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Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute
continue to grow within the United States, it will be necessary to provide broader opportunities for formal training of the next generation of students by developing integrated curricula and programs of study at leading educational institutions.
Promoted the establishment of new programs and faculty positions in astrobiology at several universities. There are not many faculty appointments in astrobiology, but the breadth of training does appear to help graduates obtain positions in related departments, according to comments provided to the committee by former NAI postdoctoral fellows and NAI PIs. Success in establishing new university education programs in astrobiology comes with special requirements, including assembling a critical mass of university faculty who collectively represent the major subdisciplines of astrobiology, providing reasonable breadth in the curriculum and research environment, and supplying sustained support that allows programs to grow to a steady state including the capacity to confer formal degrees.
Not been sufficiently proactive in countering the negative effects on training and education programs causedby recent cuts to NASA’s Astrobiology budget. The instability created by these cuts has had an adverse effect on the growth of graduate training programs, interrupted student research programs, and discouraged many students from entering the field. Stability in training and education programs will remain a key requirement for the continued success of the NAI.
Recommendation: The NAI should work toward developing more consistent educational and trainingopportunities. In addition, the NAI should ensure more stable support of graduate students and postdoctoralresearchers in astrobiology. The committee suggests the following actions to implement this recommendation:
The NAI Fellowship program could continue to be supported at a level commensurate with the number of NAI nodes and used to provide more stable support for graduate researchers. In addition, to promote the growth of interdisciplinary interactions, fellows could be encouraged to pursue science projects that cross-link the expertise at two or more NAI nodes.
One route to developing formal curricula would be to encourage the establishment of one or more member nodes in astrobiology that emphasize the synergy between research and the training of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. NASA Specialized Centers for Research and Training (NSCORT)—e.g., the NSCORT in Exobiology at the University of California, San Diego or the New York Center on Studies of the Origins of Life—provide a potential model for how such nodes might be established. An external review of the two NSCORTs issued in early 2002 attested to the quality of the two programs and commented that “the NSCORTs have served to enhance greatly the education of the next generation of astrobiologists, breaking down barriers between fields, and enhancing multidisciplinary research. The result is a remarkable cohort of young scientists who are creatively addressing questions in the field of astrobiology or who are bringing these abilities to more traditional fields. The breadth and depth of knowledge that the students obtain and the excitement they continue to display for astrobiology research is a direct result of the NSCORTs.”15 Given that most NAI nodes lack the resources to establish such programs and that their growth requires commitments longer than 5 years, such training programs could be sustained by an NSCORT-like program within the NAI that runs in parallel with more research-oriented activities.
The NAI could consider continuing its policy of the selective use of the DDF to stabilize student funding levels and to protect them against future cuts. It is important for NASA to recognize that continuity for the training of the next generation of astrobiologists is essential for the development of astrobiology as a credible field of science.