Improving the Process for Solicitation and Review of High-Quality Research

Scientists who plan to compete for major research grants typically conduct preliminary studies well in advance of submitting a grant application. Thus, familiarity with and predictability of the research solicitation process is critical for enabling researchers to plan and carry out activities in their laboratories that enable them to prepare high-quality research proposals. A regular frequency of solicitations, ideally with multiple solicitations per year, would serve to maintain a community of investigators focused on life and physical sciences research areas relevant to NASA, thereby creating a sustainable research network. This approach is used successfully by other major granting agencies including the NIH and NSF.

An important goal for any funding agency is to ensure that supported research projects are aligned with agency needs. To meet NASA’s future space exploration goals, complex scientific and engineering problems need to be solved. Many of these problems will require team-based solutions bridging multiple scientific domains, which can be difficult to organize and sustain. To specifically incentivize this approach, research solicitations need to target not only individual principal investigator-driven applications but also team-driven research involving investigators with complementary interests. Further, solicitations should include both broad research announcements to encourage a wide array of highly innovative research grant applications and targeted research announcements to ensure that high-priority mission-oriented goals are met. This multifaceted solicitation approach would be expected to attract cutting-edge life and physical sciences research that both enables and is enabled by space exploration.

The rejuvenation of a life and physical sciences research program at NASA will depend on effective communications with the scientific community regarding research opportunities. Other major funding organizations (e.g., NIH, NSF) have established web-based links on their home pages for the dissemination of research information. In contrast, the NASA home page has no obvious link for scientists seeking information on research opportunities. Updating and expanding the Life Sciences Data Archive home page to include information on physical sciences research and providing a direct link to this site from the NASA home page would facilitate better communication with the life and physical sciences communities.

The process of peer review is firmly established as a mechanism for identifying the most meritorious research in any scientific area. The concept is embraced by the global research community and viewed as a guarantor for a transparent, fair, and equitable process that results in significant scientific progress. Life and physical scientists are familiar with the peer-review process utilized by many federal agencies, and the research community as a whole has extensive experience in navigating such processes. The legitimacy of the peer-review process is highly dependent on the adoption of review-panel recommendations by the respective funding agencies. Failure to follow recommendations raises the risk of alienating the research community, unless it is performed in a transparent and legitimate manner. The committee believes that NASA has a well-designed peer-review system for the evaluation of extramural research applications. The fluid physics program is one example. Several of the proposals from this program have gone on to become flight experiments. However, the committee also believes that the standards for Non-Advocate Review of intramural research could be elevated by ensuring that the review process, including actions taken by NASA as a result of review recommendations, is more transparent and includes clear rationales for prioritizing both intramural and extramural investigations. Past NRC reports12 have noted that spaceflight opportunities should unconditionally give maximal access to peer-reviewed experiments that have a strong basis in ground tests and spaceflight performance verifications. Given the severe limitations of actual spaceflight access, it is important that spaceflights do not carry science that has not been deemed of high merit by peer review and prioritized by NASA or formal NASA science partnerships. For example, including experts in space medicine on peer-review panels for space life sciences would help achieve this goal. As part of this effort, it is also important that there be coordination among agency assets, commercial payload developers, and flight systems developers in a manner that serves the best science and reduces the end-to-end time for flight experiments.

The transparency of the process by which intramural and extramural research projects are selected for support after peer review for scientific merit could be ensured if NASA assembled a research advisory committee, composed of 10 to 15 independent life and physical scientists, to oversee and endorse the process. This committee would be charged with advising and making recommendations to the leadership of the life and physical sciences program

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