Posted inOpinion

OpEd: Science Adrift

Throughout NASA’s 47 years, there have been two earnest attempts to consolidate and raise the Life Sciences to appropriate status as one of the three science disciplines. But when I was not replaced after leaving the agency in 2000 after serving as director of the life sciences division, the d ivision was once again split up, and activities were eliminated or absorbed under the current Exploration Office.

The life scientists at NASA Headquarters were disbanded and annual NASA Research Announcements suspended. The science community was distanced. Productive, profitable partnerships with 10 institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) collapsed. Today, t he presence of a life scientist in any external advisory function to NASA is hard to find.

Recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institute of Medicine in reports commissioned by NASA are falling on deaf ears.

The bottom line is that Life Sciences was never fully acknowledged as one of the science disciplines within NASA. Why? The event-science approach of Space Sciences differed from the experimental approach fundamental to our discipline. Its strongly established constituency saw Life Sciences as competition for resources. Support from the biological and biomedical communities took time to develop.

The primary source of funding for the biomedical sciences and biology communities were and are the NIH and National Science Foundation.

With the exception of plant biologists, the role of gravity on living systems and health was unknown or not considered significant by mainstream scientists. It was a wholly new concept, which on average takes about 50 years to make it into the textbooks.

The Space Age provided the tool to reduce the influence of gravity as a variable, with NASA a major means of access. Space life sciences was handicapped by budgetary constraints, a limit of tailored research space platforms, the restriction to no more than four test subjects at a time and prohibitive documentation requirements to access space. We had no constituency in the science community and certainly not within NASA. It is a tribute to the perseverance and quality of the early NASA intramural scientists whose work, collaborations and networks got this new field going. They and their successors helped keep today’s astronauts healthy.

Exploration cannot become reality without the understanding that comes from systematic, solid, focused research. Much remains to be learned of the physics, biology and physiology of microgravity, partial gravity and space radiation to diminish the many risks of such space ventures. The foundation for the practice of clinical space medicine and better countermeasures against the adverse effects of reduced gravity must be developed.

NASA has sold itself short on the value of its applications to the public. In the words of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chair of the Committee on Science and Transportation: “The space program is an important part of our nation’s ability to keep our competitive edge, and to stimulate interest in science and education.”

The life and microgravity sciences programs that specifically probe the role of gravity in physical, chemical and biological processes have a successful track record of wealth-generating and societal benefits. It is filled with examples that are revolutionizing space age living and health care:

The discovery that protein crystals grow larger and purer in space coupled with three-dimensional cell growth techniques makes for more-efficient design and testing of pharmaceuticals.

Life-saving medical instrumentation such as digital mammography and needle biopsy were developed in collaboration with the NIH.

Environmental sensors, pollution control technologies and improved human-robotic interaction were developed for life support systems.

Polymer films to reduce glare and scratching of the space suit visor found a huge market in glasses.

A cooling garment astronauts wear inside their space suit was adapted for firefighters.

Telemedicine and fetal sensors to telemeter vital signs from the home to the doctor are bringing cutting edge medical practice to remote areas.

Similarities of aging symptoms in returning astronauts and the elderly pointed to the health benefits of gravity, (a particular interest of mine) and dispelling myths surrounding aging (a particular interest of mine).

Other examples include exercise equipment and micro- and nanotechnologies. The annual revenue generated by these applications is estimated in the billions.

An alarming trend threatens to undermine the nation’s technological leadership. The number of American students awarded degrees in science and engineering has not kept up with other nations, and is only a third of that in Asian universities.

Such a shortfall is not solved by throwing money at schools. It needs the enthusiasm of motivated NASA scientist mentors and knowledgeable teachers to get children hooked. Yet hundreds of current and potential mentors, NASA-supported students inspired by a career in space research, are being added to the national deficit.

You cannot turn the clock back. Though life sciences took a crippling blow, space, earth sciences and aeronautics have not been far behind. Something must be done to recapture the focus and sheer excitement of the space program. Continued space development is indeed an important benefit to our nation through discovery, technology applications, opportunities and educational inspiration. NASA should continue to lead in innovation.

There have been at least two proposals to restructure the national space program: 20 years ago Joe Sharp, then director of space research at NASA’s Ames Research Center, proposed the separation of the sciences into a new dynamic agency; and in 2001 Tim Huddleston, chair of the Spaceflight Committee for the Aerospace States Association, wrote an op-ed in these pages suggesting a similar redirection of the national program whose goal would be “engendering economic prosperity for this nation.” The two are not incompatible. Both lead to intellectual stimulation, societal benefits and a substantial increase in the national pool of science and engineers.

In one of many NASA Strategic Plan exercises, former space agency Comptroller Mal Peterson boldly suggested the only structure that made good sense — organize NASA into enterprises and their assets. In this way, assets would only be purpose-built. Life sciences would select and control its assets — flight platforms, instruments and ground facilities — just as space science, earth science and aeronautics have always done. Such radical surgery will unleash a new vibrant momentum.

Joan Vernikos is the former director of NASA’s life sciences division in Washington and author of The G-Connection: Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging.