Sunday, January 7, 2007

What does the continuing resolution mean for NASA?

For those of you that don't follow the congressional budget on a regular basis, you may not be aware, but last year's Congress failed to do their job, passing budgets only for Homeland Security and the military, the rest of the budget bills were punted for the next Congress to deal with. This is not that unusual, Congress often has trouble completing all the budgets before the end of the year. Some year's (like 2005) they end up lumping everything together into one huge "omnibus" bill that no one has time to read or evaluate, but everyone votes for because they want to go home. Other years they pass a "continuing resolution," or CR, that sort of puts everything on hold until after the holidays, keeping all the budgets at last year's levels until things are sorted out. That's what's happened this year, but the CR expires on Feb 15th and the new congress has decided to do something somewhat unusual, they are just going to extend it until the end of the year, effectively skipping over the 2007 budget so they can get to work on the 2008 budget.

The way a CR works is that it requires that funding be held at either 2006 levels or the level of the President's 2007 request, which ever is lower. This basically maintains the status quo and keeps spending levels down, which in theory doesn't sound so terrible. The problem here is that beyond the simply inflationary increase that we are missing, NASA and most non-NIH sciences were due to get a pretty hefty bump this year thanks to the Vision for Space Exploration and all the Competitiveness Inititive stuff.

This article in the NYTimes gives a pretty good summary of what the current budget delays means for science research and talks about some of the specific projects that are being threatened. There are only two sentences about NASA: "Missions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are also threatened, with $100 million in cuts. Paul Hertz, the chief scientist at NASA’s science mission directorate, said potential victims included programs to explore Mars, astrophysics and space weather." I'm not sure where exactly that $100M figure comes from, I assume that's only from SMD (the Science Mission Directorate), not all of NASA, I'm pretty sure the total NASA shortfall is quite a bit more than that, not even including the extra $1B that the Senate was trying to get added to the '07 budget.

My fear is that NASA will compound these science shortfalls by stealing even more from SMD to feed the ESMD Monster (the new Vision stuff). This sort of budgeting is not just a short term problem that can be fixed next year. The truth is that many of NASA's finest scientists are in "soft money" positions. They rely largely or entirely on grant money to feed and clothe themselves. Those grants are becoming harder and harder to get as R&A (research and analysis) funds are drying up. If they don't get grants, they leave the field, and chances are, they aren't coming back. I see up and coming scientists (myself included) realizing that spending more time writing proposals than doing science and constantly worrying about where the next paycheck is going to come from is not really the lifestyle we were looking for when we signed up.

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