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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? Executive Summary The field of space physics research has grown rapidly over the past 20 years both in terms of the number of researchers and the level of investment of public money. At first glance, this would seem to portend a happy, prosperous community. However, rumblings of dissatisfaction have been building, and periodic reports have surfaced indicating that the huge investments have not produced the desired outpouring of new experimental results. To move beyond anecdotes and perceptions, this report seeks to first substantiate, and then unravel, this seeming paradox by asking: Why has increased research funding been accompanied by decreased effectiveness in the conduct of space physics research? BIG AND LITTLE SCIENCE Central to this discussion is an understanding of the distinction between ''big'' and "little" science, both in general and specifically as these terms apply to space physics. The first thing to note is that these concepts are far from static. Whether a given project is perceived as big or little science depends on when it is observed (many of today's small projects would have seemed daunting and ambitious 20 years ago), on how it compares to other endeavors within a subfield (a small satellite project might dwarf a large ballooning experiment), and what funding agency it falls under (a large project at the National Science Foundation [NSF] might be viewed as a modest effort at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]). Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish broad char-
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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? acteristics of big and little science. Each offers particular research capabilities, and each presents certain challenges to be overcome. Big science programs generally pursue broad scientific goals perceived to be of national importance. They are costly and technically complex and incorporate many experiments. As a result, they tend to be defined and managed by committees of administrators, and they require long planning and selling phases. Funding must generally be sought from Congress on a project-by-project, and sometimes year-to-year, which results in a large measure of uncertainty. On the other hand, the archetypal small science project is run by an individual or by a small team of researchers with its own specific research goal. These projects are less expensive and can be implemented relatively quickly. Funding for small science is typically obtained by submitting grant proposals to compete for core program funds within an agency. Ideally, the large body of experimental results and discoveries coming out of small science help define and fashion the big science programs, which in turn provide platforms for many additional experiments. Unfortunately, many observers believe that this synergism has been deteriorating. Within the field of space physics, this report examines funding mechanisms, the nature of the research community, and the conduct of research itself to see how these factors have evolved over the past two decades. DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE RESEARCH COMMUNITY An examination of data from relevant professional associations, and an intriguing though limited NASA survey, reveal a growth in the space physics research community of roughly 40 to 50 percent from 1980 to 1990. The median age of academic researchers is rising significantly and most dramatically among those who describe themselves as experimentalists. Of the graduate students who responded to the NASA survey, only 10 percent were involved in instrumentation. In an empirically driven field such as space physics, this is a cause for concern. TRENDS IN THE AVAILABILITY AND DISTRIBUTION OF FUNDS Since 1975, overall federal research funding in all fields has shown a steady increase, resulting in greater than 40 percent growth (adjusted for inflation) from 1975 to 1990. University-based researchers have been the primary beneficiaries of this growth. Although the data are harder to come by, relevant Figures from NASA and several universities indicate that the growth in funding for space physics research has been comparable to these overall trends. However, these figures lump together many different kinds of projects and funders. For example, one element of space physics funding is the base-funded (or core) program, which is the primary source of support for small science endeavors. This report looks at base-funded programs at both NSF and NASA
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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? and finds, contrary to the trends described above, that they have not even kept up with inflation and have certainly not been able to keep pace with the explosion in grant requests. As a result, grant sizes have decreased, and the percentage of proposals accepted has dropped. A rough calculation shows that researchers must now write two to four proposals per year to remain funded, up from one or two in 1989. Of course, increasing the time spent searching for support means that less time is spent on productive research. Rising university overhead and fringe benefit costs, that consume more and more of each grant dollar exacerbate this problem. Clearly, the base-funded program has not participated proportionately in the overall space physics research funding increase. Although we do not attempt to quantify the effect this has had on the quality of science produced, we do find that the core program has become much less efficient during the past decade. We also infer that the lion's share of new funding has gone into project-specific funding, most of which involves big science efforts. TRENDS IN THE CONDUCT OF SPACE PHYSICS A detailed examination of the history of satellite launches, solar observatories, rockets, ballooning, theoretical modeling, and data analysis reveals several important trends relevant to our understanding of the space physics paradox. For each type of experimental or analytical activity, this report considers trends in technical complexity, implementation times, amounts and sources of funding, and planning activities. Looking first at satellite launches, including space-based solar observations, we find that implementation times have soared. Is this due to their increasing size and technical complexity or to mushrooming planning, selling, and coordinating activities? Experience in other programs indicates that the latter plays a major role. Ground-based solar observatories, whose complexity has not evolved enormously, still experienced huge implementation delays over the past two decades as a result of protracted study, design, and redesign efforts and the need to extract new-start approvals and continued appropriations from Congress. One effect of long implementation times, especially in the satellite program, has been to all but eliminate new experimental opportunities. Conversely, the rocket and balloon programs, which tend to be funded from agency budgets and controlled by individual researchers, have experienced great increases in technical capability without crippling administrative delays. Technical problems do arise and must be overcome, but these temporary delays do not seem to exert an ongoing drag on progress. In general, increased implementation times seem to be correlated with program planning and management characteristics as much as, or more than, with technical complexity. On the other hand, programs run predominantly by individual researchers who are dependent on grants (e.g., rocketry, ballooning, theoretical work, data analysis) continue to be hampered by falling grant sizes, in-
