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Will a re-organization at NASA end early planetary science careers?

On December 3, I started seeing really depressing tweets from some of the planetary scientists I follow on Twitter. And by depressing, I mean people talking about the deaths of their careers and the end of some really interesting research. What was this all about?

The hubbub started with a meeting [pdf] where NASA announced that they will be restructuring how planetary research is funded. On the surface, this sounds like typical government-agency bureaucracy, but the results may be devastating to some research programs. If, like me, you know very little about how planetary research is currently funded and governed, there is a nice, acronym-free explainer here.

The basic gist is that dozens of grant programs will be consolidated into just a few. This contraction will likely exclude some research projects. And the kicker is that "a newly formed research program that will cover roughly half of all planetary science proposals will not be calling for new grant submissions in 2014." This is decidedly bad news for the scientists who study 'Solar System Workings' because most won't have anywhere else to turn for funding in the interim. According to Mark Sykes, CEO of the Planetary Science Institute, "This is going to destroy American competitiveness in solar system exploration at a time when other nations are rising."

As Alexandra Witze reports for Nature, most planetary scientists agree that a restructuring of these programs was necessary. However, many felt blindsided by the virtual town hall meeting where the new system was announced because so little input had been solicited from impacted parties beforehand.

The announcement has led to palpable fear among planetary scientists—especially early career scientists—who wonder how and when their research will be funded and even whether they'll have jobs in two years. This article explains why early career scientists in particular are likely to face the largest impact. Postdoc and Europa researcher Alyssa Rhoden wonders if women and scientists with families will be disproportionally affected as they are less likely to stay in a field with so little job security.

Part of what makes this reorganization so harsh is that NASA funding was already tight, and getting tighter. Budget cuts and sequestration hit NASA hard, which in turn made applying for funding very competitive even before the new announcement. In fact, next year NASA may have to decide between killing Curiosity (the Mars rover) or the Cassini mission to Saturn. For now, planetary scientists will have to cross their fingers for next year's budget and contact their representatives to voice their passion for funding NASA and planetary research (you can contact yours too). 

Full disclosure: I have an aunt and uncle who work for NASA, although I have not discussed these issues with them.

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Summer Allen