Tight budgets and competing priorities over the past decade have diminished NASA’s life and physical sciences program, leaving the agency poorly positioned to take full advantage of the laboratory environment aboard the international space station (ISS) as it transitions from assembly to full-scale utilization this year, a study by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) asserts.

The April 5 report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era,” said elevating NASA’s life and physical sciences research program could yield biological insights and technological advances needed to facilitate human space exploration. One of a series of so-called decadal surveys the NRC has produced for NASA, and the first on life and physical sciences related to manned exploration missions, the report outlines research priorities for the next decade that could result in substantial payoffs for human exploration of space.

NASA’s life and physical sciences budget was approximately $500 million in 2002; today it is less than $200 million. Most of that funding currently goes to NASA’s human research program within the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, while just $47 million funds the space station’s life and physical sciences research program, the NRC report says. As a result, the station’s portfolio of scientific research, which in 2002 funded 966 investigations, had diminished to 285 as of 2008.

In urging NASA to re-establish its life and physical sciences initiatives, the NRC recommends a program governed by a central management authority with access to a stable funding base.

“It is now time for NASA to return to a high level of programmatic vision and dedication to life and physical sciences research to ensure that the considerable obstacles to long-duration human exploration missions in space can be resolved,” the report states.