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Young Researchers Face NASA Budget Realities

Last year, NASA administrators caused an uproar in the space-science community when they announced cutbacks to many of their science programs. These cutbacks led to delays for some projects, such as WISE and SOFIA. Other projects were downsized, and a few, such as Nustar and the Terrestrial Planet Finder, were put on hold indefinitely. Some space scientists looked to the future, seeking salvation in fiscal year (FY) 2007--which started in October 2006--and beyond. But after months of wrangling on Capitol Hill, the 2007 budget handed to NASA last week made it clear that NASA's science programs will continue to hemorrhage for at least another year.

As reported previously on these pages, the last Congress decided to let the next one clean up its budget mess. But the new Democratic Congress chose not to play, announcing that it would pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government for 2007 at roughly 2006 levels and start work instead on the budget for FY 2008. Some last-minute activity helped some of the government's science agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The deal didn't cover NASA, however, so Congress's action--or lack of it--in effect freezes the space agency's 2007 budget at 2006 levels--$545 million below the president's $16.7 billion request for FY 2007.

NASA's administration hasn't decided yet how to divvy up the money among its various programs, the agency claims. But NASA chief Michael Griffin has said that the effects of the cuts will be felt across the board, from development of the shuttle replacement vehicles to the many space-science programs. "It will have serious effects on many people, projects, and programs this year and for the longer term," Griffin warned last week during a budget briefing in Washington, D.C.

Sacrificing the future

If launch rates for space-science missions are any indication, the outlook for researchers--especially young ones--is dim. Lennard Fisk, an astronomy professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a former NASA administrator, says that NASA has about 2 years of science missions in development, and after that, the pipeline peters out. "I think there is a definite general downward trend in the numbers of opportunities to participate in the space program for young people," says Fisk. "That's a product of cutting down on small missions, explorer programs, and discovery programs." And when funding is tight, the first to go on a research team, Fisk says, are postdocs and graduate students. "Because opportunities are so few and far between, we are in fact sacrificing the future to pay for the present."

The FY 2008 budget process is just revving up, but at present 2008 and beyond look almost as bad. The president's just-announced FY 2008 budget request seeks a 5% increase to NASA's budget--but all the extra money would go to the agency's various exploration-related programs. Funding for NASA science is flat in the president's request. And after that, "science is being restricted now to a 1% growth until we can finish the [international space] station," Griffin said.

The result, say some senior scientists, is that the backbone of America's space-science enterprise--research and analysis, in which many young researchers get their start--is losing ground. And young space scientists, who rely on funding from NASA grants and fellowships, confirm that the budget turmoil has them in survival mode.

Planetary pathways

For Don Banfield, a research associate at Cornell University, survival means writing at least a half-dozen NASA proposals every year. Banfield's specialty is developing atmospheric instruments to study Mars, but within only a few years of gaining his scientific independence, funding for technology development fell to Earth. The only way he can stay in business is by managing data analysis on current missions--work that's well outside his primary interests. His work on Mars instruments is done on his own time, between projects, with the help of students who bring their own university-sponsored research money.

The 2008 Phoenix Lander is NASA's next Mars mission. (Credit: NASA)

The problem with this approach, Banfield says, is that the best way to train well-rounded researchers is to follow the mission through from beginning to end. "I prefer to be able to ask the questions, develop the instrument, fly the mission, and then do the analysis to answer questions." Despite the funding cuts and his recent struggles, he's not giving up on instrument development. "I'm going to continue to write these grants, and hopefully I'll hit them, but they're very few and far between," Banfield says. "It is a shame because it's pushing me more in the direction of analysis rather than developing instruments for future missions, where my passion truly lies."

Banfield may be luckier than he thinks, considering that analysis--Banfield's fallback--is an area in which early-career planetary researchers are feeling the pinch. "It's frustrating because it should be a golden age of planetary exploration because there's so much data that's coming in, but what's missing is the commitment of funding to interpret the measurements," says Jim Bell, associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University and a science team member on the twin Mars rover mission. "I'm definitely seeing more skepticism and more frustration among graduate students and postdocs."

Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, shares these concerns. He worries that younger planetary scientists are starting to look for other opportunities, undermining the prospects of future missions. Even young scientists who aren't affected directly by the budget cuts have started to ask him about working elsewhere. "If you're young and you have a family, you don't want to wait for your job to disappear or your funding to decrease to the point where you can't make ends meet to take some action," says Sykes. "You have to anticipate the situation and make a decision."

That strategy--anticipating the situation--describes precisely the approach taken by Nic Richmond, who studies lunar and martian magnetism. A postdoc at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona and an associate research scientist with the Planetary Science Institute, Richmond is frustrated by her struggle for stability. Her 1-year NASA grants make it difficult to do any long-term planning, so she is considering moving back toward computational mineral physics--her Ph.D. topic. "Luckily, I have other interests, which are more portable," she says. "My survival mechanism is to diversify and look for different opportunities."

