When I last wrote in April, the conversation around COVID-19 was still relatively fresh and raw. Four months later, it is obvious that the detriments of the virus have the potential to be severe, wide reaching, and long lasting. Although COVID-19 continues to dominate much of our attention, work at NASA and in planetary science is continuing. And despite the tumult of this generation-defining global pandemic, we are continuing with preparations for the 2023–2032 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey, which will help to shape the future of our community and the activities of current and next generations of scientists.
Given the challenges being faced during these times, it is understandable that many of our colleagues are struggling to find the time and resources to contribute to the Decadal Survey White Paper process, or are only able to participate at a diminished level. With these valid concerns voiced in the community, I was glad to see some additional slack in the White Paper submission schedule provided by the Decadal Survey Chairs, with deadlines now being staggered across the summer. In addition, although the White Papers will be crucially important to the success of the Decadal Survey, I want to remind you that their primary purpose is to present specific ideas, in a clear manner, to the Decadal Survey panel(s). All the White Papers will be read by the panel members and all will be considered — no matter the number of signatories. The papers should not be viewed in a competitive framework, nor do they need to be “polished” documents. The important thing is to submit your ideas so they can be part of the discussion!
The short-term concerns over ensuring diverse and representative input to the Decadal Survey process are also mirrored in the worries I have over how the COVID-19 fallout will affect the longer-term state of our community. Like so many of you, I fear that we will lose a large fraction of new planetary scientists because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. This fear is particularly pointed as it is set in the context of the recently renewed inspection of our commitments to diversity and inclusion. For that reason, I’m pleased that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), including the Planetary Science Division (PSD), are working on several initiatives to help the members of the planetary science community who may be at highest risk during these uncertain times, including graduate students, postdocs, and early-career, soft-money scientists. I outline a few of those plans here.
First, you will hopefully have seen the recently announced SMD-wide “COVID-19-relief” initiative for early-career researchers. This will be a three-pronged approach to try and mitigate some of the worst effects of COVID-19 and any associated economic downturn. It will be possible to submit requests for augmentations and funded extension requests to existing SMD-funded grants. Such requests will be prioritized to first help graduate students and postdocs, and then soft-money, early-career researchers, before any other requests. Please refer to the new NASA Science Mission Directorate Policy Document (SPD-36) Augmentations and Funded Extension Requests in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic for full details of this scheme. We are also currently investigating the expansion of the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP), to provide both some new positions as well as extensions of existing appointments. There may also be the potential to fund additional short-term (two- to six-year) positions at NASA Centers. I note, however, that the funding source for any of these mitigation strategies will be the same as for new SMD (including PSD) awards. As a result, we are working hard to balance the resources we devote to these COVID-19-relief activities while ensuring we still offer new research opportunities.
Second, SMD has recently submitted a Statement of Task to the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences to address the topic of increasing diversity and inclusion in the leadership of competed space missions. The ultimate goal of this activity will be a set of recommended — practical and effective — actions that can help SMD increase diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility in the leadership of proposals submitted to our competed mission programs, and to likewise help proposers overcome barriers to diversity and inclusion. It is imperative that we do better in ensuring that our mission leadership teams more suitably reflect the diversity of the community, and the population, we serve. The continued success of our mission programs depends on the participation of the most innovative and capable members of our science community, thus guaranteeing that the proposal teams themselves capture a wide diversity of people to foster varied and novel ideas.
Last, we will soon be implementing the first trials of dual-anonymous peer review (DAPR) of proposals within SMD. Within PSD, the pilot will be conducted initially within our Habitable Worlds program. With the help of external consultants, especially the experiences of the Space Telescope Science Institute for the review of Hubble proposals, the rollout of DAPR is being carefully planned with the overall goal of reducing implicit bias in the evaluation of science proposals. By making structural changes in the way we review proposals, we want to help “level the playing field” for everyone and ensure the focus of review discussions is always on the proposed science rather than the proposers.
We are poised at a moment of many great changes, but I’m hopeful that the initiatives I’ve outlined — and many others — will help us to continually improve our planetary science community, as well as planetary science itself. I’m grateful for the committed community I serve and to which I belong. I look forward to the day when I can get back to working in person at the newly named Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters, promoting a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
— Lori S. Glaze, Director, NASA’s Planetary Science Division, July 2020