A Report of the SSB ad hoc Committee on Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s 2015 Geospace Portfolio Review
At the request of the Advisory Committee for Geosciences of the National Science Foundation (NSF), a review of the Geospace Section (GS) of the NSF Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS) was undertaken in 2015. The Portfolio Review Committee (PRC) was charged with reviewing the portfolio of facilities, research programs, and activities funded by GS and to recommend critical capabilities and the balance of investments needed to enable the science program articulated in the 2013 National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society1 (hereafter, “the decadal survey”). The charge given to the PRC is included in Appendix A. The PRC’s report Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 20252 (hereafter, “ICCGS”) was accepted by the Advisory Committee for Geosciences in April 2016.
NSF asked the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine3 to provide an independent assessment of the ICCGS report. The Committee on the Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s 2015 Geospace Portfolio Review (hereafter, “the assessment committee” or “the committee”) was charged to assess how well the ICCGS provides a clear set of findings, conclusions, and recommendations for GS that align with the science priorities of the decadal survey, and adequately take into account issues such as the current budget outlook and the science needs of the community. The assessment committee was asked to make recommendations focused on options and considerations for NSF’s implementation of the ICCGS recommendations (full statement of task provided in Chapter 1). The ICCGS makes over 100 recommendations (reproduced in Appendix B). The assessment committee does not consider each one individually, and instead considers selected ICCGS recommendations and groups of recommendations within a broader context. A subset of the assessment committee’s conclusions and recommendations are presented in this summary.
Geospace science is an integrative and cross-disciplinary enterprise that includes facilities, programs, and activities within NSF as well as other U.S. agencies and international programs. The GS program supports critical components of the solar and space physics program but controls less than 5 percent of the U.S. investment in the discipline. Consequently, the scope of the decadal survey is much larger than the mandate of GS and provides little specific guidance for individual elements of the GS program. The ICCGS represents a significant effort to meet the challenge of developing specific recommendations that will enable the GS portfolio to address survey priorities and community needs within the given constraints. However, the ICCGS did not, and in some instances could not, fully address all survey priorities (see Chapter 5). The assessment committee’s discussion of the process used to develop the ICCGS recommendations, particularly those regarding facilities, is presented in Chapter 4.
Conclusion: The PRC fulfilled its charge within the imposed constraints. The portfolio review process and the resulting report represent a conscientious, thorough, and good-faith effort to review the NSF GS portfolio and make recommendations for portfolio evolution and renewal. (Chapter 4, p. 21)
NOTE: “Summary” reprinted from Assessment of the National Science Foundation’s 2015 Geospace Portfolio Review, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2017, pp. 1-6.
1 National Research Council (NRC), 2013, Solar and Space Physics: A Science for a Technological Society, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
2 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-reviewfinal-rpt-2016.pdf.
3 Effective July 1, 2015, the institution is called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. References in this report to the National Research Council are used in an historical context identifying programs prior to July 1.
The ICCGS’s boundary conditions included the consideration of the GS portfolio largely in isolation, without a requirement to consider other directly relevant facilities, programs, and activities, such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research and its geospace laboratory, the High Altitude Observatory. An additional development that may affect GS is the National Space Weather Strategy4 (NSWS) and the Space Weather Action Plan5 (SWAP), released by the National Science and Technology Council of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in October 2015. The SWAP identifies NSF, in collaboration with other agencies, as responsible for the enhancing “fundamental understanding of space weather and its drivers to develop and continually improve predictive models.” 6 Although the PRC demonstrated awareness of relevant activities outside the GS, the assessment committee is concerned that AGS and GS do not currently have their own specific strategic vision and plan or a visible process for developing one. It is important to understand the place GS occupies within the wider geospace sciences landscape and the scientific and societal priorities of the geospace sciences community, such as those embodied in the NSWS and SWAP, as GS strives to meet the challenge of leveraging limited resources to maximize their impact on geospace sciences.
