A new report from the National Academies questions the way NASA does science.

Like an old man with a harem, NASA is being asked to do too much with too little. That’s according to a National Academies review of the agency’s science programs, which found them under-funded, poorly focused and cut off from the larger scientific community.

In a statement accompanying NASA’s 2005 budget, Congress asked the National Academies’ National Research Council to investigate the agency’s science programs and recommend strategies for improvement. The committee assigned to draw up the report includes respected researchers from a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, including physics, biology and Earth science.

“Both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government need to seriously examine the mismatch between the tasks assigned to NASA and the resources that the agency has been provided,” states the report.

NASA’s science programs must compete for money and personnel with the agency’s many other tasks, including completing the International Space Station, returning to the moon and developing a replacement for the space shuttle.

Although budget concerns are the central challenge for NASA’s research programs, the report also makes suggestions for prioritizing where these funds go.

“It’s the funding, that’s basically what it is,” said Dwayne Brown, a spokesman for NASA. “But it’s also the mix: Do you have good balance with the money you do have? You have to look at that as well.”

Along with stressing NASA’s lack of adequate funding, the report also called for greater consultation with outside scientists, more focus on low gravity research and more small-scale missions in order to maintain institutional knowledge and develop new technologies.

The NRC also recommended keeping larger projects under budget, resuming funding into astrobiology and, in particular, more dedication to low-gravity research.

“If the agency is to pursue long-duration human lunar, and ultimately Mars, missions, it will have to answer fundamental questions about how the human body reacts to long-duration spaceflight,” reads to the report.
“NASA,” it continues, “is being compelled to accommodate near-term necessities at the expense of the future of human spaceflight.”

The report also stresses the need for NASA to remain connected to the rest of the scientific community, in part by consulting more with advisory boards such as the NRC, but also with its own internal scientific committees.

According to Brown, this part of the report is already being carried out.

“The science community and NASA are going to continue to meet and talk to try to mitigate the problems that the report identifies,” he said. “We always welcome the report. They’ve done a great job, and now it’s time to look at it with a fine-tooth comb.”

Despite the agency’s acceptance of the NRC’s critique, Brown said he does not expect NASA to immediately implement new policies.

“There’s nothing immediate when it comes to government—it takes time,” said Brown. “But I think, with the passion that the scientists and the scientific community have, the first step has been taken.”

Originally published May 8, 2006


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