Charge and Approach
The newly constituted Committee on Solar and Space Physics (CSSP) has been tasked with monitoring the progress of recommendations from the 2013 decadal survey Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society3 (hereafter, “the decadal survey”). The committee held its first meeting as part of Space Science Week in Washington, D.C., on March 28-30, 2017. In advance of the meeting, and in response to discussions with the leadership of the Heliophysics Division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Geospace Section of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Science, the committee identified the decadal survey’s recommendation to create NASA-NSF heliophysics science centers (HSCs)4 as a timely topic for discussion. In response, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a charge to the committee, which is given in Box 1. The primary task to the CSSP was to “write a brief report to provide a set of options for NASA and NSF to consider for the creation of HSCs. Topics may include:
- How to make the HSCs unique from other [NSF Geospace and NASA Heliophysics] research elements; and
- Options for implementation (for example, consideration of a virtual institution).”
The conclusions expressed in this report are those of the CSSP members, who have expertise in many of the subdisciplines of solar and space physics. The committee’s approach to this task was to draw upon presentations and discussions at its March 2017 meeting involving the committee and representatives from the NSF Geospace Section, the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, the NASA Heliophysics Division, the NSF Physics Frontiers Centers (PFC), and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). From these, and from the original material provided in the decadal survey and other reports, such as the 2015 portfolio review of the NSF Geospace Section5 and its subsequent assessment by the National Academies,6 the committee provides guidance on the two questions in the statement of task. The report includes first a brief background and motivation section with descriptions of the PFC and NAI. The second section describes the ways that the HSC program can be made unique from existing research programs. The final two sections address options for implementation—first with a set of lessons learned and commonalities from the programs discussed at the committee’s meeting, and then with a set of best practices for the formation of the HSC program, including consideration of virtual elements of centers. Three summary conclusions were drawn from the meeting discussion and from the expertise of the committee members. These are discussed in context below and are reproduced here for convenience.
3 National Research Council (NRC), 2013, Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
4 The decadal survey coined the name “heliophysics science centers,” and herein the committee uses the terms “heliophysics” and “solar and space physics” interchangeably, to encompass all topics traditionally considered to be part of solar, heliospheric, and geospace science.
5 National Science Foundation (NSF), 2016, Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025, Geospace Section of the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Science, February 5, https://www.nsf.gov/geo/adgeo/geospace-review/geospace-portfolio-review-final-rpt-2016.pdf.
6 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), 2017, Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s 2015 Geospace Portfolio Review, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
CONCLUSION: Heliophysics science centers can be made unique by supporting a cross-cutting team approach and achieving the critical mass and agility necessary to tackle problems of greater depth or breadth than can be addressed by existing single investigator or small group programs.
CONCLUSION: The emphasis on multidisciplinarity and interagency coordination in the decadal survey recommendations and the level of funding, project duration, and phasing envisioned therein, are consistent with those of successful HSC-like programs considered by the committee.
CONCLUSION: Transformative HSC outcomes are best achieved by open competition, with selection based on the significance of the proposed science topics, alignment with NASA and NSF goals, compelling justification for a center approach, and a realistic implementation plan likely to achieve the project objectives.
Background and Motivation
The decadal survey described “a new way of doing science,”7 in which multidisciplinary teams with a broad range of skills could come together to address grand challenges in science. In particular,
In order to capitalize on advances in computational architectures and machines, it has become necessary to collaborate in critical-size groups with experts in computer science, algorithm development and large-scale visualization and analysis tools. At the same time, observations establish ground truth for emerging models. Through these synergies, physical insight can be achieved beyond what is possible with paper and pencil models, stimulating new ideas to explore with analytic theory, influencing the interpretation of observations and motivating the need for new missions.8
7 NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics, p. 89, Box 4.5.
For this reason, the decadal survey recommended the following:
NASA and NSF together should create heliophysics science centers (HSCs) to tackle the key science problems of solar and space physics that require multidisciplinary teams of theorists, observers, modelers, and computer scientists, with annual funding in the range of $1 million to $3 million for each center for 6 years, requiring NASA funds ramping to $8 million per year (plus increases for inflation).9
The decadal survey included the HSCs in the DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate) initiative as a recommended addition to existing NASA and NSF research program elements. The decadal survey emphasized the necessity of maintaining such existing elements as critical to the field and complementary to the HSC concept. The HSC implementation envisioned for NASA incorporated a funding augmentation beginning in 2014 and ramping up to full DRIVE funding by 2022.10 Due to unforeseen pressures on the budget, the DRIVE augmentation profile was delayed.11 However, the NASA Heliophysics Division recently stated that it plans to offer science centers as an element of the Heliophysics Grand Challenges Research Program in ROSES 2017.12 In addition, the NSF Geospace Portfolio Review recommended the institution of a new Grand Challenge Projects (GCP) program in response to the decadal survey recommendation for HSCs, further recommending that NSF Geospace “should explore a new partnership with NASA to create a co-funded Grand Challenge Research program.”13 Both NASA and NSF have stated that HSCs will be introduced as additions to existing research programs,14 and this report is written with the assumption that the HSCs would be augmentations to and not replacements for existing research elements, as described in the decadal survey and the NSF Geospace portfolio review.15
FINDING: The decadal survey was clear in its intention that the HSCs in particular, and DRIVE in general, would be implemented via augmentations to existing research programs. Both NASA and the NSF are developing logistical plans for implementing the DRIVE HSCs in this manner.
