When a decadal survey is released and presented to its sponsor, it represents the consensus of that discipline’s community. However, once the survey is released, its membership is no longer officially a part of the advisory apparatus for ensuring that the survey is accurately and faithfully implemented. That job in large part rests with the standing committees of the Space Studies Board (SSB), one for each of the four Earth and space science disciplines. Nevertheless, many of the workshop’s participants commented that the challenges that have arisen in the implementation of recent decadal surveys highlight important deficiencies in NASA’s advisory apparatus, as well as the limitations of the current standing committees. This session on decadal survey stewardship—the role of the mid-decade reviews and standing committees—focused on those challenges and the opportunities for strengthening the NASA advisory structure from an external (including the National Research Council [NRC]) and internal perspective; the role of the mid-decade (or midterm) assessments and standing committees; and why it is important to have stewards for the decadal surveys in the first place.
|Moderator:||Charles F. Kennel, University of California, San Diego; Chair, Space Studies Board; Co-Chair, Workshop Planning Committee|
Waleed Abdalati, Chief Scientist, NASA (retired)1
Stacey Boland, Senior Systems Engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Member, SSB Standing Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space; Member, 2007 Earth Science and Applications from Space Decadal Survey
Louis Lanzerotti, Distinguished Research Professor, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Member, SSB Standing Committee on Solar and Space Physics; Chair, 2003 Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey
Christopher McKee, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley; Member, SSB Standing Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics; Co-Chair, 2001 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey
Larry Esposito, Professor, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado
The moderator, Charlie Kennel, opened the session by asking the workshop participants to think about who is to care for the recommendations of the decadal survey and ensure that the basic values and intent of the surveys are maintained throughout their implementation. Kennel noted that the standing committees of the SSB stand down while decadal surveys are underway, during which time there are no
1 Waleed Abdalati was NASA’s chief scientist at the time of the workshop, but he retired from his position at the end of 2012 to return to the University of Colorado.
discipline-specific advisory bodies at the NRC providing input to the agencies and other stakeholders. Kennel also mentioned the mid-decade reviews as another important element of decadal survey stewardship. He concluded his introductory remarks by asking participants to consider which decadal survey the standing committees and mid-decade (or midterm) reviews are stewarding: the last survey or the next one? Perhaps, he suggested, an NRC task force could be established to outline preparatory efforts that could be undertaken for the “next” decadal survey.
Waleed Abdalati said that successful stewardship of the decadal surveys begins with a solid understanding of the surveys: what they are, how they come about, and how they are used. Abdalati suggested that not everyone views the surveys from the same perspective. He referred back to remarks made during Lennard Fisk’s keynote presentation earlier in the workshop where Fisk said that science at NASA is conducted on behalf of the science community. Abdalati said that this is worth thinking about in more depth, but he would characterize the science done at NASA as being conducted on behalf of the nation. To this end, the decadal surveys only deal with a couple of dimensions of a multi-dimensional challenge. There are other priorities involved in NASA science strategic planning, for instance, administration and congressional priorities, workforce and education issues, and interagency and international relationships, to name just a few. However, there exists a gap—a missing element—to bridge the advice from the scientific community with the implementation of said advice. Historically, filling this gap has been the responsibility of the various internal and external NASA advisory bodies; it is not simply a matter of NASA making judgments on how to proceed, but neither do these advisory bodies necessarily have the expertise to fully “flesh out” an implementation strategy. To alleviate this natural and healthy tension, he explained, all vested stakeholders need to clarify and align expectations. Abdalati takes a different view when it comes to the life and physical sciences in space (a.k.a. microgravity research) decadal survey,2 which he liked because it had clear expectations for what should be done. He contrasted the microgravity decadal to the other Earth and space science surveys, where NASA was expected to take the report and come up with its own implementation plan. He suggests that future decadal surveys explicitly articulate the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved and that those roles are agreed to in advance.
Stacey Boland then provided her thoughts on decadal survey stewardship from having worked on both a decadal survey and a mid-decade assessment and from currently serving on an SSB standing committee. She explained that the decadal survey process, from initial design all the way to implementation at the agency, is not only about bringing all stakeholders to the table, but keeping them there as well. All of the decadal surveys, she explained, face the challenge of providing specific and clear guidance while also allowing for flexibility in implementation. Ultimately, she said, reality is none of the scenarios a decadal survey committee has in mind, and the timescale of reality is significantly shorter than that of a decadal survey. As opposed to laying out an explicit implementation scheme in the survey, Boland said that what is important when transmitting a decadal survey to NASA and other sponsors is to make sure that the decadal survey clearly states what overriding concerns and issues those implementing the survey must take into account when making their decisions on how to execute the survey. Along the same vein, Boland told participants that trust and communication are the bridge that Abdalati previously mentioned.
