Astrobiology under assault

NASA budget for Fiscal 2007 would slash funds for space science research

By | March 2, 2006

The Bush administration has proposed cutting support for astrobiology at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by 50% in Fiscal 2007, as part of a 25% overall reduction in solar system research. Scientists and NASA officials warn that the proposed cut, contained in the president's budget request released last month, will adversely affect future generations of researchers. Carl B. Pilcher, NASA's senior scientist for astrobiology, said the cut would send the wrong signal to universities that had, at NASA's prompting, established astrobiology programs during the past decade. "The impact [of the cut] is not only on the amount of research that NASA can support, but also the willingness of universities and other organizations to make investments of their own in this field," Pilcher told The Scientist. "Astrobiology is the reason we go into space, to answer fundamental questions about the origins of life and how it evolved, and whether there are other places where organisms are living," echoed Hiroshi Ohmoto, director of Penn State's Astrobiology Research Center. "It is the whole justification for future space missions." Funds for astrobiology research would be slashed from around $60 million in Fiscal 2005 to $30 million for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2006. Overall, NASA's Solar System Research account, which includes astrobiology research, would receive $274 million, a cut of $89 million, or 25% less than the Fiscal 2006 request. In September 2005, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a news conference he would not cut "one thin dime" from space science research. But a $2.3 billion miscalculation in the Space Shuttle budget through 2010, uncovered late last year, altered that plan. "I didn't want to do it, but that's one of the things we had to do," Griffin said of the proposed cutback during a budget briefing last month. About half of NASA's astrobiology budget is for competitive grants and cooperative research agreements at 16 U.S. universities and facilities supporting more than 700 investigators. The grants are administered by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), headquartered at the Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif. The Ames Research Center, one of NASA's 10 field installations, operates programs in fundamental space biology and human factors research, as well as in supercomputing and nanotechnology. Funding at Ames, however, has been on a downward spiral for several years; Ames' proposed Fiscal 2007 budget is $530 million, down 12% from $603 million this year. Ames Director G. Scott Hubbard, a scientist who was instrumental in founding NAI in 1998, resigned in January. There was speculation among employees that Hubbard wanted to leave before being axed by Griffin, who had already replaced most of the other 10 center directors since becoming NASA administrator in April 2005. But in a memo to employees, reported in the media, Hubbard said he was stepping aside to let Griffin select a center director "of the administration's choosing." Hubbard could not be reached for comment and NASA officials declined to comment. Hubbard has since taken a position at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., a nonprofit facility supporting work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). "Scott will be looking at all kinds of ways to help astrobiology grow and flourish," said Jill Tarter, the institute's director for SETI research. Initial plans include entrepreneurship and seeking state funding, she said. Like other life scientists, astrobiologists are upset with the administration's budget proposals and plan to lobby Congress to restore funding. "Action is needed immediately to prevent the slowing down, or even cessation, of astrobiology research," wrote Nobel laureate Baruch S. Blumberg, a former NAI director, and Thomas Pierson, SETI Institute chief executive, in a Feb. 15 letter to members of the U.S. astrobiology community, urging them to contact their legislators. With these lobbying efforts, "Congress will see an exceptionally large crop of scientists of various flavors this spring," Tarter predicted. "There's lots of bad news for science in the '07 budget." Ted Agres Links within this article T. Agres, "NIH held to flat funding in '07," The Scientist, February 7, 2006. Penn State Astrobiology Research Center NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) J.S. Lyons, "NASA/AMES director resigns," Mercury News, January 20, 2006.
SETI B. Blumberg and T. Pierson letter to astrobiology community, February 15, 2006.

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