For all of us, for many reasons, 2020 has been a tough year and its impacts will be felt in many ways in 2021 and beyond. I am writing to inform you of some changes planned for the Astrobiology Program in Fiscal Year 2021 to meet the continuing challenges.
As you know, NASA is currently operating under a continuing resolution that is in effect through December 11, 2020. The continuing resolution maintains the Agency’s budget at Fiscal Year 2020 levels until a FY2021 budget has been adopted, which is expected to be at a similar level. SMD has received no special funding for COVID19 relief, however, we are committed to supporting our most vulnerable community members, students, postdocs and early career researchers. Without additional funding, SMD is balancing selections of new awards with augmentations to existing awards to provide some relief to interruptions and hardships caused by the COVID19 pandemic.
Within these and other constraints, we have had to make some tough choices and set priorities to maintain a strong program. The first priority is to maintain our commitments to existing awards in all of our programs and make strong selections in the programs competed this year. Our mainstay program Exobiology was able to increase its selection rate to 15% this year. We are really excited to announce eight new interdisciplinary teams selected through the Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR) program. The breadth and depth of the research we were able to fund through these programs spans the spectrum of astrobiology research and will undoubtably advance our understanding of cosmic origins, building habitable worlds, prebiotic chemistry, origins and evolution of life on Earth, to further our goal to search for life beyond Earth.
We are unable to support all that we would like to support this year. As has already been announced, there will not be a PSTAR solicitation offered in ROSES-2020. There will be one in ROSES-2021, though, and every odd-numbered year thereafter. We will make selections this year in Habitable Worlds but there will be no solicitation in ROSES-2021. We expect to be able to return to annual Habitable Worlds calls starting in ROSES-2022.
Again, we will maintain as many of our current commitments as possible but owing to what we hope are short-term impacts we will need to make cuts to the other support the program provides for science and training related activities. The Astrobiology Program will continue to fund our current NASA Postdoctoral Program fellows but will not be funding any new early-career scientists through the NASA Postdoctoral Program in 2021 or making any new awards in the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology. New fellowship opportunities are expected to return in FY2022 as will early career travel awards.
The Research Coordination Networks will also be affected by the new budgetary constraints. In particular, the fifth Research Coordination Network (RCN) — From Early Cells to Multicellularity — will not be started as originally planned in FY2021. However, funding for workshops for the PCE3 (Prebiotic Chemistry and Early Earth Environments) RCN will continue as planned. The Astrobiology Program will also meet its obligation to provide funding for the Habitable Worlds 2 workshop planned for February 2021 and for the 2021 Astrobiology Graduate Conference. However, the 2021 Astrobiology Science Conference will be postponed until May of 2022. With this shift, we anticipate fewer travel restrictions and a meeting with more in-person interactions.
These are exciting times for space exploration. NASA and other space agencies have many missions ongoing and planned that are important to astrobiology. NASA is committed to Astrobiology and the search for life, and I will continue to work hard to keep our field strong, dynamic, and well supported.
Members of the community will have an opportunity to voice their thoughts about the coming year in PSD and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA town halls to be held (virtually) at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in December, the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2021, and the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 2021. Meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions and concerns.
Mary A. Voytek, Ph.D.,
NASA Senior Scientist for Astrobiology