Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 18, 2013

The State of NASA Funding for Research


I debated for awhile about whether I should write this kind of post or not. It’s not really related to the topic of “pseudoastronomy,” though when I thought about it more, a popular claim amongst the “alternative” people is that scientists have practically unlimited funding and they are paid such to uphold the status quo.

I had my link, I write this post. 🙂

How Scientists Get Funding

First, I recommend you read this post, “Where Do Scientists Get Funded” (though hopefully the grammar in the post is better than the title — not sure how I came up with that title).

The jist of the post is that we live in a time that only started maybe 100 or so years ago where governments realized that for a healthy society, a progressive society, and one that can keep ahead in the world, the government needs to support basic research and development. And by “support,” I mean “fund with money.”

There are numerous science and science-related fields that do NOT rely significantly on government support. Engineering is perhaps an obvious one. Medical research pulls from both. Geology pulls from both but probably dollar-wise, industries such as oil, gas, and coal fund the most geological research (I’m guessing here, so don’t yell at me if my numbers are wrong).

Then there are fields where the majority of the funding comes from government research. In broad brush strokes, I would say that the “basic science” fields such as physics, astronomy, most of chemistry, and similar disciplines get most of their funding through government grants. Why? Probably because the benefit to industry isn’t as obvious. Why should a company like Boeing care about how many extrasolar planets are out there?

I can say pretty much without fear of being wrong that the vast majority of professional astronomers in the USA are funded through NASA and/or NSF grants.

Let’s talk about how you get a NASA grant.

Getting a NASA Grant

In February each year, NASA releases the call for proposals to their massive “ROSES” program (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences). ROSES has dozens of sub-programs that distribute awards ranging from $50k/yr for light research to several $million/yr for instrument and/or missions. Separately, there are also calls for institutes (like NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the NASA Lunar Science Institute) which are generally around $1-2 million/yr, and there are calls for mission proposals (which as we learned with Curiosity can cost several $billion over a decade or so).

That overview aside, most basic research is funded through ROSES. ROSES has 102 separate programs you can apply to, though not all of them are available every year.

The basic research ones, such as those that I apply to like LASER (lunar stuff), MDAP (Mars Data Analysis Program), or PGG (Planetary Geology and Geophysics), tell you that they expect to give X number of new awards this funding cycle that will average $100,000 per year. So if I’m writing a 3-year proposal to PGG, I should try to get my total budget to be about $300,000 regardless of what I’m doing or how many people I’m supporting or what my institution charges in overhead (usually 2-3x what I would get in salary) or how many trips I need to go on or what equipment I need.

Then you write the proposal, submit it, and cross your fingers. A panel reviews the proposal and decides what they think its scientific merit is, how cost effective it is, and whether it’s relevant to that program (for example, if >20% of your proposal is to analyze existing Mars data, then you can’t apply to MFRP because it’s not relevant to MFRP (Mars Fundamental Research PRogram); or, if you don’t include some of the required material like a CV, we vote non-compliance which goes in relevance). Each panel is actually broken into several sub-panels, like within LASER you may have a geology sub-panel, exosphere sub-panel, materials sub-panel, and geophysics sub-panel. (I have never been on a LASER panel so I’m guessing here based on other ones I’ve been on, but due to confidentiality I can’t say what those are.)

Each sub-panel then ranks the proposals based on their scores (scores are 1-5) and also gives them a word grade based on the score, from Excellent (5) to Poor (1). You can also get split scores like Very Good / Good (3.5). Anything below Good (3) is considered unfundable no matter how much money is available.

Alright, I’m making this longer than it needs to be … so we rank the proposals and set a “water line” of “MUST FUND” and “Please Fund If There’s Money!” Then we send that to the program director who makes their recommendation to some other people at NASA.

What this all means is you propose, it’s reviewed, ranked, and then decided on. The problem these days is where that water line is, and why it keeps raising.

Falling Funding

NASA, as a federal agency, is beholden both to Congress for setting its budget, and the President for setting its direction and priorities (though sometimes Congress mandates some priorities in the bills it passes). NASA’s budget has been effectively stagnant relative to or decreasing relative to inflation for the past few years. And yet, it has been mandated each funding cycle to change direction and fund something new.

