Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Isn't NASA Protecting Planetary Research?

Surface of Mercury showing ice
in permanently shaded polar craters.
It's amazing that ice can persist so
close to the Sun. 
My answer to this question is "I'm not sure, because there isn't enough transparency."

Take a look at a recent article over at Scientific American.  This is a guest post by planetary scientist Dr. Andrew Rivkin, whom I have interviewed here on this blog.  The title of the SA article "The Fight to Save Planetary Science, and Why the New Mars Rover Does Not Mean Victory" points to a problem between a perceived "win" for planetary science, and what is really going on behind the scenes.  As a planetary scientist myself, I have been as baffled as Rivkin by the ongoing situation, and with NASA's choice of upcoming plans.

So go ahead and read that article, I'll wait here ...

Rivkin makes many good points in the article, but the one that strikes me the hardest is the one regarding transparency.  Given the complex nature of the relationship between planetary scientists and NASA, we as scientists need to understand why and how the key decisions are made.  There is confusion over the subject, because, as Rivkin points out, we believed we had produced a document detailing our priorities, and yet we do not agree that those priorities are now being followed by NASA. 

Research is not suffering simply because of a tight budget.  It is not suffering because the Decadal Survey ignores it (quite the contrary.)  It is not suffering because there are too few planetary scientists to get the work done.

So why are we looking at such dramatic cuts in Research in favor of missions not specifically requested in the Decadal Survey?

Again, I don't know, because I can't figure out NASA's decision making process.

What's your take?

Image Credit:  Nancy. L. Chabot et al., JGR, 117 (2012).  NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington/NAIO, Arecibo Observatory


Amy said...

Transparency in large institutions is so important for establishing clarity, efficiency, and credibility, yet it seems hard to find.

We demand it from charities, whom we voluntarily give our money to. We should certainly have it from any group funded by our taxes.

J.A. Grier said...

Agreed. I know that the complexities of major government institutions mean that I won't always understand the ins and outs of each decision process. But seeing as how I am pretty close to this one, it is baffling that it still remains rather opaque. I am surprised how much my interpretation of the Decadal Survey differs ...
Fictional Planet