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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Suggestions as to how these recommendations might be implemented can be found in Chapter 2.
NAI Goal 2—Training the Next Generation of Astrobiologists
The NAI’s commendable effort to train the next generation of astrobiologists faces many challenges. The continuation of funding beyond the 5-year lifetime of NAI teams is not guaranteed. Young researchers seeking to establish themselves outside the protective environment of NAI teams face particular challenges when trying to accomplish interdisciplinary research within the highly discipline-oriented organization of research universities. The pool of resources for training new researchers is limited. Nevertheless, with respect to the goal of training the next generation of astrobiology researchers, the committee finds that the NAI has:
Trained graduates who are now employed in academic and other positions;
Promoted the establishment of new programs and faculty positions in astrobiology at several universities; and
Not been sufficiently proactive in countering the negative effects on training and education programs caused by recent cuts to NASA’s Astrobiology budget.
The committee recommends that the NAI should work toward developing more consistent educational and training opportunities. In addition, the NAI should ensure more stable support of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in astrobiology. Suggestions as to how this recommendation might be implemented can be found in Chapter 3.
NAI Goal 3—Leadership for Current and Future Space Missions
Although the NAI has not played a significant role in the selection or execution of NASA missions, the field of astrobiology provides the intellectual and scientific foundation for much if not all of NASA’s current robotic solar system exploration missions and many of its astrophysical activities relating to the search for and characterization of extrasolar planets. The NAI’s influence has been indirect and has come through the actions of individual scientists affiliated with NAI teams. This is probably the most appropriate vehicle for the NAI’s involvement in NASA’s flight program. Thus, with respect to the goal of providing scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, the committee finds that the NAI has:
Encouraged astrobiologists to provide needed recommendations and expertise to NASA for mission planning;
Promoted the participation of astrobiologists in the science teams for current and future missions;
Organized activities, such as focus groups, that have strongly influenced NASA missions; and
Identified astrobiology questions that underpin most of NASA’s current flight programs.
The committee believes that the NAI must remain clearly focused on supporting NASA’s spaceflight missions, and so its highest-priority recommendation is as follows: Because its most critical function is to ensure that its research activities clearly contribute to NASA’s current and future spaceflight activities, the NAI should be more proactive in identifying future astrobiology missions. In addition, the NAI should actively encourage a partnership between astrobiologists and their engineering counterparts to help define future NASA missions.
The committee also recommends that in selecting new nodes, the NAI should give more weight to the potential contribution of the proposed research to future NASA missions.
Suggestions as to how these recommendations might be implemented can be found in Chapter 4.
NAI Goal 4—Use of Information Technology
The NAI experience with information technology has been mixed. Those aspects of the application of information technology within the control of NAI Central—e.g., its extensive and informative Web page with its archive