Boland concluded her opening remarks by talking about the midterm assessment. The 2012 Earth science survey midterm review did not use grades, which can be used as an opportunity to cut budgets, regardless of whether a program or mission gets a high or low grade. The midterm needs to capture the progress being made in implementing a survey. In the case of the Earth science midterm, even though the launch cadence had not kept up, there was still significant progress made on the program, although much remains to be done. One thing the midterm emphasized in particular was that the original decadal survey emphasized Earth system science, which the current program had begun straying away from. Among other issues, Boland explained how the study committee used the midterm to provide corrective actions—
2 National Research Council, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011.
where necessary—to the Earth science program at NASA and give credit where it was due. Finally, midterm committees should not forget that there are many audiences for the report, including Congress, the administration, and the public.
Louis Lanzerotti, who has served on numerous decadal surveys and midterm assessments and has worked with the SSB and its standing committees for decades, noted that one of the trickier aspects of evaluating the success of a decadal survey’s implementation is that there are different timescales that can be used. Additionally, in the case of Earth science and solar and space physics, standing committees and midterms have to evaluate the science and applications elements of missions differently, but there is no consistent way of doing that. Lanzerotti said that the SSB and its committees serve as important strategic advisory bodies for the monitoring implementation of the surveys, as are the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees. However, Lanzerotti lamented the current state of NASA’s internal advisory apparatus and suggested it be overhauled. Acknowledging that it is important for NASA’s internal advisory committees to be FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act) committees, he mused on how to work within the constraints of FACA to improve the nature and type of advice these internal advisory bodies can provide NASA leadership. Lanzerotti also expressed concern that the SSB standing committees only meet once a year, as opposed to two or three times a year as in the past.3 If everyone agrees that communication and trust-building is as important as has been expressed thus far at the workshop, he said, then how can meeting once a year equate to effective communication?
Christopher McKee took the floor to provide some historical perspective from his decades of experience in the field. McKee noted that when (keynote speaker) Lennard Fisk was the associate administrator for NASA’s science programs, there was a strong SSB and internal advisory apparatus at NASA, implying that today the agency’s advisory bodies have been somewhat weakened. Concerning the midterm assessments, McKee echoed previous comments about their importance but said that they should not reprioritize the decadal surveys’ recommendations, in part because the midterms do not have the same level of community involvement as the surveys do. When he served on the committee for the 2005 astronomy survey midterm assessment, McKee said that the committee discussed whether and to what extent the priorities laid out in the 2000 decadal survey should be reprioritized because circumstances surrounding its implementation had changed so drastically. However, he explained, the midterm committee exercised restraint because 5 years of progress is an insufficient time period for making a determination about whether to reprioritize a decadal survey or not. The science does not evolve that much either; for instance, the question, How did the universe begin? will be included in decadal surveys for the next century.
McKee also said that NASA should not blindly follow the literal words of the decadal surveys, but rather follow the science objectives of the prioritized missions, noting that even though the science goals are not always ranked, the missions usually are. When it comes to figuring out alternate courses of action during implementation of a decadal survey based on changing budgetary or programmatic circumstances, McKee said it is possible to change the decision rules so long as they are consistent with the general principles and intent of the survey. Toward this end, he believes the midterm assessments are an appropriate juncture to look forward and consider what will be included in the next decadal survey, perhaps even recommending that NASA commission scientific and mission studies that would take place before the next survey begins. In addition, he said, stakeholders should consider more separation between establishing the science goals for the surveys and their implementation, perhaps by starting the science portion of the decadal a year before creating an implementation strategy (i.e., prioritizing missions), as opposed to doing both concurrently.
Finally, Larry Esposito began his opening remarks by stating the NRC’s strategic advice is shifting away from its traditional focus of a scientific perspective. Because of this change, there is a clear and important role for the SSB standing committees to pick up the mantle of providing strategic advice for the Earth and space sciences. However, he believes—as was mentioned by previous panelists—that the standing committees should meet more than once a year to foster more frequent communications and
3 As of 2013, the Space Studies Board’s standing committees will each meet at least twice per year.
strengthen relationships between agency representatives and standing committee members. Additional activities that might be undertaken by the NRC could be studies to track scientific or technical advances or studies to evaluate the resiliency of the NRC’s strategic advice in the political environment. Esposito also suggested that the standing committees be responsible for writing the first draft of the statement of task (SOT) for the next decadal survey for their discipline. The standing committees would be tuned to the latest scientific advances and state of the field and well aware of programmatic issues at NASA or other sponsor agencies, and they would be able to clearly establish how best to use the cost and technical evaluation process.
