Congress Approves Move of Biological and Physical Sciences from HEOMD to SMD

Congress Approves Move of Biological and Physical Sciences from HEOMD to SMD

Congress has approved NASA’s proposal to move responsibility for biological and physical sciences research into the Science Mission Directorate (SMD).  That field of research has bounced around within NASA over the decades and most recently was part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD).

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for SMD, tweeted the news this afternoon.

He revealed the upcoming transfer at Wednesday’s meeting of the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Craig Kundrot. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“SLPSRA” is the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications division of HEOMD, which has been managing both fundamental and applied research. Its three mission areas are the Human Research Program (HRP), the Space Biology Program and the Physical Science Program.  HRP is applied research associated with astronaut health and safety and will remain in HEOMD.  The other two are fundamental research and are moving to SMD.

A NASA spokesperson told that a new division will be created in SMD reporting to Zurbuchen and headed by Craig Kundrot who has been the head of SLPSRA.

SSB has a Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space (CBPSS) and oversees the Decadal Survey for that research discipline. The first such Decadal Survey, Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences for a New Era, was published in 2011.  Decadal Surveys are produced every 10 years (a decade) for each of NASA’s science disciplines by committees of volunteers from the relevant science community meeting under the auspices of the Academies. They identify and prioritize the key scientific questions in the field that need to be answered through research and programs.  “Mid-term reviews” are conducted at the 5-year mark to assess how NASA is implementing the recommendations. The mid-term review for this Decadal Survey was published in 2017.

NASA and the Academies are gearing up for the next biological and physical sciences Decadal Survey right now. MIT’s Dava Newman, co-chair of CBPSS and former Deputy Administrator of NASA, told SSB on Wednesday that the Statement of Task for the new study was approved in March, but now must go through the approval process again because of the transfer to SMD.  Hence it will not get started until this fall.

Newman compared the organizational history of space life and physical sciences research to a “pendulum” on a “10-15 year cycle,” sometimes more closely affiliated with science and other times with human spaceflight.

Originally it was part of NASA’s Office of Space Science and Applications, SMD’s predecessor. But as the 2011 Decadal Survey explains, by 1992 NASA senior management came to view it as “supportive of, and subordinate to” human spaceflight and it then was moved to Space Operations “rather than being an equal partner with NASA’s other science programs.”

As the International Space Station moved closer to construction at the end of the 1990s, however, utilization of its research facilities took on more importance. NASA created an Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) in 2000 as a fifth strategic enterprise on par with science and space operations.

That did not last long, however.  Budget constraints limited how much funding was provided to OBPR and President George W. Bush’s directive to return humans to the Moon by 2020 — the Constellation Program — led to another NASA reorganization. OBPR was abolished and its activities moved under the new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

The Decadal Survey called that “a serious blow” and from 2003 to the end of that decade “the budget for biological and fundamental microgravity sciences within NASA has been reduced by more than 90 percent from its prior level, with only modest protection via a congressional mandate.”

The Decadal Survey recommended a path forward and the mid-term review found NASA’s response — creating SLPSRA — to be “appropriate and responsive.”  The new Decadal Survey is likely to weigh in on this current change, but it usually takes about two years to complete one of those studies.

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR) represents many members of the biological and physical sciences community.  Executive Director Gale Allen told that ASGSR “is supportive of the move to SMD.”  Allen spent most of her career at NASA in this field and retired as the agency’s Acting Chief Scientist in 2018.

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