NRC to Webcast Next Week's Workshop on Future of Decadal Surveys

NRC to Webcast Next Week's Workshop on Future of Decadal Surveys

Anyone interested in the future of National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Surveys may want to tune in to the webcast of a workshop being held next week that will discuss how those highly influential studies could be improved.

The workshop, sponsored by the NRC’s Space Studies Board, will be held on Monday and Tuesday at the NRC’s Beckman Center in Irvine, CA.  The meeting is open to the public, but to expand its reach, the NRC also will webcast it.  The webcast can be viewed at

Decadal Surveys are one of the most preeminent products of the NRC.   Conducted about every 10 years (a decade) to prioritize the most important scientific questions to try and answer over the next 10 years, Decadal Surveys have been around since the 1960s when the first was performed for the field of astronomy and astrophysics.

Decadal Survey study committees bring together the top scientists and engineers in a particular scientific discipline who, over an approximately two-year period, use a consensus-based approach to identify the key science questions and mission concepts to find answers.   For NASA, the NRC now performs Decadal Surveys for five science disciplines:   astronomy and astrophysics, planetary science, solar and space physics (heliophysics), earth science and applications from space, and biological and physical sciences in space.  The first four are for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (NASA/SMD); the last is for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The NRC has just completed the most recent set of NASA-related science Decadal Surveys, which were published between 2007 and 2012.  Changes in how the studies are conducted were introduced during that period, perhaps most notably after Congress required in the 2008 NASA Authorization Act that they include independent cost estimates of recommended missions.  Previously, the NRC relied on estimates from NASA or project teams that often turned out to be far too low.

Even with independent cost estimates, however, NASA is struggling to implement the missions recommended by several of the most recent Decadal Surveys because budgets are much more constrained than expected.   NASA provides each Decadal Survey committee with an estimate of how much money the agency will have to spend on that discipline over the next 10 years, which guides the committee when making its mission recommendations.   For astronomy and astrophysics, and planetary science, however, the actual budgets have turned out to be much smaller either because of overruns on existing missions (e.g. the James Webb Space Telescope) or changing national priorities.

The NRC will look at lessons learned from the recent Decadal Surveys to avoid such pitfalls in future studies.  Among other things, the NRC wants to ensure that the time of the hundreds of scientists and engineers who volunteer to serve on the committees is not wasted and that NASA has a sound set of missions to pursue.  By law, the NRC must also conduct “mid-term reviews” of each Decadal Survey half way through the decade covered by the report.  The workshop will discuss how the mid-term reviews also might be improved.

As the agenda shows, the two-day workshop brings together scientists and engineers who led current and past Decadal Surveys that were conducted for NASA/SMD, NASA and other government officials who implement them, and members of the relevant scientific communities who serve on these committees and whose careers are heavily influenced by their recommendations.


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