The panel discussion focused on the differences between the NRC standing committees and NASA’s internal advisory committees and how to strengthen the overall NASA advisory apparatus.
Charles Kennel began the discussion by voicing his agreement with previously made comments regarding the weakening of the standing committees and their ability to give advice to stakeholders. Referring back to comments made by Steven Squyres about the importance of getting a study’s SOT right, he said that the standing committees can provide crucial input to the negotiations between the NRC and NASA (among other sponsors).
Abdalati asked what the others envision for how in-depth the standing committees should get concerning survey implementation and other programmatic issues at sponsor agencies; somewhere between strategic advice and implementation lies tactical considerations. Kennel replied that the standing committees are groups of leaders in their disciplines who meet frequently enough to be familiar with the issues of their disciplines. Part of their job, he explained, is to identify issues or challenges as they first develop and quickly provide advice to NASA when requested. However, current NRC rules preclude the standing committees from giving formal advice, instead favoring a “spin off” approach where the standing committee membership is used for ad hoc studies. Lanzerotti concurred with this setup, saying that if the SOT is formulated properly, then it should be a simple matter of appointing the standing committee membership to the ad hoc study committee. Kennel noted that while this new set up helps restore some of the usefulness of the standing committees, they are not back to the same level of effectiveness as in previous iterations. McKee replied that he is fairly happy with the current set up of the standing committees.
The panelists were then asked what they think is the function of the standing committees versus that of the NAC subcommittees. Lanzerotti described how there was a time when the SSB and the NAC mirrored one another and coordinated their functions; the NAC could handle short-term issues and had access to sensitive government information that the SSB could not see. However, because of their close working relationship, there was significant cross-talk between the two. Kennel said that after the internal NASA apparatus had been severely weakened in the 2000s, it is now rebounding under strong leadership from its current chair, and the previously mentioned cross-talk between the NAC and SSB is restarting.
Many panelists agreed that often the effectiveness of the standing committees and NAC comes down to selecting the right people for the job. Nevertheless, determining who those people are is still a very tricky business. Abdalati suggested structuring the committees and NAC to ensure they are resilient and able to function even if the “wrong” people are selected.
Workshop participants made comments and posed questions to the panelists, as described below. Topics discussed included the following:
• NASA advisory apparatus,
• Midterm assessments,
• Community engagement,
• Decadal survey utilization,
• Decadal survey preparatory activities, and
• Decadal survey leadership and structure.
An audience member asked who decides what science is conducted by NASA and others. The audience member expressed that they are not comfortable when parts of the government, like the U.S. Senate, begin specifying launch vehicle designs or require missions be designed in certain places. Waleed Abdalati said that he agreed with the audience member, adding that the SSB cannot completely fill the gap that currently exists in NASA’s advisory apparatus. The crux of the issue, he explained, is one of “bandwidth” and ensuring that lines of communication remain open between vested stakeholders. Another audience member said that the standing committees need to establish their legitimacy just as much as the decadal surveys do.
An audience member asked if community input in the form of white papers should be submitted to the midterm assessment committees. The panelists were generally uneasy about this idea, with many saying that it is not the purpose of the midterm assessments to reprioritize or call for the development of new missions. Nevertheless, Stacey Boland said that the standing committees should think about how to better canvas their communities for concerns about the status of the program. Another audience member said that she agreed with Boland’s earlier remarks about moving away from using grades or other simplistic metrics in the midterms.
An audience member said that the first chance the science community has to get involved with the decadal survey process is during the call for white papers. There is then only minimal opportunity for community involvement via panel and steering committee meetings, but he noted from personal experience that the planetary science community did not feel particularly engaged throughout the decision-making process. Public briefings and town halls at various conferences were not enough, in his opinion, and the community did not feel that it was adequately involved in the process. He recommended starting the decadal surveys by interacting with the broader community at conferences before the process starts and soliciting input to engage members of the community to build credibility for the decadal survey and its constituent members. He then asked the panelists for their thoughts on how to engage the community more deeply.
Louis Lanzerotti said that he heard from the former decadal survey chairs that attended scientific conferences and spoke positively of their experiences. However, the standing committees are another way to engage the community, and perhaps should be more heavily relied on for this function as decadal surveys are being set up. Christopher McKee said that the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey was a major advance for the white paper process, which he considered very successful. McKee then contrasted the white paper process with scientific conferences, where he said that sessions were often poorly attended until the final product was ready to be revealed. Larry Esposito also said he liked the idea of using the standing committees to reach out to and engage the community more.
