Monday, January 4, 2010

Decadal Survey Cautionary Tales

This post is not about the planetary Decadal Survey that is currently underway, but the recently completed (2007) Earth sciences Decadal Survey.  Space News has an article, NASA Budget for Earth Science Lags Behind Rising Expectations, about the issues NASA are facing, but this quote summaries the situation:

"The [Earth sciences] decadal survey, however, which lists 15 high-priority Earth science missions, also calls for adding $500 million or more annually to NASA’s $1.4 billion Earth science budget. Freilich [director of NASA’s Earth Science Division] and others have estimated previously that doing all 15 missions by 2020 would require spending as much as $4 billion during peak development years. Under the five-year plan Obama sent Congress last February, NASA’s Earth science budget would grow to only $1.65 billion by 2014. 'Frankly, we’ve got to come up with an executable program for the future,” Freilich said. “The decadal survey objectives were great, but they require a much larger budget. There is no point hitting our heads against a wall and trying to do more than we can do well.' "

The Earth sciences Decadal Survey proposed an excellent set of missions, but the priorities apparently assumed a budget that wasn't possible.  (Although there are reports that NASA's budget will receive $1B more per year to be split between manned exploration and Earth sciences.)

Editorial Thoughts: Fixed or even shrinking budgets are a real risk to any 10 year plan.  I hope that the planetary Decadal Survey recommendations will be structured to remain meaningful even if budgets shrink or missions in development go over budget.


SpaceNews Article:

Earth Sciences Decadal Survey:


  1. It is definitely a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If you base your decadal survey on flat or potential shrinking budgets because those were the political realities at the time, it maybe more difficult later in the decade to then make the case that you could use more money per year because the decadal survey that "the scientists" signed off on clearly showed that you don't need the money for your program.

    Clearly you should be understanding of fiscal realities, but a decadal survey does not equal a set in stone program. While fixed and shrinking budgets are a risk, without making clear what type of program you want to see for the next decade, you have nothing to fall back on when you need to argue to the administrator or Congress that fixed budgets are not acceptable to the community on the medium- to long term.

  2. Jason makes good points in his response. One use of Decadal Surveys and similar exercises is to justify an expansive set of programs and then use that to justify larger budgets. This is a legitimate goal of the reviewing committees, and sometimes its works. When it doesn't work, then it may be left to the program management to decide how to fit the program within the budget available.

    There are ways to specify priorities to take into account fixed or shrinking budgets. One approach is bottoms up prioritization. In this approach, you make it clear that the missions are ordered in priority. The first available funds would then go to the highest priority mission and so forth until funds run out. You want the list to be larger than the expected budget to make the case for what additional funding would procure. The return on the proposed missions should be selling points for the largest budget the political realities will allow.

    The Earth Sciences Decadal Survey appears to have prioritized missions based both on critical information gaps and on technology readiness. Given the budgets forecast, working through the list apprently will take much longer than a decade. On the other hand, rumors are that the administration will recommend more funding to accelerate the plan, so asking for a bigger program may ultimately pay off.

    Where I've seen prioritization exercises have the least effect have been when the highest priorities are (or become) so large that they squeeze out other priorities. This happened with the last astronomy Decadal Survey with the James Webb Telescope. It effectively happened in the planetary program with the Mars Science Laboratory (which received a low to medium priority from the Survey and a higher priority from NASA, which has the ultimate responsibility for accepting or modifying the recommendations). Even this isn't simple. Prioritizing really big missions may be the right strategy -- the Webb telescope and MSL may have greater science value than all the other missions that could have been flown with the same funds.

    There is no right way to do these priority lists. Ask for a small constrained list, and your budgets may shrink to accomodate. Ask for a long laundry list, and the list may become meaningless. I think that the genius in doing these lists is to present them in a way where priorities are clear so the best use of funds is made if budgets can't fund the entire list, but make it clear how much more could be done if the budgets could increase. These lists are exercises in politics -- create consensus in the scientific community, present a plan acceptable and preferably exciting to the agency(ies) that must implement it, and use it as a selling tool to get the largest budgets possible. This is an art.