NASA Earth observation satellite (Credit: NASA)


The situation is even more difficult for scientists studying Earth via remote sensing--a field in which the pool of money is quickly evaporating. A recent National Research Council (NRC) report found that NASA's earth science research and analysis budget was slashed 30% between 2000 and 2006. The siphoning off of money for the manned moon program has delayed and eliminated funding for developing Earth-observation satellites. Now researchers are worried about the 2007 and 2008 budgets, which, they say, look just as bad.

Berrien Moore, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the NRC report, says he is stunned at how climate studies have been decimated in the last few years, at a time when the missions are needed most and students are being attracted to the field like never before. "I think there is a huge scientific reserve of young scientists that want to work on the problems of the environment, but this is having a real profound effect on them, just as they are trying to decide what to do with their careers," Moore says. "They are asking themselves, 'Can I make any progress in the field? Is this something I should commit to, or should I be looking elsewhere?' "

At Oregon State University in Corvallis, some professors are encouraging grad students and postdocs to look outside of NASA for financial support. Ricardo Letelier, professor of biological oceanography, says that although NASA used to represent a big slice of the funding pie for university projects, that slice has shrunk in recent years. "One of my projects recently got funded only at 40%, so one of the first things that end up being cut is the funding for grad students." He doesn't blame NASA program managers, who he says are trying their best to keep projects alive, but says he "rather consider[s] this to be the outcome of the funding policies of this Administration."

Letelier says he has managed to shield his students from the effects of the cuts because his lab has several ongoing projects tackled from a variety of perspectives. "You may still be working on the same question, but you give less relevance to the NASA or remote-sensing aspect of the project," says Letelier. "In this way, you don't expose the students" to so much risk.

But even Letelier's students aren't shielded completely. The shrinking NASA budget is forcing his students, former students, and postdocs to rethink their career directions. Angel White, who finished her Ph.D. in Letelier's lab last year and is now a postdoc, landed a NASA earth science fellowship but decided not to renew because, she calculated, it was best to keep working on marine-science projects supported by NSF instead of NASA-funded research on remote-sensing tools. The application process was too long and cumbersome, she says, for a stipend below what other agencies are paying. Her decision has yielded new research opportunities and more money for travel to conferences, where she is able to present her data and network with the community.

"Lots of people are thinking on their feet, looking ahead, and trying to keep their options open because they don't want to be stuck with something that might disappear," says White.

A future cryobot searches for life on Europa. (Credit: NASA)

Weak life signs in astrobiology

Astrobiology at NASA has been hit especially hard by the budget cuts. NASA astrobiology funding has declined 50% over the last 2 years, and funding isn't likely to be restored anytime soon. "These cuts have already resulted in major reductions in programs that fund graduate students and postdocs," says Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Center for Astrobiology in Greenbelt, Maryland. Mumma says he tries to protect the young people as much as possible, but "sometimes you just can't renew a student or postdoc position when the money simply isn't there." Mumma is seeing many young astrobiologists reaching decision points about leaving the field.

Saavik Ford expected to be in a holding pattern as an astrobiology postdoc studying the chemistry behind extrasolar cometary systems. Then after 2 years, the funding dried up and along with it prospects for future jobs. Ford is now an assistant professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. Even though she is at a community college, she has resurrected her research and is looking for NASA funding--but outside astrobiology. The college's connection with City University of New York and her research associate title at the Hayden Planetarium help her win grants, and she has access to the infrastructure to get her work done. Still, it is hard to make headway with only undergraduate assistants and a heavy teaching load.

"Without those resources, I would not be able to do any research at all, even with my college's 'encouragement.' I am teaching for at least 12 hours a week, and prep is at least that much. Add administrative work, etc., and I'm lucky if I average 4 hours a week on research," says Ford, "If I get out two first-author papers in the next 5 years, I'll consider that a major accomplishment."

Another young researcher, who asked to remain anonymous, says that astrobiology is "dead in the water." After years of working on flagship missions at a major NASA centers, she tells the students she mentors not to "go into anything related to NASA because it's too difficult and unstable." She switched from planetary science to astrobiology 4 years ago, just before the budget cuts started. "I'm seriously thinking about doing something else with my life, maybe starting a business. I don't know what yet." She hasn't given up on science completely. "I'm a good scrounger, so I'm hoping to be able to scrounge up some money."

The saving grace for many young researchers is that they are good scroungers. Many fields that are under the gun at NASA are multidisciplinary, so a transition to another line of research is feasible, at least for young scientists with vision, initiative, and talent. But, Fisk says, those are the people space science can least afford to lose. "These people aren't going to be there when you need them," he says. "Next time NASA calls, they're going to say, 'That was fun, but you don't get to fool me twice.' "

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Science Careers and may be reached at

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700025

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