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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Has the NAI developed, as envisioned, as an evolving experiment in cutting-edge, distributed, collaborative science and education in astrobiology?
Does the NAI provide a unique and useful complement to other Astrobiology program support mechanisms (e.g., individual grants to principal investigators), and if improvements need to be made in this area, what are they?
Are the research, training, and public educational activities of the NAI appropriately balanced in terms of investments and outcomes, services to NAI members and external partners, and activities that engage and support the wider astrobiology community and the needs of young professionals?
What other activities or roles not currently undertaken by the NAI might be appropriate in the future?
The committee’s responses to these four criteria can be found in subsections in Chapters 2 to 6. Specific recommendations and suggestions as to how the recommendations might be implemented can be found in the final subsection of each of the same chapters.
Information on the origins of NASA’s Astrobiology program and the NAI; a summary of comments on the role, status, and scientific importance of astrobiology from previous NRC reports; and some information on the budgetary history and the impact of recent cuts to the Astrobiology budget can be found in Chapter 1.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Overall, the committee is unanimous in finding that the NAI has fulfilled its original mandate. The NAI has played a key role in supporting the development of astrobiology and has positively affected NASA’s current and future missions. The committee recommends that the NAI should continue to be supported. Specific findings and recommendations are organized according to the five goals and four criteria listed above
NAI Goal 1—Interdisciplinary Research
Although the committee was not charged to undertake a review of the NAI’s scientific contributions, it is difficult to evaluate the NAI’s success in conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research without some brief mention of the NAI’s scientific achievements. Consideration of the NAI’s major scientific contributions reveals that some are highly interdisciplinary but that some are not. In the committee’s view, interdisciplinarity must be viewed as the orientation and emergent quality of an overall enterprise and not as a requirement or expectation levied on every piece of work produced by that enterprise. Thus, with respect to the goal of conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research, the committee finds that the NAI has:
Successfully promoted interdisciplinary science;
Stimulated many scientific achievements;
Successfully integrated life sciences into NASA programs;
Often effectively leveraged ongoing and new research;
Contributed to the establishment of new astrobiology programs worldwide; and
Supported programs that are widely distributed throughout the United States.
The committee makes the following recommendations:
The NAI should institute better measures of performance and progress to improve the accountability of its nodes in promoting astrobiology as a field of interdisciplinary and collaborative study;
The NAI should improve the tracking and critical assessment of its publications; and
The NAI should encourage and cultivate interactions with non-NAI astrobiology teams and organizations throughout the world.