A Report of the SSB ad hoc Committee on the Review of NASA’s Planetary Science Division’s Restructured and Analysis Program
The Research and Analysis (R&A) program managed by NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD) supports a broad range of planetary science activities, including the analysis of data from past and current spacecraft; laboratory research; theoretical, modeling, and computational studies; geological and astrobiological fieldwork in planetary analog environments on Earth; geological mapping of planetary bodies; analysis of data from Earth- and space-based telescopes; and development of flight instruments and technology needed for future planetary science missions. The primary role of the PSD R&A program is to address NASA’s strategic objective for planetary science and PSD’s science goals, which are derived in part from the 2011 National Research Council (NRC) planetary science decadal survey.1 The R&A program is composed of a number of thematic program elements that solicit proposals from the planetary science community under the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s annual Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) NASA Research Announcement (NRA).
Recently, PSD reorganized the R&A program to provide better alignment with the strategic goals for planetary sciences, following the recommendations of a study by the NRC2 and a report by the Planetary Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.3 This reorganization was implemented in the ROSES 2014 NRA and first supported using fiscal year (FY) 2015 funds. The major changes in the R&A program involved consolidating a number of prior program elements, many of which were organized by subdiscipline, into a smaller number of thematic core research program elements. Other R&A program elements underwent changes before, during, and after the reorganization but these modifications were not on the scale of those made to the core research program elements. Despite numerous efforts by PSD to communicate the rationale for the reorganization and articulate clearly the new processes, there has been significant resistance from the planetary science community and concerns in some sectors regarding the major realignment of funding priorities.
As described in the Preface and Appendix A, the Committee on the Review of NASA’s Planetary Science Division’s Restructured Research and Analysis Program was charged by NASA to look closely at the new R&A program and determine if it appropriately aligns with the agency’s strategic goals, supports existing flight programs, and enables future missions. In particular, the committee investigated whether any specific research areas or subdisciplinary groups that are critical to NASA’s strategic objectives for planetary science and PSD’s science goals are not supported appropriately in the current program or have been inadvertently disenfranchised through the reorganization. To collect the data necessary for this investigation, the committee solicited input from NASA PSD management. NASA provided information on the detailed structure of the current program, the procedures involved in funding under the new program elements, and the tools used to ensure appropriate balance across and within program elements. The committee also solicited community perspectives from representatives of the various planetary science analysis/assessment groups and the NASA center leads4 for planetary science.
In response to the first of the two questions in the charge, the committee finds that the current R&A structure is properly aligned with scientific priorities of the decadal survey and the Planetary Science Division
NOTE: “Executive Summary” reprinted from Review of the Restructured Research and Analysis Programs of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2017, pp. 1-3.
1 National Research Council (NRC), Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2011.
2 NRC, An Enabling Foundation for NASA’s Earth and Space Science Missions, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2009.
3 Planetary Sciences Subcommittee, Assessment of the NASA Planetary Science Division’s Mission-Enabling Activities, NASA Advisory Council Science Committee, August 29, 2011.
4 The center leads were asked for input because the NASA centers host research and mission activities that are quite distinct from those generally found in the academic research community and civil servant scientists frequently work under different constraints than academic scientists.
2014 science goals. In particular, the committee finds that, despite early community concerns, keyword analyses of the type of task, target body, and science discipline revealed no evidence that restructuring has led to deleterious effects on the planetary science R&A program or on specific segments of the community. Furthermore, in response to the second of the two questions in the charge, the committee finds that, in general, the structure of the program elements will allow NASA PSD to prepare for future spaceflight missions and to maximize science value from existing missions.
Nonetheless, the committee has concerns about some components of the current program—for example, in aspects of the proposal-review process and in support of future technology and instrumental and infrastructure capabilities—and found several areas that could be improved. The committee is strongly of the opinion that its concerns provide important input to NASA on how to improve the existing program and clearly address how well the current elements of the R&A program are appropriately structured to develop the broad base of knowledge and broad range of activities needed both to enable new spaceflight missions and to interpret and maximize the scientific return from existing missions. These concerns resulted in the recommendations listed below. With respect to the procedures followed by PSD in the implementation of the current program, the committee recommends the following:
Recommendation: In conducting scientific peer reviews of research proposals, NASA’s Planetary Science Division should engage the services of several (at least two or three) external (mail) reviewers well in advance of panel reviews. These reviews are critical to a fair and effective proposal evaluation process, particularly when the review panels have a more interdisciplinary character. The panel chair and group chiefs, if recruited early, can take the lead in identification of appropriate external reviewers. (Additional details may be found in section “Proposal Submission and Review” in Chapter 2.)
Recommendation: NASA’s Planetary Science Division should expeditiously complete establishment of the process for reconsideration of proposal selection decisions, develop and implement a formal mechanism to track debriefing and reconsideration requests across program elements, and inform the community about the process. More transparency in this area can provide the planetary science community with greater confidence that NASA has appropriate checks and balances in the selection process. (Additional details may be found in the section “Proposal Decision Reconsideration” in Chapter 2.)
With respect to how effectively the current R&A program elements align with PSD science goals, and whether specific research areas or subdisciplinary groups that are critical to NASA’s mission are not supported appropriately in the current program, the committee makes the following recommendations:
Recommendation: NASA needs to investigate appropriate mechanisms to ensure that high-risk/high-payoff fundamental research and advanced technology-development activities receive appropriate consideration during the review process. (Additional details may be found in the section “High-Risk/High-Payoff Research Activities and Advanced Technology” in Chapter 3.)
Recommendation: A formal assessment by NASA of how well the program structure and funding are aligned with the Planetary Science Division’s science goals should be conducted at least every 5 years, appropriately phased to the cycle of decadal surveys and midterm reviews. (Additional details may be found in the section “Funding Distribution Among Program Elements” in Chapter 3.)
With respect to whether the current R&A program adequately supports existing missions and prepares the way for future missions, the committee recommends the following:
Recommendation: NASA should support the development of the technologies required to return astrobiological and cryogenic samples to Earth and the appropriate containment, curation, and characterization facilities consistent with the Planetary Science Division’s science goals and planetary protection requirements. (Additional details may be found in the section “Enable New Spaceflight Missions” in Chapter 4.)
Recommendation: In making funding decisions for the various research and analysis program elements, NASA should consider the need to sustain critical scientific and technical expertise and the instrumental and facility capabilities required for scientific return on future missions, as discussed in the 2011 planetary science decadal survey. (Additional details may be found in the section “Enable New Spaceflight Missions” in Chapter 4.)