NASA Biology Research Under Fire

NASA managers say their plans to grow protein crystals and cells in zero gravity are a big reason for building the $100 billion international space station. But a National Research Council (NRC) today released a report that takes the agency to task for its biological research program, criticizing the quality and scope of the work and questioning its usefulness.

The report (Future Biotechnology Research Aboard the International Space Station) starts by recommending that NASA de-emphasize growing crystals in space. The space agency spends nearly $20 million a year on research in protein crystal growth and cell science, and it intends to ramp up that amount considerably in the next few years as the space station becomes available. But the eight academic and industry researchers recruited by the NRC conclude that years of growing protein crystals aboard the space shuttle and Mir have not led to a single "landmark scientific result." Protein crystals are essential for many forms of biological research and drug development, but the impact of space-grown crystals on the field has been "extremely limited."

The panel, which was chaired by biologist Paul Sigler of Yale before he died in January, warns of other systematic problems. NASA should not rely so heavily on inefficient bioreactors, a technology used to grow cells in space that is limited in the kind of cells it can produce. The agency also should expand its efforts to reach out to the scientific community as a whole to counter the perception that NASA biological research is a "closed community with a fixed membership." And the panel criticizes the agency's tendency to steal funds set aside for scientific development in order to pay for station hardware such as the U.S. pressurized laboratory.

Eugene Trinh, who directs NASA's microgravity research efforts, says the NRC criticism "is not really new" and adds that "we're way ahead of this report." NASA already has scaled back its work in crystallography, he adds, and is aggressively trying to recruit new researchers to dispel its admittedly poor image among biologists.