NRC Decadal Surveys Appear to Be On Track

NRC Decadal Surveys Appear to Be On Track

The National Research Council’s (NRC’s) three “Decadal Surveys” appear to be on track for release this year or next. Astro2010 is expected to be released this summer, Biological and Physical Sciences in Space at the end of the year, and Planetary Sciences in spring 2011.

NRC Decadal Surveys prioritize scientific research in specific disciplines and recommend missions and related activities to be conducted within a budget envelope provided by the agencies that sponsor the studies. The studies are conducted by committees of experts appointed by the NRC who work over a period of about two years to reach consensus on the most compelling areas of science to pursue. The recommendations are followed pretty faithfully by the agencies requesting the studies. For more information on the history and purpose of Decadal Surveys, see “National Research Council” on our left menu.

  • Astro2010 (astronomy and astrophysics). Chaired by Roger Blandford (Stanford), this study appears to be on track for release this summer. It is sponsored by NASA, NSF, and the Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy Physics. All of the committee’s panels have completed their meetings. Two closed meetings of the overarching “survey committee” – which writes the report – are scheduled for January 25-27 and February 28-March 2 at the NRC’s Beckman Center in Irvine, CA. As Dr. Blandford said in what he predicted would be his last “bulletin” to the community in September 2009:

… the deliberations of the panels and the survey committee remain confidential under the usual operational procedures of the NRC. With that in mind it seems unlikely further community bulletins will be necessary until the survey reports are published — scheduled for next summer. Once again, I must ask for your forbearance to be patient and respect this process. While I am sure many of us serving on various committees would like to tell you more about what is going on behind the scenes, the NRC process precludes us from doing so.

  • Biological and Physical Sciences in Space. Co-chaired by Betsy Cantwell (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) and Wendy Kohrt (University of Colorado, Denver), the “microgravity” decadal appears to be on track for release at the end of the year. Sponsored by NASA, it is looking at research that needs to be conducted in microgravity (e.g., on the International Space Station) as well as partial gravity (e.g., on the lunar surface).

    In addition to meetings of the steering committee and seven panels, the committee has been holding “town hall” meetings to obtain input from a broad spectrum of researchers in these fields. The fourth and last will be held on January 6, 2010 in conjunction with the AIAA’s Aerospace Sciences meeting in Orlando, FL. Most of the panels will meet in person or via teleconference during January (see our calendar on the right menu for more details). The steering committee will meet from February 15-17 and March 31-April 2 at the NRC’s Beckman Center in Irvine, CA, probably in closed session.

  • Planetary Sciences. Steve Squyres (Cornell) is chair of this third Decadal Survey, which is expected to be released in spring 2011. Dr. Squyres provides updates to the planetary sciences community, most recently on December 1 where he announced that the Aerospace Corporation had been selected to perform the Independent Cost Estimates (ICEs) now required for Decadal Surveys that recommend spacecraft missions. (Aerospace also is conducting the ICEs for Astro2010.)

    Representatives of each of the five panels provided updates on their activities at the December 2009 American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco. The Powerpoint slides from three of the five panels are available at (the others will be added when they become available). The panels will continue to meet through the spring, as will the steering committee. The meetings are listed on our calendar on the right menu and at the NRC’s website. The Planetary Sciences Decadal Survey is sponsored by NASA and NSF.

NRC reports are subject to extensive, confidential, external peer review after they are drafted by the relevant study committee, meaning that the draft report must be completed many months before a report is finally released. It is always difficult to guess when a report will be released.

The NRC’s Report Review Committee (RRC) is the only entity that approves a report for release, not the committee writing it. Composed of members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, the RRC only signs off when it is satisfied the committee has produced a report worthy of the NRC imprimatur. Many find the NRC review process frustrating – especially since it takes place behind closed doors and people want to know what the report will say – but it is arguably one of the keys to the NRC’s reputation for excellence.

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