Planetary Scientists Need To Make Their Case to Congress

Planetary Scientists Need To Make Their Case to Congress

Steve Squyres, chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Decadal Survey on planetary science, issued a call to arms to the planetary science community to come together and support the Decadal Survey in order to protect their discipline in these constrained budget times. The Decadal Survey was released today.

Squyres, a prominent planetary scientist at Cornell who is best known as the “father” of the two rovers currently on Mars – Spirit and Opportunity – laid out the results of the two-year NRC study at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference being held in Texas. Noting that the key element of the report’s conclusions was “science return per dollar,” he made it clear that the budget was critical to the fate of its recommendations.

The Decadal Survey lays out priorities for planetary exploration for the next 10 years, but also provides decision rules on what to do if the budget is more or less than what the study committee contemplated. NASA gave the committee a budget “envelope” within which to plan missions and make recommendations, but the situation has changed in the two years since the committee began its work and all pointers are that the budget for planetary science will be less.

Squyres focused on President Obama’s FY2012 budget request for NASA. It shows the planetary science budget on a downward slope for the next five years. The request for FY2012 is $1,489 million, declining to $1,366 million in FY2013; $1,326 in FY2014; $1,271 million in FY2015; and $1,189 million in FY2016. That is essentially a going-out-of-business budget for this field of scientific research.

Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division (PSD), said that the President’s budget projection does not allow for any new program starts. He then showed a different chart illustrating the budget scenario he had given the study committee based on PSD’s expected budget just one year ago that showed a much rosier scenario. Much has changed since then, he stressed. Even if one assumes that NASA’s total budget will be level-funded beyond FY2012 (which is not what the President’s budget request indicates), the outlook for planetary science is discouraging.

Squyres called on the planetary science community to get behind the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and pointedly urged scientists to contact their Members of Congress to make the case for investing taxpayer dollars in this field. NRC Decadal Surveys traditionally are well respected by Congress and NASA and their recommendations faithfully followed to the extent budgets permit. Planetary scientists need to make their case, Squyres said, explaining that in meetings with Members of Congress last week they asked why their offices were not being inundated with planetary scientists arguing for funding for their research. He reported that they said “We can’t walk into our offices without tripping over people” asking for money, but none are scientists.

Green agreed, saying that the Decadal Survey committee had made tough choices and not everyone would concur with them, but the community must find a way to “step up and support the report.” He emphasized that Decadal Surveys “transcend” Congresses and Administrations, providing the “guiding light” moving the agency forward year by year. He extolled the committee for providing “an outstanding set of missions and outstanding decision making rules” that will allow NASA to develop a program that “in time will make a significant contribution to planetary science.” He lauded cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), but indicated that NASA will have to renegotiate agreements it already has with ESA because of the changed budget expectations.

Not everyone in the audience was persuaded that the NRC committee made the right recommendations or that the NRC process was best suited to reaching a consensus within the planetary science community. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute said that it was too early for anyone to ask the community to support the Decadal Survey recommendations since this was the first they knew about them. He complained that the NRC study process does not allow study committees to share their recommendations until the report has completed rigorous peer review out of public view so it is not really a community consensus.

Squyres agreed that building a consensus would be a lengthy process and noted that he will hold a series of Town Hall meetings, as well as discussions with international partners, over the next several weeks to build that support.

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