A member of the audience said that solving the challenges of strategic planning in the Earth and space sciences is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” Still, while all involved parties need to better define and respect the roles of one another, she continued, no one at the workshop suggested scrapping the decadal surveys. From an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) perspective, decadal surveys represent crucial input from the Earth and space sciences communities. She went on to say that OMB and congressional appropriators need to know what missions are desired, and while they should be accompanied by credible cost estimates, it is best for the surveys to make sure they communicate that cost estimates are only notional. The participant also recommended giving OMB and Congress an opportunity to see and provide input to the SOT for the decadal surveys before they are finalized. She also noted that the public—that is, those outside the government or a specific discipline community—is, by and large, excluded from the decadal survey process.
A member of the audience referred to earlier comments made by panelist Charles Elachi about commissioning mission studies—particularly for large missions—prior to the start of a decadal survey. He asked the panelists what they thought of spending up to 5 years on such studies and suggested that the decadal survey committees and midterm assessment committees, as representatives of their communities, identify targets studies of large-scale missions for NASA to commission. Thus, every 5 years there would be a set of community targets communicated to NASA.
When asked by Waleed Abdalati how to ensure that the missions represent what the community really wants, the questioner said that these mission studies would not carry the weight of a decadal survey recommendation and that NASA would be free to do different missions if it chooses; but at the very least, the agency would have some cache for advice. Stacey Boland said the idea was worth consideration but that another good starting point for the Earth science program would be the 15 missions recommended by the 2007 Earth science decadal survey that have not gotten off the drawing board yet. Studies related to those missions, she suggested, would be very valuable input to the next Earth science decadal survey. Freilich said that he mostly agrees with that, and, in fact, NASA’s Earth Science Division is conducting those studies at $95 million per year for the largest of the missions with the goal of maturing the designs and making them more focused. Kennel said that almost all of the mistakes that lead to serious problems occur during the initial mission concept or pre-Phase A of the mission design process.
An audience member noted that NASA’s Heliophysics Division conducts roadmap exercises more frequently than the decadal surveys and asked if the roadmap activity serves a useful function in keeping science strategy fresh and frequently communicated. Abdalati said that the term “roadmap” is a bit strong, and if such an activity were consistent with and supplements the decadal survey, then there may not be much of a reason to do it. On the other hand, if it is different from the decadal, then he is not exactly sure what there is to be gained from it. In Abdalati’s opinion, he would not invest much in that type of activity. The community has spoken via the decadal survey, so why redo it?
A member of the audience asked the panelists what they think is the appropriate role for the chairs, co-chairs, vice chairs, and survey committee members after a decadal survey is publicly released. One thought he had is that when the group has completed its task, it should essentially “retire” from being involved any further. Another idea would be to have them continue on as advocates for the decadal surveys.
Lanzerotti said he did not stay involved in advocacy when he stepped down from chairing the 2003 solar and space physics decadal survey; rather, it was appropriate for the standing committee to handle the advocacy and stewardship of the decadal survey. He did testify before Congress concerning the decadal survey, but the remainder of stewardship activities rested with the standing committees. Although that was effective at the time, he is not sure he would be comfortable doing the same thing if he were in the same position today. McKee said that in astronomy it was assumed that the chair would continue to play an advocacy role, including making congressional visits for the first few years after the survey is completed. Calling on members of Congress or congressional committees personally, he said, is not really appropriate for the standing committees or individual members. Stacey Boland said that the co-chairs for the 2007 Earth science decadal survey were instrumental in that survey’s impact on the government and the community because of their advocacy and clearly reiterating the consensus surrounding the survey. She believes it was essential for them to be prominent following the release of the survey. Waleed Abdalati said that there needs to be a clear voice with authority to make statements on behalf of the decadal survey and serve as a consistent representative for the survey, the overall process, and the former members of the steering committee and panels.
Charlie Kennel noted that the decadal survey chair(s) can play a serious role in stewardship, but he noted that once a survey is completed and the immediate dissemination activities are completed, they are no longer an agent of the NRC and, thus, cannot speak on behalf of the organization. If a chair’s remarks are traceable to the decadal survey, then the NRC will not disavow him or her, but the chair will be seen as speaking as an individual if he or she makes statements that diverge from or contradict the decadal survey. The standing committees, by contrast, are established and have the authority of the NRC, which the former chair does not.
Another audience member said that the midterm assessment is another opportunity for the chairs to play a role to help clarify the original goals of the decadal survey. Such input will more closely align with the current state of the field with the original source material (the decadal surveys) used for evaluation. In response, Abdalati said that the chairs should also help make clear what the actual expectations for implementation of the surveys are and strongly recommended that missions be referred to as “notional,” as opposed to being recommended “as is.” In response to this statement, Larry Esposito noted that while the missions recommended by the surveys are not cast in stone, notional is too weak a term to use. The missions are not meant to be notional, he explained, but neither are they blueprints.