Budgets and Policy

Continued Confusion Over Astrobiology Funding by NASA

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
April 5, 2006
Filed under , , ,
Continued Confusion Over Astrobiology Funding by NASA

Editor’s note:

What follows below is the strange sequence of steps NASA Headquarters has decided to take with regard to funding for NASA’s Astrobiology Program. In a nutshell, NASA officials publicly stated last week that they were going to add money back to the previously-cut Astrobiology program. Then, at an internal meeting 3 days later, they changed their mind – but did not tell anyone. Only a week after the erroneous public remarks were made did they say anything – and then they only did so via an obscure update on a NASA website that one needs to be guided to in order to find. Once again, NASA has demonstrated its lack of concern for the interests of its research community and has made a mockery of its new communications policy by ignoring its core intent and purpose.

Editor’s note: 30 March 2006 NASA Watch posting:

Monday morning, at the opening session of the Astrobiology Science Conference in Washington DC, NASA Watch reported that Andrew Dantzler, Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA HQ told 700 astrobiologists that the proposed FY 2007 cuts in Astrobiology did not sit well with the research community noting that “it was was not a good shot [at a budget] – we could have done better”. He then said that based on input he had been receiving that it was “clear that we should money back [into Astrobiology]” and that “we have decided to put money back – and we will be doing that as soon as we can.” Carl Pilcher repeated this claim at the conference later that day.

Reliable sources now report that at a Science Mission Directorate monthly meeting at NASA HQ today it was noted that no additional funds will be given to Astrobiology and that someone is going to have to go tell the astrobiologists that the claim made by Dantzler and Pilcher is not true.

Editor’s note: Not having seen anything from NASA on its own volition, I submitted the following request last weekend.

From: Keith Cowing
Subject: Clarification on Astrobiology cuts/addbacks
Date: April 1, 2006 9:31:10 PM EST
To: Carl Pilcher, Andrew Dantzler
Cc: Dean Acosta, Mary Cleave, David Mould, Colleen Hartman, Joe Davis


At the Astrobiology Science Conference on Monday of last week you and Andy spoke of the need to reverse the proposed cuts to Astrobiology and to add money back. You repeated that pledge and went into some additional detail in a NASA Town Meeting at the conference – one you asked to be held.

On Thursday of last week, just a few days after those comments, reliable sources inform me that this topic was raised at the SMD monthly and that, in fact, this announcement was made in error and that this misconception would need to be corrected.

  1. Will additional funds be added back to Astrobiology as you detailed at the Astrobiology Science Conference?
  2. If these funds are not to be added – when was the decision upon which you made your announcements made – and when was the subsequent decision made to reverse that pledge – and who made those decisions?
  3. Given that NASA civil servants made these pledges at a NASA conference – one open to the news media and the public – will NASA HQ be issuing a formal statement of clarification – in concert with the agency’s new communications policy?

Editor’s note: I got this reply back at the close of business on 4 April 2006:

From: Grey Hautaluoma
Subject: Astrobiology information
Date: April 4, 2006 5:08:53 PM EDT
To: Keith Cowing
Cc: Dean Acosta, Jason Sharp

Information regarding Astrobiology and other research funding has been posted to NASA’s ROSES Web site, the source for information about NASA research opportunities.

The ROSES-2006 homepage may be found by going to the NASA research opportunities homepage at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/ Select “Solicitations” then select “Open Solicitations” then select “NNH06ZDA001N ROSES-2006.” Under “Other Documents,” select “Note from NASA: Funding for the SMD R&A Program, including Astrobiology (April 4, 2006).”

Grey Hautaluoma
NASA Headquarters
Office of Public Affairs
(202) 358-0668

Editor’s note: This is the document mentioned in the email:

Note to the Community: Funding for the Science Mission Directorate Research and Analysis (R&A) Program, including Astrobiology

April 4, 2006

The proposed NASA budget (NASA’s proposed FY06 operating plan and the President’s proposed FY07 budget) identifies a reduced level of growth for the Science Mission Directorate, relative to the runout of the President’s proposed FY06 budget. In order to plan an executable program within the total funding proposed for SMD, we have had to make decisions on the appropriate mix of flight programs, research and development, and other program components. The reduction in research funding is directly related to the slowing rate of growth of SMD programs. Because there will be fewer missions within SMD, a larger body of advanced research and development to prepare for future missions is not required.

Astrobiology research funding is reduced in the budget for several reasons. It should also be noted that astrobiology experienced a rapid growth in funding several years ago. Prior to this reduction, the Astrobiology research budget was comparable to the astrophysics research budget and was almost double the heliophysics research budget. This reduction brings it more into balance with the rest of the research program. In addition, the lower flight rate for astrobiology related missions (e.g. fewer Mars missions in the next 5 years, delay for a Europa orbiter mission, delay for a Terrestrial Planet Finder mission etc.), plus the recognition that human exploration missions to Mars are further in the future than previously assumed, have reduced some of the urgency for rapid progress in astrobiology research. Astrobiology remains one of the larger disciplines and an important area of research in support of NASA’s program.

Both Mike Griffin and Mary Cleave, in Congressional testimony, Town Meetings with the community and elsewhere have said that we will listen to the science community’s advice regarding the program mix and R&A. We tried to get the mix right, but if we can do better, we can propose changes through updates to the operating plan. In consultation with the science community, through the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), we are studying the R&A and program mix. This advice will help NASA set priorities for funding missions and research within a fixed bottom-line budget. Any advice that indicates that a smaller, or perhaps no, reduction in research funding is a high priority for NASA should also indicate which mission budgets are lower priority. Such advice should be within the context of priorities set in the appropriate NAS decadal surveys. This will be a prime topic of discussion with the NAC science subcommittees when they meet later this spring. In our communications with the science community, we have indicated the changes that must be made to support the proposed NASA budget. At the same time, it is not our intent to preclude any options prior to the receipt of findings and recommendations from our advisory committees. We expect to release a decision on R&A funding by early summer.

Editor’s note: This is my response back to PAO:

From: Keith Cowing
Subject: Re: Astrobiology information
Date: April 4, 2006 5:29:17 PM EDT
To: Dean Acosta, Grey Hautaluoma, Jason Sharp
Cc: Andrew Datzler, Carl Pilcher, Mary Cleave, Colleen Hartman

There is no mention in this document whatsoever of the funding increase that Andy Dantzler and Carl Pilcher specifically mentioned in front of hundreds of people at the Astrobiology Science Conference. If you’d like I can provide you with an audio recording of those comments.

Given that this note is in response to my query for detail on the proposed funding increases that Dantzler and Pilcher spoke of, I am assuming that lack of any mention of that topic in this formal NASA reply – and that lack of any mention of additional funds in the document you have referred me to – is indicative of the fact that these comments were made in error, that NASA never intended to increase Astrobiology funds back from previously announced cuts, and that NASA is unwilling /unable to openly admit this error in public to the scientific community affected by these cuts.

Thanks for your prompt – if incomplete – reply.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