National Academies Examines Lessons Learned From Decadal Surveys

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Publication date: 
4 September 2015

A committee of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently completed a review of the four most recent decadal surveys in the space sciences - solar and space physics (2013), planetary science (2011), astronomy and astrophysics (2010), and Earth science and applications from space (2007) - all published in the last decade.  Out of this review, the committee drafted a report - currently in prepublication phase - that praises the virtues of decadal surveys but also identifies lessons learned and best practices moving forward for the decadal survey process.

The committee’s primary finding is that the decadal survey process has been a huge success – and has established a reputation for being credible and unbiased science assessments and prioritization across the space studies.  “Recent decadal surveys…faced a few challenges but surprisingly few issues, considering the magnitude of the assignment. In particular, the task of defining the scientific frontier and deciding on a discipline’s future direction is complex and difficult, but this has been done smoothly and reliably through the decadal survey process,” reads the summary of the draft report.  Remarkably, “the committee found no evidence of dissatisfaction about the outcome of a decadal process of prioritizing science activities: no one…suggested the outcome was capricious or arbitrary, tied to the composition of the relevant survey committee, or not representative of a community consensus of its highest-priority science goals. On the contrary, the science communities…have given strong support in recommending each of the decadal survey reports to its stakeholders. Likewise, support from the sponsoring agencies for decadal surveys has not wavered over their 50-year history.

Key leaders in Congress have also proven to be fans and supporters of the decadal survey process.   As FYI reported earlier this year, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) the Chairman of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which annually funds NASA and several other key science agencies, uses the decadal surveys to determine how to allocate funding for federal scientific priorities.  Said Culberson: “I really want to see NASA focus on those Decadal Surveys. I really think that’s the proper guide.”  He continued, “I’d like to work with you, [Ranking Member] Mr. [Chaka] Fattah [D-PA] trying to expand that to help make sure that NASA is following the recommendations of the Decadal Survey in Heliophysics and Earth Sciences and Astrophysics as well.” He later added, “That’s my North Star, just to make sure that we’re following the recommendations of the best minds in the scientific community in each of these areas of specialty.” 

Last month, as FYI also reported, Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Donna Edwards (D-MD) echoed Culberson’s words on the importance of the decadal surveys.  Said Edwards: “There…needs to be clear and thoughtful prioritization of research objectives…. As Members of Congress, we all may have our own favorite destinations and missions, but it’s important that the scientific community be at the forefront to determine priorities that address the most compelling scientific questions.

The NAS study committee also found that while each of the four decadal surveys reviewed differed in theme and culture – because each scientific discipline has its own heritage and science goals – much about them was shared in common.  For example, all decadal surveys “must draw extensive input from [their] community and adhere to a process that assures that all ideas are heard…. All surveys need to demonstrate that science is the prime motivator.… All surveys must put considerable effort into communicating their conclusions, goals, and recommendations to a wide audience of scientists, stakeholders, and the public…. Finally, all survey programs require continued support and nurturing…after they are completed and released.

While the committee concluded that the decadal survey process “has no major flaws,” it added that the survey process can nonetheless improve and evolve in some ways, and that doing so would provide a foundation for better decadal surveys in the future.  One major lesson learned cited in the draft report is that “budget uncertainty complicates the development of an executable and affordable program.”  Because the decadal surveys have been more ambitious than what could be reasonably accomplished within the decade ahead, the committee suggests confining future decadal survey programs within a number of budget scenarios based on a realistic baseline that reflects anticipated long-term funding levels for NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Another lesson learned, as reported by the committee, is that decadal surveys have too often laid out too much implementation detail for specific program, which has led to over-specification and often become a headache for program managers, especially in the cases when the scope of a scientific project and, therefore its lifecycle cost, must expand.  Noting that “it is first and foremost the science that is being prioritized in a decadal survey, not any particular design for a mission or facility,” the draft report suggests that going forward the surveys’ recommendations list considered more as proof-of-concept “reference missions,” except in cases when concepts have been studied for many years.  The committee recommends leaving it up to the agencies to then develop these ideas “to take into account other programmatic goals, new technology, and a growing understanding of what it will take to do the mission or build the facility or observing system.

The study and the workshops conducted in support of the study were initiated by and sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.  Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institution is chair of the committee, which is formally called the Committee on Survey of Surveys: Lessons Learned from the Decadal Survey Process.  The other 13 committee members hail from national universities, national laboratories, and private companies. David Smith, Senior Program Officer at the National Academies is the Study Director.