Physical evidence. A Russian cosmonaut adjusts instruments to study external particles that might threaten the space station.

Space Station Gets Physical

Physical scientists are striking back. A panel convened by the National Research Council (NRC) argues that areas such as fundamental physics and materials science deserve a prominent place on the international space station alongside experiments in the life sciences. That message is somewhat at odds with a previous report that outlined tentative NASA plans to revamp research on the orbiting laboratory.

The panel's report, requested by NASA 2 years ago and submitted last week, promises to ratchet up the competition among different disciplines scrambling for limited time, space, and funding on the station. NRC moved up the report's release in the hope of influencing NASA's 2004 budget request, now under review by the White House. “This gives me ammunition to try and grow the program,” says Eugene Trinh, who heads the agency's physical sciences division. Other physical scientists say the NRC study could help rescue their discipline from second-class status.

The 15-member panel rated fundamental-physics, low-temperature, and precision-clock experiments among the most important areas to pursue and most likely to have the highest impact; the collection of thermophysical data on liquids in microgravity was ranked near the bottom. Panel members--a majority of whom do not receive NASA funding--say they were impressed by a dramatic increase recently in the quality of both the investigators and the results from recent space experiments. “It is clear this research is contributing to a broader field,” says Peter Voorhees, chair of the panel and a materials researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

The report appears to contradict another report commissioned by NASA and released in July that strongly emphasized biology and applied materials research such as combustion and placed little weight on fundamental physics. That panel, formed by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and chaired by Columbia University endocrinologist Rae Silver, triggered dissents by several physical scientists on the panel who complained that their views had not been taken seriously (Science, 19 July, p. 316). “The conclusion of the [Silver report] is what biologists think, not what physical scientists think,” says Voorhees.

NASA officials say that physical scientists have overreacted to the Silver report. “We have very good opportunities coming up,” notes Trinh, pointing out that physical scientists have been given about half the experiment slots on the station (and another 20% or so for commercial materials work). Trinh insists that there are no contradictions between the NRC study, which dealt with detailed research areas, and the Silver report, which covered the entire range of science.

Related sites
NASA's international space station site
The National Research Council