For example, the latest is some asteroid mission that made the news a week or three ago. That money has to come from somewhere. Each year that NASA gets more money, though, a large portion of that is already earmarked for stuff that it has already committed to. And yet with each new mandate, new funding for it is not provided. So, like someone who just got a flat tire but is on a fixed income and already has other bills, the money for that unforeseen expense has to come from something else. Usually, that’s SMD (Science Mission Directorate). Which funds the basic research. Which funds a lot of astronomers.

See where I’m going?

For the last several years, the fraction of successful proposals has been falling at NASA. To the programs that I apply, this past year, the success rate was roughly 17%. This is down from around 25-30%. That may still seem like a lot. Let’s put it a different way.

When I was on some grant review panels, our sub-panel had around 17-19 proposals. We were told that out of our sub-panel, we may get to fund up to 4 or 5 in one program I was on, and 3 in another I was on. Those were lucky – that was a 25% one where the program director had somehow managed to earmark more funds for their program. That means that about 15 of those others, despite some getting Very Good or Very Good / Good scores, were rejected.

New Lows

I work in a lab with on the order of 100 other research scientists. We were recently sent an e-mail asking us to come talk with the director of research if we were having funding issues. After I went to talk with him, he told me that this is the worst he’s seen it in over 30 years. As of that time, 1 RA (Research Associate) was below 100% funding. But, within the next 6 months, >10% of people are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, NASA’s had travel freezes, pretty much all state institutes have had hiring freezes (so if someone quits or retires, that person cannot be replaced), and now the President’s budget recommendation calls for all education and public outreach to be removed from individual agencies that actually do that kind of research (like NASA, or the Department of Agriculture or Energy), and moved to either the Department of Education (formal education), National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach).

The way it currently works is that the researchers actually doing the research partner with people and pay people from the same grants to do education and outreach about that research. For example, every single space mission has a mandatory Education and Public Outreach (EPO) component that funds basic things like their website, and free educational material for teachers. If this proposal were taken and implemented as-is, the likely scenario is that all that money would be zero’ed out (or maybe just all future missions, and the current ones would be grandfathered in), and then all new EPO would have to be proposed through the DOE, NSF, or Smithsonian.

I can see trimming the fat of bureaucracy, but this seems like instead of trimming the fat off a cut of beef to get to the meat, they’re just throwing the steak away and going with chicken. An entirely different animal that will take a long time to get used to and, regardless, can’t fit the same needs as the old one, no matter how hard it tries.

Final Thoughts

I understand that as a somewhat political post, people are going to say that there’s no problem here, that scientists should “get real jobs” and/or not rely on someone else’s tax dollars to pay their salary. Fine. This post is not for you.

For other people who do think that funding basic science research is important, I’m writing this post to give you more of an insight into the process and insight into current problems that we face now. Obviously, this post has been written with specifics that are near and dear to me in mind. With that said, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health are roughly 5%. And somehow homeopathists can get NIH funds.

I also write this with a nod towards Pamela Gay’s blog post from last night, “Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration,” though I think the original title (based on the URL) also had an, “And Fighting for Our Lives” at the end. Her post is a direct request for funding support for her various projects. I want to be clear that I am not asking for donations in my post, nor am I begging you to make a donation to her. I will say that I am involved with one of her projects, “CosmoQuest,” which is generating data that we’re using for research and, in fact, right now writing a paper on that should be submitted to a journal late next month (11 coauthors … it takes awhile to get everyone to sign off on a paper).

If, after reading this, you think this is an okay situation, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t, then I recommend that you contact your congressperson and/or senator and tell them that. And feel free to mention the fact that if young scientists today can’t get research funding, they only have two options: Find work in their field in another country, or choose a different career. In either case, that means that in 2-3 decades, the US will be faced with a serious deficit of those people, the very ones we need to stay ahead. In their stead, we’ll have people who think that pink beams of energy were photographed coming out of pyramids, that there’s a ziggurat on the moon, that clouds from space appear brighter than land because light from them takes less time to reach the camera, or that comets prove the universe is 6000 years old.


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