At the request of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine initiated a study to review a draft of SMD’s 2019 Science Plan and provide feedback to SMD. The request for this review was made at a time when SMD is engaged in the development of a new vision for the advancement of space science goals via the codification of a series of leadership priorities and management principles. As such, the 2019 document represents a radical, but welcome, departure from more traditional science strategies and plans adopted by SMD over the past two decades. The draft document is potentially a very important one spelling out SMD’s values, priorities, and principles. The committee believes that its comments help to develop the document into the transformative, inspiring, ambitious, and forward-looking plan it was intended to be.
In conducting its review of the draft 2019 Science Plan (hereafter, the draft document), the Committee on the NASA Science Mission Directorate Science Plan was charged to comment on the following specific areas:
- Level of ambition of the specified strategies in light of current and emerging opportunities to advance Earth and space science over the next 5 years (see Chapter 3, “Level of Ambition”);
- Ability of SMD to meet the science objectives in the most recent decadal surveys through implementation of specified strategies (see Chapter 4, “Ability to Meet Science Objectives in Decadal Surveys”);
- Identification of additional strategies for SMD’s consideration (see Chapter 5, “Identification of Additional Guiding Principles”); and
- General readability and clarity of presentation (see Chapter 2, “Readability and Clarity of Presentation”).
In response to these four tasks, the committee offers 17 recommendations to SMD.
Very early in its review, the committee discovered issues related to the readability of the material contained in the draft document. However, the purpose and intent of the draft document were much more clearly presented in oral form by SMD officials during the committee’s one and only meeting. The committee’s attempts to address its four tasks as ordered in the statement of task led to difficulties in the organization of this report. Therefore, the committee has altered the order of discussion to lead with item four in the statement of task (i.e., the topic of readability and clarity of presentation). This reordering of the tasks allowed the committee to propose new language that enabled a clearer and more logical discussion of items one, two, and three.
READABILITY AND CLARITY OF PRESENTATION
The title of the draft document does not sufficiently describe its contents. Moreover, the draft document lacks a description of its purpose and target audience, and it does not contain necessary
contextual information and definitions. Specific areas where these and other issues of readability and clarity were a concern are called out in subsequent sections of this report.
Recommendation: Change the title to Priorities and Principles for Leadership of NASA Science: A Vision for Scientific Excellence, or something similar, to better reflect its apparent purpose and content.
Recommendation: Include critical context explicitly in the introduction of the document. This information can be drawn, in part, from background information presented to the committee by NASA officials.
Interpreting the draft document as a statement of leadership priorities and guiding principles that NASA SMD will employ in implementing its mission, instead of the focus areas and strategies in the draft, can directly benefit the SMD enterprise by providing a powerful tool for communication with internal and external stakeholders.
Recommendation: Rename focus areas as leadership priorities and strategies as guiding principles.
LEVEL OF AMBITION
The draft document’s stated guiding principles for SMD—pursuit of greater cross-disciplinary and cross-divisional collaboration, encouragement of a culture of entrepreneurship, and increased emphasis on research with high intellectual risk but potentially high impact—are ambitious. This approach will help the science divisions within SMD hew to a common vision of their integration of space missions and supporting scientific investigations. Some leadership priorities described in the draft document can be achieved in the short term, whereas others are broader statements of principle. Regrettably, the draft document does not effectively connect the leadership priorities contained in its first half with the division summaries contained in its second half.
Recommendation: Outline the ways in which SMD’s four science divisions will seek to embody the presented guiding principles.
Recommendation: Consistently frame the guiding principles, either as declarations of a desired state or as near-term directions or tasks.
ABILITY TO MEET SCIENCE OBJECTIVES
The draft document provides a solid framework for carrying out SMD’s mission; the leadership priorities and guiding principles highlight the need to tackle the science objectives outlined in the decadal surveys relevant to each of SMD’s four divisions, as well as participate in human exploration and technological innovation. The need to identify the optimal balance in risk-taking is also an important topic that spans intellectual and technological activities. However, the draft document does not specify, even via general examples,
- How the guiding principles will be implemented,
- How SMD’s management will evaluate the success of each of the four divisions in adopting the principles,
- How the guiding principles are relevant to fulfilling decadal survey objectives. Most puzzling is the omission of any mention of the 2018 decadal survey of Earth science and applications from space.