Recommendation: The lack of a strategic plan for the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences (AGS) and the Geospace Section hinders the ability of the Geospace Section to act fully upon the recommendations given in Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025. AGS should develop a strategic vision and a strategic plan that recognizes all components within its portfolio relevant to geospace and interfaces with other programs across other National Science Foundation (NSF) divisions and directorates and across the agency. The plan should be aligned with the 2013 solar and space physics decadal survey, demonstrate awareness of the evolving capabilities outside NSF, and should be regularly updated with close community involvement in response to emerging discoveries, evolving budgets, new imperatives, and developing partnerships. (Chapter 3, p. 17)
A primary task of the PRC was to evaluate the portfolio of GS facilities and research activities to identify adjustments that will better align the portfolio with decadal survey priorities. The ICCGS report provides recommendations formulated to rebalance the program and provide a source of funding to support new programs and initiatives. For the purposes of this assessment, the ICCGS recommended program is grouped into five major sections: actions for current GS facilities, the evolution of facilities programs, competed grants, workforce development and diversity, and partnerships and opportunities (Chapter 5).
A subset of the ICCGS recommendations for current facilities are summarized as follows:
- ICCGS Recommendations 7.6, 7.7, and 9.11 summarized: Reduce annual funding to Arecibo Observatory from $4.1 million to $1.1 million annually. Funding of ancillary instruments for geospace studies should be budgeted and decided in the peer-review process. The costs of running the heating facility at Arecibo should be budgeted as a pay-as-you-go system and decided in a peer-review process.
- ICCGS Recommendations 7.2, 7.3, and 9.11 summarized: Terminate funding for the Sondrestrom Incoherent Scatter Radar (ISR) ($2.5 million annually) when the current continuing contract for its management and operation ends in December 2017, or via ramping down of funds, and allow ancillary instruments to compete for funds through a peer-review process from the core and targeted GS grants programs.
- ICCGS Recommendations 7.18 and 7.19 summarized: The Consortium of Resonance and Rayleigh Lidars (CRRL) as currently organized and directed is not a community facility. Participating members should seek peer-reviewed funding from the core or targeted grants programs. The CRRL technology center should apply for separate funding from the proposed Facilities Innovation and Vitality (I&V) Program.
Both the PRC and the assessment committee recognize that to address decadal survey priorities under a flat-budget scenario, GS funding of facilities or activities must be reduced or, in some cases, eliminated. However, a combination of unknown factors led the assessment committee to two broad concerns regarding the recommended cuts to Arecibo Observatory and Sondrestrom:
4 National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), 2015, National Space Weather Strategy, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington, D.C., October.
5 NSTC, 2015, National Space Weather Action Plan, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Washington, D.C., October.
6 Ibid., pp. 22 and 26.
Conclusion: Details concerning the actual costs of supporting geospace sciences at Arecibo Observatory and Sondrestrom, including the ISRs and ancillary instrumentation, are not provided in the ICCGS. It is therefore difficult for the assessment committee to understand the nature and extent of capabilities that would remain at the Arecibo and Sondrestrom sites and to evaluate the degree to which the capabilities align with current community science needs. (Chapter 5, p. 25)
Conclusion: The two most significant sources of funds for new facilities and programs within GS result from reducing funding to Arecibo Observatory from $4.1 million to $1.1 million and terminating funding for the Sondrestrom ISR. The ICCGS recommends that these funding changes be complete by 2020. However, management and operations at both sites are inherently complex, introducing a degree of uncertainty regarding the full extent of savings realized by the recommended cuts and of the time required before these funds are available for reallocation. (Chapter 5, p. 25)
The ICCGS redirects the funding currently used to support the CRRL to “strategic grants programs to address DRIVE initiatives recommended by the Decadal Survey.”7 The assessment committee notes that these strategic grants programs appear to lie within the Integrative Geospace Science (IGS) program, which is not the same as the core and targeted grants programs to which the CRRL investigators are recommended to send their proposals. Therefore, pressure on the core and targeted grants programs may increase. Once evaluation criteria have been defined for the ICCGS’s recommended new distributed array of small instruments (DASI) Facilities Program (discussed below), programs such as the CRRL could seek funding support there.
Another task of the ICCGS was to recommend the evolution of existing facilities and programs and the creation of new ones to advance geospace science. As part of evolving the GS facilities portfolio, the ICCGS recommends that to largely replace capabilities lost by the termination of the Sondrestrom ISR, GS should investigate joining the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) (ICCGS Recs. 7.2, 7.4, 7.23, and 9.10). The assessment committee considers this to be a sensible approach: leveraging an international partnership to retain certain capabilities and to expand others is consistent with decadal survey guidance regarding international partnerships. However, the time it will take to enter the EISCAT partnership may be longer than assumed by the ICCGS, thereby delaying the availability of funds for new GS initiatives. EISCAT-3D is not yet fully funded, and its management and operations cost are not fully understood. The U.S. contribution to current and future operations and management costs will be an important consideration when entering the partnership.
Conclusion: The EISCAT and EISCAT-3D represent an attractive investment that would ensure U.S. access to state-of-the-art ISR instrumentation at a lower cost than is currently the case. However, the time it will take to enter the EISCAT partnership may be longer than assumed by the ICCGS. The U.S. contribution to current and future operations and management costs will be an important consideration when entering the partnership. (Chapter 5, p. 28)
The ICCGS’s recommendations also include two new funding lines relevant to instrument development: the Facilities I&V Program and a DASI Facilities Program. The ICCGS recommends using funds freed up by recommendations previously discussed to create the Facilities I&V Program with a budget of $2.7 million annually (ICCGS Rec. 9.14). The Facilities I&V Program would support a number of existing and new activities ranging from major repairs to existing facilities, to development of new instrumentation to an operational capability, to the development of numerical algorithms to improve computational models. The recommended Facilities I&V Program will be at new source of funds for driving innovation; however, the assessment committee notes that the definition of the program line is at present very broad and consideration will need to be given to balancing its constituent parts and to understanding its relationship to the strategic grants programs.
The ICCGS makes a number of recommendations that support the development of DASI-like instrumentation and associated data assimilation. These include the creation of a DASI Facilities Program (ICCGS Recs. 7.4, 7.5, and 9.12) to develop and implement one or more DASI Class 2 facilities. The assessment committee endorses the intent of the recommendations regarding DASIs and DASI-related issues as part of moving GS toward a guiding
7 NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics, p. 104.
role in scientifically directing community thought and efforts toward system-level studies of the geospace region. GS support may be needed to propel forward community discussions of DASI projects.
Recommendation: To begin implementation of the Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025 recommendations to create distributed arrays of small instruments (DASIs) with the goal of starting new Class 2 facilities, the National Science Foundation should support community efforts to establish requirements for future DASI-type sensors and projects—by organizing targeted community workshops, for example—within a wider Geospace Section strategic framework. (Chapter 5, p. 30)
One decadal survey recommendation that the ICCGS could not implement within the challenging constraints is the creation of a midscale funding program to support development of ground-based facilities and experiments that are too small for the NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account but too large for the NSF Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program. The ICCGS estimates that at least $5 million to $6 million per year would be needed for a viable midscale funding line within GS and concludes that it does not fit within the GS budget envelope. The assessment committee agrees with this conclusion. The ICCGS recommends that if funding becomes available from the divestment of facilities or from an increased budget, funding should be directed toward a Midscale Projects Program. As a high-priority recommendation to NSF from two decadal surveys—in astronomy and astrophysics8 and in solar and space physics9—and as 1 of 10 strategic “big ideas” for NSF, the assessment committee believes that the creation of a Midscale Projects Program for geospace facilities requires the investment of new funds outside of the GS budget in a program to which the geospace sciences community will be eligible to apply. Development and implementation will require coordination between the AGS division, the Directorate for Geosciences, and NSF.
Recommendation: The Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences should work with the Directorate for Geosciences and the National Science Foundation to implement the 2013 solar and space physics decadal survey recommendation for a Midscale Projects Program to address midscale priorities. (Chapter 5, p. 28)
For the competed grants programs, the ICCGS recommends that GS maintain the existing budget share of core grants—at least a third, or not less than $14 million to $15 million annually. The evolutionary component lies within the strategic grants. Specifically, the ICCGS recommends a strategic IGS grants program that includes both a transformed Space Weather Modeling (SWM) program and new Grand Challenge Projects program (ICCGS Recs. 9.3 and 9.4).
Parts of the strategic grants program, CubeSats and the Faculty Development in Space Science (FDSS; a part of the workforce and development programs discussed below), are given lower priority by the ICCGS than the other parts of the strategic grants programs, the core grants programs, and current and new facilities programs (ICCGS Table 9.1, reprinted here as Figure 5.1).
The ICCGS recommends a stricter set of guidelines for CubeSat missions, finding that publication results from the program “are predominantly engineering-oriented and that, on average, basic science productivity is low in comparison to . . . the same financial investment in [other] GS programs.”10 The ICCGS recommends that investment in the CubeSat program be reduced from $1.5 million to $1 million per year to reflect “a focus on mission concept, instrument development, and science exploitation of the data” and a reduced scope of mission development (ICCGS Recs. 6.23-6.26 and 9.6). The ICCGS recommended that GS support two new mission starts per year, as suggested by the decadal survey, only if additional funding is obtained from elsewhere in NSF.
