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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
Successfully integrated life sciences into NASA programs. There is much evidence of successful collaboration between biologists and non-biologists in the context of NASA activities, as evidenced by many of the NAI contributions highlighted in Boxes 2.1-2.13.
Often effectively leveraged ongoing and new research. To be productive, some of the successful astrobiology programs, especially those at various universities, have required funding and other support from non-NASA sources. The NAI’s programs have facilitated these relationships. A prime example of leveraging of funds is recounted in the discussion above concerning sub-seafloor life (see Box 2.6): a relatively small NAI contribution was more than matched by significant contributions in the form of infrastructure and operating costs borne by the Ocean Drilling Program. Similarly, the NAI support for the laboratory analysis of cometary materials (see Box 2.11) was an insignificant addition to the cost borne by NASA’s Planetary Science Division for the design, construction, launch, and operation of the Stardust spacecraft that actually collected the cometary samples and returned them to Earth. Finally, the Astrobiology Drilling Program could not have been undertaken without significant foreign contributions.
Contributed to the establishment of new astrobiology programs worldwide. There are now astrobiology institutes, centers, and programs in many countries. Most, if not all, trace their origins to the encouragement and inspiration provided by the NASA program.
Supported programs that are widely distributed throughout the United States. The universities and research institutions currently engaged in research in astrobiology are located throughout the United States, which will facilitate the continued growth of the field.
Recommendation: The NAI should institute better measures of performance and progress to improvethe accountability of its nodes in promoting astrobiology as a field of interdisciplinary and collaborativestudy. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation:
The NAI could consider conducting thorough, unbiased reviews of its nodes to ensure that they continue to nurture the NAI’s original intent to promote astrobiology as a field of interdisciplinary and collaborative study. These reviews could assess the extent to which the NAI strategy has promoted new approaches resulting in science or discoveries that would not have been pursued by traditional programs.
An iterative schedule of review, evaluation, and response during the active period of each award might serve to increase attention to facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations within nodes. The nodes could be required to demonstrate their collaborative, interdisciplinary activities through annual reporting that explicitly documents what is truly interdisciplinary. Site visits (virtual or actual) approximately midway through a node’s 5-year funding period could be instituted, and these visits could focus on evaluation of interdisciplinary, collaborative accomplishments.
Nodes submitting re-competition proposals could be required to show evidence of sustained and productive interdisciplinary interactions, specifically peer-reviewed papers by authors in different fields.
Interdisciplinary, collaborative research could be encouraged throughout all aspects of NAI activities. Proposals that clearly target questions that can only be addressed using interdisciplinary approaches could be favored, even if this means fewer nodes for a given announcement of opportunity. This is especially important if there is not sufficient funding to adequately support the desired number of nodes.
The NAI could seek ways to increase communication between nodes and reduce competitiveness between teams by offering incentives to promote interteam collaborative interactions. One simple incentive-based approach might be to institute a yearly award to recognize a team or teams that have been particularly successful in collaborative research.
NAI Central could continue to balance the number of nodes with projects funded by the DDF, so that all astrobiology activities in the NAI roadmap are represented. The DDF could be retained and could serve as a predictable and effective funding instrument. The majority of the DDF could be reserved for projects that explicitly support the NAI’s goal of conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research.
Recommendation: The NAI should improve the tracking and critical assessment of its publications. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation: