Scientists unhappy with NASA’s budget priorities will get a chance to share their views when the U.S. space agency’s newly restructured science advisory subcommittee meets for the first time May 3-4.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin overhauled the agency’s advisory council last year, eliminating a number of standing committees and placing the streamlined structure under the leadership of former U.S. senator and Apollo astronaut Harrison Schmitt. Though the full NASA Advisory Council held its inaugural meeting last November, NASA officials had no science advisory subcommittee to turn to for guidance last year when they were building the agency’s 2007 budget request.
NASA’s budget request has been roundly criticized by the science community.
“From my experience, I cannot recall a budget request that has resulted in more consternation and outcry from the science community than this one,” Lennard Fisk, chairman of the National Academy of Science’s Space Studies Board and also a member of the NASA Advisory Council, wrote in the board’s most recent quarterly newsletter. “The consternation results in part from a confrontation with reality. The science budget of NASA has grown more rapidly than the agency’s budget as a whole since the mid-1990s. This is unsustainable. However, what is a surprise and a disappointment is how abrupt and draconian has been the downward adjustment to science.”
After being promised that their share of the NASA budget would continue to grow even as the agency embarked on an expensive new human space exploration initiative, scientists got a rude awakening in February when NASA unveiled a 2007 budget request that would hold science spending essentially flat at around $5.3 billion annually through the end of the decade. A number of science missions have been deferred or canceled, and funding for scientists engaged in research and analysis of data from NASA’s existing scientific satellites has been reduced significantly.
Griffin, who is scheduled to be on hand to start the two-day meeting at the University of Maryland Inn and Conference Center in Adelphi, Md., said April 25 he sees the meeting as “an opportunity to get science community feedback on what they would like the shape of the program to be given the kind of top line we are looking at.”
NASA will hear not only from its formal panel of scientific advisors but from members of the general public as well. The first half-hour of the second day of the meeting has been set aside for citizens to give three-minute presentations on what they like or do not like about NASA’s proposed science budget. Speakers have to sign up the evening before.
“What I expect to get is some community feeling for what’s important given the top line of $5.33 billion in the NASA budget, which is in fact a 1.5-percent increase from last year but not as much as the science community had been previously led to expect,” Griffin told Space News. “… We made our choices in the budget. Many have disagreed with those choices.”
Griffin has said previously that NASA is willing to make adjustments to its science spending plan provided a fairly clear consensus emerges on what the agency should do differently. “If there is a competing trend in one direction or another I would be heavily motivated to go where they want us to go,” Griffin told reporters during a mid-April teleconference. “If there is a cacophony of opinions … then we will probably stick with what we’ve got.”
Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society , said in an April 25 e-mail that the science community as a whole is “working together this year like never before.
“Since the proposed cuts and the proposed out-year budgets affect us all, we have really circled the wagons and are shooting outward. The culprits are a limited top-line NASA budget and ongoing costs for shuttle and station.”
Marvel said he was glad to see that the restructured NASA Advisory Council’s science subcommittee is finally ready to meet, attributing what he called NASA’s “poor budget decisions” to “a lack of a functioning advisory committee structure this past year.”
Asked if he thought the science community’s unity would hold up if NASA’s top line does not grow to allow more science spending, Marvel replied, “I think those questions will be answered during the sessions on May 3 and 4 … right now we know that the top line is not enough … to cover what we were planning on doing, let alone the new things.”
NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said the meeting is meant to fulfill commitments made by Griffin and NASA Associate Administrator for Science Mary Cleave “to create an opportunity for the science community to assess the mix of investment within each of the four major science areas among research and analysis and large and small missions.”
Brown said any recommendations for “changes in the mix” would be considered as NASA prepares its 2007 operating plan and 2008 budget request. The science advisory subcommittee, he said, is expected to convey any recommendations it might have in a letter to Schmitt by the time the full NASA Advisory Council meets again May 17-18.
NASA also is expected to receive by then a written report from the Space Studies Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Balance in NASA’s Science Programs. Space Studies Board Director Marcia Smith said April 28 that the committee expects to finish and submit its report in early May.
Meanwhile, the Tuscon, Ariz.-based Planetary Science Institute released survey results April 24 showing that 88 percent of the scientists queried ranked NASA’s research and analysis programs as their first or second funding priority. The survey, conducted in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, the SETI Institute of Mountain View, Calif., and the Space Science Institute of Boulder, Colo., was completed by more than 1,000 U.S.-based planetary scientists, or about half the community, according to Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute.