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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 5.3 Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute A Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Review of the NASA Astrobiology Institute Executive Summary Astrobiology is a scientific discipline devoted to the study of life in the universe—its origin, evolution, distribution, and future. It brings together the physical and biological sciences to address some of the most fundamental questions of the natural world: How do living systems emerge? How do habitable worlds form and how do they evolve? Does life exist on worlds other than Earth? As an endeavor of tremendous breadth and depth, astrobiology requires interdisciplinary investigation in order to be fully appreciated and examined. As part of a concerted effort to undertake such a challenge, the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) was established in 1998 as an innovative way to develop the field of astrobiology and provide a scientific framework for flight missions. Now that the NAI has been in existence for almost a decade, the time is ripe to assess its achievements. At the request of NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the Committee on the Review of the NASA Astrobiology Institute undertook the assignment to determine the progress made by the NAI in developing the field of astrobiology (Appendix A). It must be emphasized that the purpose of this study was not to undertake a review of the scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Astrobiology program, in general, or of the NAI, in particular. Rather, the objective of the study is to evaluate the success of the NAI in achieving its stated goals of: Conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research; Training the next generation of astrobiology researchers; Providing scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions; Exploring new approaches, using modern information technology, to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely distributed investigators; and Supporting outreach by providing scientific content for use in K-12 education programs, teaching undergraduate classes, and communicating directly with the public. The committee’s assessment of the NAI’s progress in these five areas is presented in Chapters 2 to 6, respectively. In evaluating the success of the NAI in achieving these five goals, the committee was requested to address the following considerations: Has the NAI developed, as envisioned, as an evolving experiment in cutting-edge, distributed, collaborative science and education in astrobiology? Does the NAI provide a unique and useful complement to other Astrobiology program support mechanisms (e.g., individual grants to principal investigators), and if improvements need to be made in this area, what are they? Are the research, training, and public educational activities of the NAI appropriately balanced in terms of investments and outcomes, services to NAI members and external partners, and activities that engage and support the wider astrobiology community and the needs of young professionals? What other activities or roles not currently undertaken by the NAI might be appropriate in the future? The committee’s responses to these four criteria can be found in subsections in Chapters 2 to 6. Specific recommendations and suggestions as to how the recommendations might be implemented can be found in the final subsection of the same chapters. NOTE: “Executive Summary” reprinted from Assessment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008, pp. 1-4; approved for release in 2007.
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 Information on the origins of NASA’s Astrobiology program and the NAI; a summary of comments on the role, status, and scientific importance of astrobiology from previous NRC reports; and some information on the budgetary history and the impact of recent cuts to the Astrobiology budget can be found in Chapter 1. FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Overall, the committee is unanimous in finding that the NAI has fulfilled its original mandate. The NAI has played a key role in supporting the development of astrobiology, has positively affected NASA’s current and future missions, and should continue to be supported. Specific findings and recommendations are organized according to the five goals and four criteria listed above NAI Goal 1—Interdisciplinary Research Although the committee was not charged to undertake a review of the NAI’s scientific contributions, it is difficult to evaluate the NAI’s success in conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research without some brief mention of the NAI’s scientific achievements. Consideration of the NAI’s major scientific contributions reveals that some are highly interdisciplinary but that some are not. In the committee’s view, interdisciplinarity must be viewed as the orientation and emergent quality of an overall enterprise and not as a requirement or expectation levied on every piece of work produced by that enterprise. Thus, with respect to the goal of conducting, supporting, and catalyzing collaborative interdisciplinary research, the committee finds that the NAI has: Successfully promoted interdisciplinary science; Stimulated many scientific achievements; Successfully integrated life sciences into NASA programs; Often effectively leveraged ongoing and new research; Contributed to the establishment of new astrobiology programs worldwide; and Supported programs that are widely distributed throughout the United States. The committee makes the following recommendations: The NAI should improve the accountability of its nodes to the goal of promoting astrobiology as a field of interdisciplinary and collaborative study by instituting better measures of performance and progress; The NAI should improve the tracking and critical assessment of its publications; and The NAI should encourage and cultivate relationships with non-NAI astrobiology teams and organizations (e.g., the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and