As NRAs are released, more should be done to disseminate them widely to the communities that might be interested in using NASA biotechnology facilities on the ISS. Protein crystal growth scientists and cell science researchers, but especially the latter, identify themselves with a variety of different professional organizations, publications, and conferences. Currently, the NRAs are sent to NASA's own mailing list, as well as to lists obtained from the Biophysical Society, the Society for In Vitro Biology, and Protein Science. Notices about the NRAs are also posted in Nature and Science and in publications of the American Society for Cell Biology and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. There are many other publications through which funding opportunities could be communicated. For protein crystal growth, some examples are the newsletters of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) and the American Crystallographic Association. For cell science, possibilities include journals such as Trends in Cell Biologyand the newsletters of organizations such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' Food, Pharmaceutical, and Bioengineering Division, the American Chemical Society divisions of Biochemical Technology and Biological Chemistry, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Although the NRAs are currently posted on the Internet, NASA maintains so many Web pages that the online NRA is probably useful more as a reference for those who are already aware of the opportunity than as an introduction to the program. Another approach to expanding the pool of potential researchers would be to issue NRAs in collaboration with other federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Biotechnology Program in the Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the NSF Biological Sciences and Regulatory Biology Divisions, and the Department of Energy. Cross-cutting projects could also be supported via memos of understanding with these other government agencies.
In addition to broadening the dissemination of NRAs, more could be done to provide sufficient background information for potential investigators who are not familiar with NASA programs. In particular, new investigators interested in flight experiments typically need to be introduced to the special opportunities and constraints of ISS-based research. A lack of familiarity may inhibit some investigators from submitting proposals and may also decrease the probability that paradigm-challenging proposals will be submitted. This difficulty in recruiting new investigators could be alleviated by NASA's hosting biotechnology workshops at relevant, widely attended national and international meetings. The task group recommends that these workshops focus not only on the biotechnology research topics currently supported by NASA but also on the hardware available for experiments on the ISS. Potential new investigators need this information about the specialized systems available and the limitations of space-based research in order to craft proposals that can reasonably be expected to reach the flight definition stage of grant review. More information on hardware opportunities, limitations, and constraints would assist new and experienced investigators in efficient and effective experimental design.
Another way to increase the quality and quantity of proposals submitted in response to NRAs is to more broadly disseminate the results of completed and in-progress NASA-funded work. The most comprehensive presentation of recent results in cell science is at the Investigators Working Group (IWG) annual meeting. Attendance at this meeting has grown rapidly; however, the attendees are already familiar with the NASA program and are composed exclusively of researchers and staff involved in the cell science work funded by NASA's Microgravity Research Division; broadening membership in the IWG to include investigators and NASA staff in the Life Sciences Division would increase cross-fertilization. Also, the task group recommends that NASA consider inviting outside speakers and guests to the IWG meetings to extend the reach of the presentations. Another mechanism to increase potential user awareness would be to encourage NASA-funded researchers to speak at a wider range of conferences. The task group cautions, however, that care must be exercised to ensure that presentations give a balanced portrayal of successes and limitations so as not to raise unrealistic expectations. Incorrect perceptions of the NASA programs can also arise from press releases that target the general public and portray potential future applications of the areas under study in NASA-funded fields as completed or current work. This publicity often leads to misconceptions about NASA's goals (the cell science program does not aim to grow artificial human organs in space) or accomplishments (the protein crystal growth work has not produced a new flu vaccine). NASA is a federally funded agency, so the importance of its work does need to be communicated to Congress and the public, but by allowing the widespread dissemination of vague or even inaccurate descriptions of the programs, NASA is seriously diminishing the credibility of its work within the scientific community.