The National Academies recently released the report Achieving Science with CubeSats: Thinking Inside the Box,11 which was not available during the PRC’s work, that included a number of findings addressing similar concerns. Achieving Science concluded that CubeSats have demonstrated their capability to be a platform for high-value science and recommended that NSF broaden opportunities for participation. The findings of the ICCGS
8 NRC, 2010, New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
9 NRC, 2013, Solar and Space Physics.
10 NSF, 2016, Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025, p. 69.
11 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), 2016, Achieving Science with CubeSats: Thinking Inside the Box, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
and Achieving Science are broadly consistent regarding partnerships and the educational benefit of CubeSat missions. The assessment committee also endorses this approach. However, although the cost of engineering the spacecraft may be reduced by commercially available components, other factors, such as the cost of developing new, innovative instruments and additional support for in-orbit operations, may offset savings. Unless partnerships are established, the assessment committee is concerned that GS CubeSat program will be unduly slowed by the ICCGS’s recommendation to reduce the budget by one-third.
Recommendation: The assessment committee endorses the Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025 recommendation to seek partnerships for CubeSats outside of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Geospace Section. However, mindful of the growing potential of CubeSats to be platforms for science and of the 2013 solar and space physics decadal survey recommendation to augment support for CubeSats, the committee recommends that the NSF Geospace Section carefully consider the impact associated with decreasing funding for the CubeSat program before additional resources through intra-divisional partnerships can be obtained. (Chapter 5, p. 34)
Part of the evolution at GS is the consideration of developing a vibrant and diverse workforce. The ICCGS’s main recommendations regarding workforce development were that current GS efforts in these areas should continue. Furthermore, the report emphasized the importance of data collection in assessing the effectiveness of these efforts to increase participation of African Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and women in geospace science. These modest, essentially “stay the course,” recommendations of the ICCGS stand in contrast with its ambitious Recommendation 4.6, which states, “The GS and the GS community should be in the vanguard of NSF initiatives to promote engagement of women and under-served populations in all aspects of geospace science from school to research proposal writing to leadership in GS activities.” The assessment committee agrees that there has been some progress in increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in solar and space physics; however, progress will not continue without substantial effort on the part of GS and the community. Some suggestions for improving diversity and representation in solar and space physics are included with the following recommendation:
Recommendation: The assessment committee recommends that to realize Recommendation 4.6 of Investments in Critical Capabilities for Geospace Science 2016 to 2025 fully, the lack of diversity and representation in solar and space physics should be attacked aggressively. The National Science Foundation Geospace Section should identify best practices and provide guidance for new approaches to diversifying geospace. (Chapter 5, p. 36)
As part of guiding the future of GS, the ICCGS discusses internal organization and management issues. To guide the future evolution of the GS portfolio, the ICCGS recommends periodic senior reviews for both the Core and Strategic Grants Programs and for all of the GS facilities. The assessment committee endorses the use of senior reviews as a recognized means of prioritizing existing investments to allow new opportunities and to rebalance and renew the portfolio. The committee is concerned, however, by the recommendation to separate the two sets of reviews, because of the burden placed upon GS administration by two separate semi-decadal reviews.
Conclusion: The assessment committee endorses ICCGS Recommendations 9.8 and 9.15 to conduct periodic senior reviews of the NSF Geospace Section’s grants programs and facilities. (Chapter 6, p. 42)
ICCGS recommends a set of improvements to GS management processes that would improve the transparency and efficiency of future reviews and facilitate transitions in GS program management. The assessment committee endorses each of these suggestions.
Conclusion: The suggestions to the NSF GS regarding management processes are excellent and will underpin future senior reviews and allow greater transparency into the decision-making process. (Chapter 6, p. 43)
To conclude this assessment, the ICCGS report represents a comprehensive program for the GS portfolio that is aligned with decadal survey priorities. The exception is funding for a Midscale Projects Program, which
cannot be implemented within the budget constraints provided by NSF. The responsibility now passes to NSF to implement the GS portfolio recommended in the ICCGS and to engage with the community in developing a strategic vision and plan that identifies and builds on the strengths of AGS and GS within the broader solar and space physics enterprise.