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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? creased competition for budgets that are barely growing or are actually shrinking relative to inflation, and the inefficiencies that result from these struggles. CONCLUSIONS The accumulated data and findings presented in this report can be embodied in four broad conclusions. Conclusion No. 1: The effectiveness of the base-funded space physics research program has decreased over the past decade. This decrease stems mainly from a budget that has not kept pace with demand, a time-consuming proposal submission and review process, and rising university overhead rates. An effective base-funded program is essential for the incubation of new ideas and for broad support of the scientific community. Conclusion No. 2: Factors such as planning, marketing, the funding process, and project management have become as responsible for the increased delays, costs, and frustration levels in space physics as technical complications related to increasing project size and complexity. More complicated management and funding structures may be a natural result of the trend toward larger programs. Still, the true costs of these requirements should be acknowledged, and they should not be imposed in programs where they are not necessary. Conclusion No. 3: The long-term trend that has led to an ever-increasing reliance on large programs has decreased the productivity of space physics research. Big science is often exciting, visible, and uniquely suited for accomplishing certain scientific goals. However, these projects have also been accompanied by implementation delays, administrative complications, funding difficulties, and the sapping of the base-funded program. Conclusion No. 4: The funding agencies and the space physics community have not clearly articulated priorities and developed strategies for achieving them, despite the fact that the rapid growth of the field has exceeded available resources. Lacking clear guidance from a set of ranked priorities, the funding agencies have absorbed into their strategic plans more ideas and programs than could be implemented within the bounds of available, or realistically foreseeable, resources. Too many programs are then held in readiness for future funding, driving up total costs and often ending in project downsizing or cancellation. RECOMMENDATIONS Based on the conclusions described above, the committee makes four interrelated recommendations aimed at policymakers, funders, and the space physics research community. The committee believes that implementation of these recommendations could greatly increase the amount of productive research accom-
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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? plished per dollar spent and reduce the level of frustration expressed by many space physics researchers without any overall increase in funding. Recommendation No. 1: The scientific community and the funding agencies must work together to increase the proportionate size and stability of the base-funded research program. As noted above, a steady development of new ideas is necessary to advance the field of space physics. With a larger, more stable core program, agencies can increase grant sizes and durations, enabling researchers to focus more on science and less on funding. Recommendation No. 2: The funding agencies should ensure the availability of many more experimental opportunities by shifting the balance toward smaller programs, even if this necessitates a reduction in the number of future large programs. The future of space physics requires access to new research opportunities and the ability to train and develop new scientists. Although large programs have the potential to provide many experimental opportunities, their risk of failure must be counterbalanced by more frequent small programs. Recommendation No. 3: In anticipation of an era of limited resources, the space physics community must establish realistic priorities across the full spectrum of its scientific interests, encompassing both large-and small-scale activities. In the absence of clear priorities, programmatic decisions will ultimately be made on the basis of considerations other than a rational assessment of the value of the program to the nation's scientific progress. Scientific goals should not be lightly altered or set aside, and ongoing projects initiated in response to established scientific priorities should be insulated as much as possible from the effects of short-term fluctuations in resources. Prioritization must include an assessment of the balance between the capabilities and limitations of both big and little science. Recommendation No. 4: The management and implementation processes for the space physics research program should be streamlined. Requirements put in place to ensure accountability and program control are now taking their toll in delays and inefficiency. Planning, reviews, oversight, and reporting requirements should be reduced in many instances, even at the expense of assuming a somewhat greater risk. Recognizing the strong self-interest of researchers to succeed, greater authority should be delegated to principal investigators, who on the whole have demonstrated their ability to get results more quickly and efficiently. The four recommendations outlined above are highly interrelated. Streamlined management processes will further boost the productivity of a stabilized core program. Priority setting will enable the few most critical big science projects to be pursued without jeopardizing ongoing research. Taken together, we believe these recommendations provide a blueprint for a stronger, more productive space physics research community.
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A Space Physics Paradox: Why has Increased Funding Been Accompanied by Decreased Effectiveness in the Conduct of Space Physics Research? This page in the original is blank.
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