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Young Researchers: Space Science Careers Are in Jeopardy--Views on the Proposed NASA Budget

NASA-supported space science disciplines are seeing their budgets slashed, and the younger members of the community--especially the astrophysics and astrobiology communities--are feeling the pain. Three early-career researchers, all of whom were directly impacted by the NASA cuts, worry about their own futures, the future of science, and the future of the scientific workforce. All, they fear, are likely to lose big as a result of NASA's budget cuts.

Wayne Baumgartner, astrophysicist

"These cutbacks are going to have a real effect in that there are no future x-ray missions," says Wayne Baumgartner, a postdoc astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "With no new data and no new instrument-building base, you won't have graduate students going into this field." Baumgartner is working on a balloon-based x-ray project--a NuStar precursor--but was planning to switch over to a satellite-based NuStar project. Now that's not an option.

Wayne Baumgartner

If there is no money supporting x-ray missions like his, Baumgartner says, people have no choice but to switch fields, and once they're gone, they're gone. "Once you lose people into something else, it's impossible to get them back," he says.

Baumgartner has been surprised at how political the issue has become, with the scientists writing letters and talking to committees in Washington, D.C., as they try to convince politicians to turn the money back on. "It's been kind of strange for me, because you usually don't think about how directly congressional politics will affect your job and salary."

Michael Pivovaroff, astrophysicist

Michael Pivovaroff

Michael Pivovaroff, a young scientist who recently shifted his work to projects funded by the Department of Homeland Security, agrees with Baumgartner that tomorrow's scientific leaders are leaving and won't come back. "It's incredibly demoralizing for me and for my friends who are just finishing up right now. They're all going to Wall Street, or going to some financial firm, or doing consulting--doing anything except astrophysics, because there's no job," he says.

The real pain, Pivovaroff says, is being felt mostly by the relative few who build instrumentation. But longer-term, the lack of instrument-building expertise will be felt acutely, as the current crop of instruments needs to be replaced. "The people who are doing the hardware, they're going to feel it immediately, but that's just a small fraction of the people 3 or 4 years out. When the next-generation missions have not been built, there's going to be a sudden halt," he says.

Once you take the funding away to build the instrumentation, Pivovaroff says, there is no more astronomy. "And there's only so much data mining you can do," he adds. "You can't turn the money on and just watch it regenerate itself."

Darlene Lim

Darlene Lim, astrobiologist

Lim, a second-year postdoc at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, is trying to take the cuts in stride and keep the big picture in mind. Lim--who now has little hope of funding her third-year project from NASA's astrobiology pot--will have to be more innovative, learn to be patient, and have plenty of resolve if she wants to stay in the field she loves so much. "If you talk to somebody who's been around for 25 or 30 years," Lim says, "they'll tell you that this is terrible, maybe the worst they've ever seen it, but they've seen it get bad and then they've seen it get better again."

Lim says there was a lot of disappointment and outrage when the budget was announced and that the community has really rallied around the cause. She is hopeful that the situation will change sooner rather than later. "I think that there are a lot of things that are going on behind closed doors that we're not privy to, maybe trying to change the course of the funding." Still, she isn't holding her breath. "If it was something more flexible, then I might have more hope, but we're going to the moon and that's that."

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at

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