, both for competed missions and research and analysis grants, with the public release of the resulting data. Further, SMD should provide funding for professional organizations to regularly conduct workforce surveys across the directorate’s research fields to inform NASA on the demographics of the workforce and the barriers and opportunities for advancement along career pathways.

The report also recommends that NASA empanel a standing NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee specifically focused on DEIA issues. That committee should have a broad charter and world-class membership to advise top NASA leadership, and its chair should serve on the NAC.

Investing in Career Pathways, Mentorship, and Training Opportunities

NASA needs long-term, sustained investments in effective activities that inspire, educate, train, and mentor female scientists and scientists of color to engage in NASA mission-related work and leadership, the report says. 

“Preparation for competed mission leadership starts early in a career, and pinch points in the space sciences career path occur as early as the high school and initial college levels,” said committee co-chair Frances Bagenal, assistant director for planetary sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Therefore, it is critical to examine the full pathway into earth and space sciences careers, and identify opportunities to help diverse groups of young scientists receive the education and experience they need to join the pool of potential proposal leadership teams.”

The report recommends that SMD provide consistent and adequate funding for post-secondary education through professional career level STEM initiatives explicitly centered on DEIA, address recruitment and retention challenges, and expand opportunities for underrepresented groups to become more involved in mission leadership. HBCUs, MSIs, and non-Ph.D.-granting institutions receive less federal funding than many other universities, reflecting long-standing disparities in research capacity and infrastructure. Given that women, Black, and Latinx physics faculty are more likely to be employed at these less-resourced institutions, resource-intensive processes such as mission proposal development, preparation, and submission likely disadvantage prospective PIs from underrepresented populations.

Future programs and investments should redress historical inequities in NASA-supported research and training at HBCUs, MSIs, and Hispanic-serving institutions, says the report. Specifically, NASA should reinvest in talent development programs specifically related to its missions, further leverage ongoing programmatic efforts to advance broad access to all its missions, and provide funding to support mission-related work and activities to enhance research capacity. Further, NASA should employ systematic processes to document the measurable impacts of DEIA investments.

Enhancing Opportunities and Removing Barriers in the Mission Proposal Process

The report finds that the team formation and concept development phases of the mission proposal process often begin one or more years before NASA releases an announcement of opportunity, and they require significant resources, but access to needed resources is not uniformly available across proposing institutions. Moreover, these phases, in part, constitute an informal and opaque “competition before the competition” in which institutional level decision-makers effectively control the investments and the opportunities to become a PI, thereby directly shaping the diversity of the PI candidate pool.

NASA should make the pre-proposal and proposal processes more transparent and accessible, use its resources to expand support for diverse external potential PIs, and encourage institutions that support proposals to do likewise. SMD should also require submissions to include DEIA plans, integrate DEIA considerations into the mission proposal review as explicit evaluation criteria, and engage with subject-matter experts to implement these new policies and monitor adherence to DEIA plans through the mission life cycle.

In the longer term, NASA headquarters should develop a comprehensive agency-wide assessment of its proposal review processes, to track and reduce the impact of any possible bias in this stage of the process. While most of the recommendations in the report are aimed at the four divisions of SMD that manage competed missions, the report notes that if the suggested actions were carried out throughout the agency, a more diverse workforce would drive U.S. endeavors in space exploration.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in the Leadership of Competed Space Missions — was sponsored by NASA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

Josh Blatt, Media Associate
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