These discrepancies are exemplified most strongly by the disconnect between the description of the guiding principles and leadership priorities and the subsequent summaries of the activities of SMD’s four divisions. In addition, although the guiding principles spell out the role of technology, the key role of foundational science is not well articulated.
Recommendation: Broaden the “Innovation” leadership priority to include aspects that go beyond technology and high-risk science.
Recommendation: Spell out clearly the key role of fundamental science as a foundation for exploration and technology development.
Recommendation: Highlight the means to implement science that spans multiple divisions and makes seamless collaboration across NASA directorates a target.
Recommendation: Outline how the fundamental science can be enhanced and widened in scope to encompass interactions with user communities, including universities, private industry, not-for-profit organizations, and other government agencies.
Recommendation: Elevate risk-taking from innovation to a wider context. For example, outline actions that would contribute to the realization of higher-risk projects that have high intellectual yield.
ADDITIONAL GUIDING PRINCIPLES
The draft document begins by reviewing NASA’s core values and adding a fifth one, leadership, under the umbrella of SMD. Although there is no doubt that leadership is required to deliver on NASA’s four core values, its addition to SMD’s list of core values risks the appearance of challenging the smaller list of core values that NASA has adopted at the highest level.
The mix of finite objectives and states of being that SMD wants to achieve could be better rationalized to support the establishment of these as enduring principles, as does the use of the term “strategies” instead of “guiding principles” and “focus areas” instead of “leadership priorities.” In addition, the draft document does not address how the presented principles might be pursued, which in turn hinders an understanding of how SMD will determine whether progress has been made.
The committee identified workforce development, mentoring, recruitment, and retention as a guiding principle that was not clearly called out in the draft document. Similarly, under the “Innovation” leadership priority, the draft document did not identify programmatic innovations that could improve efficiency and reduce costs. Examples could include management, contracting, oversight, and considerations for continuity of observations. Furthermore, increasing diversity of thought and backgrounds is best described as a contribution to the section on “Innovation” rather than the section on “Inspiration.”
The roles of universities, research institutions, and industry were not adequately stressed as a means of achieving excellence and diversity as well as contributing to workforce development.
Finally, the draft does not describe how NASA, SMD, and the broader science community would determine when these guiding principles have been implemented within SMD.
Recommendation: Do not insert leadership as a fifth core value. Rather, the importance of leadership should be asserted when introducing the four leadership priorities.
Recommendation: Describe the guiding principles in enough detail to provide definition, context, and examples whenever possible.
Recommendation: Describe the desired future state. The “2024 Future State” slide presented to the committee may be an appropriate starting point for a section on this topic.
Recommendation: Move the guiding principle “Increase the diversity of thought and backgrounds represented across the entire NASA Science portfolio through a more inclusive environment” from the section on “Inspiration” to the section on “Innovation.”
Recommendation: Spell out the aim and means to effectively collaborate with universities, research institutions, and industry in carrying out SMD’s programs as well as developing the diverse future workforce.
Recommendation: Expand the discussion of diversity and inclusion by recognizing the variety of approaches necessary to achieve this goal.
Recommendation: Add a new guiding principle 4.1, “Develop the Future SMD Workforce.” This principle should explicitly incorporate the importance of mentorship, recruiting, training, as well as link to the principle about increasing diversity of thought and backgrounds (in Innovation).
Unlike earlier SMD science strategies and plans, the 2019 draft does not include details about current scientific thrusts and plans for missions among its four science divisions. Instead, it focuses on guiding principles and leadership priorities that could effectively lead to fulfillment of recommendations in decadal surveys and in the development and deployment of human capital. If the draft document can be revised as recommended here, the divisional commitment to the stated leadership priorities and guiding principles made more explicit, and the writing overall imbued with language equal to the magnitude of the vision, the draft document could guide SMD to a future that is ambitious, forward looking, and inspiring.