The following HTML text is provided to enhance online
readability. Many aspects of typography translate only awkwardly to HTML.
Please use the page image
as the authoritative form to ensure accuracy.
Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in 1998, 3 years before the University of Washington’s involvement with the NAI. The committee was told, however, that the NAI funds were important to the development of the University of Washington’s astrobiology program because the IGERT grant principally supported student salaries and provided very little for student travel or research. The NAI funds were used to support the research undertaken by the IGERT graduate students.11 Such sustained funding is critical for gaining the cooperation and support of university administrators, who must concern themselves with the long-term value of a program to the educational institution and the university’s ability to sustain students entering the field. The NAI’s recently instituted Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) grant program has been an effective tool for providing opportunities for the NAI to provide continuity of support for students who lose funding during the course of completing their degree.
BALANCE OF NAI ACTIVITIES
The training of young scientists by the NAI has been accomplished mainly through postdoctoral positions funded by the individual NAI teams. A minority of postdoctoral fellows (approximately 10 percent) are funded via a highly competitive NAI-wide postdoctoral fellowship program, which has provided full support (salary, benefits, and travel) for approximately six new junior scientists each year. Fellowships are renewable annually for a maximum of 3 years, during which fellows typically spend time at two or more NAI nodes, thus broadening their research experience. Statistics maintained by NAI Central indicate that most if not all former-NAI postdoctoral fellows have successfully moved into academic and research positions in the field.12 However, the postdoctoral program currently appears to be underfunded and overly competitive. Six new NAI postdoctoral fellows were selected each year between 2000 and 2005, except in 2003 and 2004 when five and seven were selected, respectively. However, only four fellows were selected in 2006, and only one was selected in 2007.13 Clearly, the budget cuts experienced by the Astrobiology program in 2006 have had a severe impact on the recruitment of junior scientists.
As noted previously, graduate training efforts by the NAI have been promoted primarily through activities at the member nodes, although NAI Central has provided grants to support graduate student travel to meetings and occasional field seminars. Modest support for graduate student fieldwork has also been provided each year, for example, through the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Fieldwork, a program jointly sponsored by the NAI and the American Philosophical Society.
Graduate-level education and training have been implemented primarily through student involvement in research activities at the various NAI nodes. However, many academic departments around the country and at several NAI nodes have now established graduate and undergraduate courses in astrobiology, which is evidence of the impact of the field on university education. Such courses are currently supported by a half dozen textbooks published since the NAI was established, several of which have been written by scientists affiliated with the NAI. However, formal NAI-supported training programs, enhanced by organized curricula that could lead to the chance to earn minor degrees or certificates attached to traditional disciplines, have so far been successfully established only by the NAI team at Pennsylvania State University. This particular program appears to have been possible because of the longer period of commitment afforded by NAI’s award of funding for a second 5-year term.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE NAI ACTIVITIES
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. Former NAI postdoctoral fellows who contacted the committee reported that they had been very successful in obtaining employment in their fields, although they are not always engaged solely in astrobiology. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by statistics compiled by the NAI showing that most, if not all, of its former postdoctoral fellows have moved on to academic positions or other research appointments.14 However, the training of graduate and undergraduate students in astrobiology has been hampered to some extent by a scarcity of formal educational programs. If the field is to