the Bioastronomy Commission of the International Astronomical Union). Suggestions as to how these recommendations might be implemented can be found in Chapter 2. NAI Goal 2—Training the Next Generation of Astrobiologists NAI’s commendable effort to train the next generation of astrobiologists faces many challenges. The continuation of funding beyond the 5-year lifetime of NAI teams is not guaranteed. Young researchers seeking to establish themselves outside the protective environment of NAI teams face particular challenges when trying to accomplish interdisciplinary research within the highly discipline-oriented organization of research universities. The pool of resources for training new researchers is limited. Nevertheless, with respect to the goal of training the next generation of astrobiology researchers, the committee finds that the NAI has: Trained graduates who are now employed in academic and other positions; Promoted the establishment of programs and new faculty positions in astrobiology at several universities; Encouraged continued involvement of scientists in NASA programs; and
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 Not been sufficiently proactive in countering the negative effects on training and education programs caused by recent cuts to NASA’s Astrobiology budget. The committee recommends that the NAI should work toward more consistent educational and training opportunities and should ensure stable support of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in astrobiology. Suggestions as to how this recommendation might be implemented can be found in Chapter 3. NAI Goal 3—Leadership for Current and Future Space Missions Although the NAI has not played a significant role in the selection or execution of NASA missions, the field of astrobiology provides the intellectual and scientific foundation for much if not all of NASA’s current robotic solar system exploration missions and many of its astrophysical activities relating to the search for and characterization of extrasolar planets. The NAI’s influence has been indirect and has come through the actions of individual scientists affiliated with NAI teams. This is probably the most appropriate vehicle for the NAI’s involvement in NASA’s flight program. Thus, with respect to the goal of providing scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, the committee finds that the NAI has: Encouraged astrobiologists to provide needed recommendations and expertise to NASA for mission planning and has promoted their participation in the science teams for current and future missions; Organized activities, such as focus groups, that have strongly influenced NASA missions; and Identified astrobiology questions that underpin most of NASA’s current flight programs. The committee believes that the NAI must remain clearly focused on supporting NASA’s spaceflight missions, and so its highest-priority recommendation is as follows: Because its most critical function is to ensure that its portfolio of research activities remains clearly focused on contributing to NASA’s current and future spaceflight activities, the NAI should be more proactive in identifying future astrobiology missions and should actively encourage a partnership between astrobiologists and their engineering counterparts to help define future NASA missions. The committee also recommends that in selecting new nodes, the NAI should give more weight to the potential contribution of the proposed research to future NASA missions. Suggestions as to how these recommendations might be implemented can be found in Chapter 4. NAI Goal 4—Use of Information Technology The NAI experience with information technology has been mixed. Those aspects of the application of information technology within the control of NAI Central—e.g., its extensive and informative Web page with its archive of astrobiology seminars and research results—are second to none in NASA. But those aspects of the utilization of information technology outside the direct control of NAI Central—e.g., the use of collaborative work tools by the researchers affiliated with NAI teams—has been less successful. The lack of success most likely results from social rather than technical factors. Thus, with respect to the goal of exploring new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research among widely distributed investigators, the committee finds that: The substantial efforts by NAI Central to improve communications among NAI members have achieved some significant successes; and Additional efforts by NAI Central are needed to ensure that new communications tools enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and training. The committee recommends that the NAI should vigorously pursue the goal of using modern information technologies to increase the effectiveness of the NAI nodes. Suggestions as to how this recommendation might be implemented can be found in Chapter 5.
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Space Studies Board: Annual Report 2007 NAI Goal 5—Education and Outreach The public’s interest in the subject matter of astrobiology has enabled the effective leveraging of funds, partnerships, and expertise far greater in scope than those made available by the NAI itself. Thus, with respect to the goal of supporting outreach by providing scientific content for K-12 education programs, teaching undergraduate classes, and communicating directly with the public, the committee finds that the NAI has: Successfully promoted astrobiology as a field with broad-based public appeal; Developed effective programs for outreach to the general public; and Enabled minority educational activities. The committee makes the following recommendations: The NAI should be more strategic in exploiting synergies in K-12 education, minority education, and teacher training among nodes; and The NAI should form a focus group and undertake other necessary actions to address the specifics of teaching astrobiology at the undergraduate level. Suggestions as to how these recommendations might be implemented can be found in Chapter 6.