The expected realization of HSCs in the near term and questions regarding their uniqueness and viable implementation options are the motivations for this report. To aid in answering these questions, the committee considered examples of existing programs similar in concept to the decadal survey’s recommendation. The committee recognizes that a range of options for implementation exist and chose to focus on two examples.16 In particular, the committee heard presentations and conducted a discussion
9 NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics, p. 87.
10 NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics, pp. 127-128.
11 Decision Rule #3 states that “[if funds are not available, as a last resort] the DRIVE augmentation profile should be delayed with the current level of support for elements in the NASA research line maintained as the minimum” (NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics, p. 131).
12 NASA Science Mission Directorate, “NASA Research Announcement: Heliophysics Grand Challenges Research—Science Centers,” Solicitation: NNH17ZDA001N-HGCRSC, released February 14, 2017, https://nspires.nasaprs.com.
13 NSF, 2016, Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025, p. 64, Recommendation 6.21-6.22; also p. 100, Recommendation 8.14
14 Steven Clarke, NASA, and Therese M. Jorgensen, NSF, personal communication to the Committee on Solar and Space Physics, March 29, 2017.
15 The federal appropriations for fiscal year 2017, signed into law May 5, 2017, includes an increase of $5 million above the President’s budget request to continue implementation of DRIVE at NASA (P.L. No: 115-31). See also https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/244/text.
16 Although not directly discussed at the CSSP’s meeting, the NSF’s Engineering Research Centers may be additional relevant examples of interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers. A recent National Academies report discussed this program (see NASEM, 2017, A New Vision for Center-Based Engineering Research, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.).
about the NSF Physics Frontiers Centers and NASA Planetary Science Division’s Astrobiology Institute. Brief descriptions of the Physics Frontier Centers and the NASA Astrobiology Institute programs are given below.
The Physics Frontiers Centers (PFC) program at NSF
. . . supports university-based centers and institutes where the collective efforts of a larger group of individuals can enable transformational advances in the most promising research areas. The program is designed to foster major breakthroughs at the intellectual frontiers of physics by providing needed resources such as combinations of talents, skills, disciplines, and/or specialized infrastructure, not usually available to individual investigators or small groups, in an environment in which the collective efforts of the larger group can be shown to be seminal to promoting significant progress in the science and the education of students…. The successful PFC activity will demonstrate: (1) the potential for a profound advance in physics; (2) creative, substantive activities aimed at enhancing education, diversity, and public outreach; (3) potential for broader impacts, e.g., impacts on other field(s) and benefits to society; (4) a synergy or value-added rationale that justifies a center- or institute-like approach.17
The PFC began in 2001, and the program currently supports 10 centers and has proposal competitions every 3 years. Annual funding may vary from $1 million to $5 million, and on average, awards are about $2.5 million per year. Each PFC is funded for 5 years, with a possible 1-year extension, during which the PFC is eligible to compete for renewal. Proposals may only be submitted by academic institutions in the United States (universities and colleges) with research and education programs in physics. A single institution accepts overall management responsibility for the PFC, although collaborations between institutions are strongly encouraged.18
The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was created as
. . . an innovative way to develop the field of astrobiology and provide a scientific framework for flight missions. NAI is a virtual, distributed organization of competitively-selected teams that integrate astrobiology research and training programs in concert with the national and international science communities. NAI’s mission is to:
- Carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research;
- Train the next generation of astrobiology researchers;
- Provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions;
- Explore new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research amongst widely-distributed investigators; and
- Support learners of all ages by implementing formal, informal, and higher education programming and public outreach.19
The NAI funded its first 11 teams in 1998, and it currently has 12 teams that include about 600 researchers at about 100 institutions. The NAI has a director and a small staff located at NASA Ames Research Center to administer the institute. An environment of community and collaboration are fostered by using tools for virtual communication for activities such as Workshops Without Walls, a seminar series, focus groups, and institute-wide workshops that may include all of the teams.
Proposals for teams are solicited via a NASA cooperative agreement notice (CAN), and the topics for proposals for the 2017 solicitation are limited to those that complement without replicating the strengths of continuing teams. “Participation in this solicitation is open to all categories of organizations, domestic and non-U.S., including industry, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, NASA
17 NSF, “Physics Frontiers Centers (PFC),” Solicitation 16-561, posted May 4, 2016, https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5305&org=PHY&from=home.
18 Summarized from NSF, “Physics Frontiers Centers (PFC),” Solicitation 16-561, posted May 4, 2016.