Astrobiology Letter to the Community
A message to the research community from the Astrobiology Program
In this very stressful time for everyone, we want to check in with our community.
Rest assured that the NASA Astrobiology Program team is doing its best to keep funding flowing and make arrangements for review panels and other necessary meetings to be conducted virtually, in alignment with the rest of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. We are a geographically distributed team and most of us are accustomed to meeting online, so we have some experience with one of the many challenges facing all of us as we try to continue our work. We are extending deadlines and otherwise reconfiguring plans as needed. Although requests for no-cost extensions have always been an option, we expect that requests for no-cost extensions will be the norm for the near future, we plan to be very understanding of these requests. See NASA Implementation of OMB Memorandum M-20-17, https://searchpub.nssc.nasa.gov/servlet/sm.web.Fetch/NASA_s_Implementation_of_M-20-17_COVID-19.pdf?rhid=1000&did=6440077&type=released
We understand that everyone’s personal and professional lives are being affected, and will continue to be, well into the future by this crisis. Adjusting to teaching online is certainly a major challenge, and restricted access to labs perhaps even more so for some. In addition, we know that field research will be disrupted due to travel restrictions. As NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze told the National Academies’ Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science on March 31, “We know that progress on funded research may be slow.”
NASA, from the Administrator down, is doing everything in our power to continue the work of all directorates as best we can, and to be understanding as we accommodate our broader community of engineers, scientists, contractors, etc. At a virtual town-hall meeting last month, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Thomas Zurbuchen, conveyed these key messages:
- “Our priority is everyone’s safety and protecting hardware and integrity of data for operating missions.
- We are working with each mission and project in detail based on where they are in the development process.
- Missions in Integration & Testing will continue with the smallest teams possible.
- We are anticipating impacts to solicitations and evaluations and will work with the research community to mitigate them.
- We encourage all to continue to pay graduate students, post-docs, and lab staff.”
To address concerns related to ongoing research and future solicitations, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate posted the latest FAQ on grants and research during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 8, following guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget. You can find them here: https://science.nasa.gov/science-pink/s3fs-public/atoms/files/SMDCOVIDFAQ.pdf
Additional guidance, including NASA-wide FAQs and NASA’s response to OMB Memorandum M-20-17, can be found at the top of the page here: https://www.nssc.nasa.gov/grants, and we anticipate that this site will be updated as the situation continues. Here are some of the details that may be most pertinent:
- A second no-cost extension, which normally requires approval by the program officer, will be granted automatically. [Note that this, like many of the other waivers offered, is set to expire on June 18th. If this applies to you, be sure to get the request in prior to that date.]
- Salaries (and benefits) can continue to be paid, even if no work is currently being done on the project.
- Costs required to resume work can also be charged to the grant
- Note for the two above points, that it should not be assumed that additional funds will be made available to cover these, but they should be budgeted into the current project total.
In an effort to meet other personal and professional needs, NASA has compiled some science education resources that you (especially those of you with kids at home) and/or your educator friends and colleagues may find useful – it’s called NASA@Home: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/nasaathome/index.html. If you have any questions or need support with these materials, please contact Daniella Scalice, firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a personal note, we are all experiencing this crisis in different ways. I am about a year and a half through my two-year Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement with the Earth and Life Sciences Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I have been splitting my time between NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Tokyo. For the last month, I have been mostly working from my 50 m2 Tokyo apartment. I had planned to return to Washington this spring, but those plans are on hold. I am feeling quite isolated here in Tokyo, away from family, friends, and colleagues in D.C., New York City, and elsewhere in the U.S. in addition to my colleagues at ELSI, but NASA Astrobiology continues to work.
Members of the astrobiology team are all working from home, and we are using online tools to conduct our business and stay in touch. The deputy program manager Lindsay Hays, in northern California (but about to move to Virginia to work at Headquarters in DC), and I are doing everything we can to keep funds flowing. Melissa Kirven-Brooks, also in California, continues providing support to our post-docs and early-career scientists. Daniella Scalice, in Maryland, is moving forward with our education and outreach initiatives. Mitch Schulte, also in Maryland, continues his work as the lead for Habitable Worlds and our liaison with the Mars Exploration Program. Becky McCauley Rench, in Virginia, continues to monitor the policy environment and work on strategic communication planning and to run the Planetary Protection Research program.
Team member Aaron Gronstal, in Glasgow, Scotland, is working on the next issue of our astrobiology graphic history series on Biosignatures (https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/resources/graphic-histories/) and managing content for our website (such as news, updates to publications/events/etc). Our IT experts Mike Toillion, in Colorado, and Anthony Chan, in California – talk about essential personnel! – are keeping our web site and our social media channels current. Thanks to Mike and participating scientists, we might be able to do two new episodes of “Ask an Astrobiologist” this month (follow this series here: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/ask-an-astrobiologist/). Our part-time communications consultant Linda Billings in Florida, is on the job but is social distancing in much nicer weather than most of us.
Meanwhile, preparations are continuing for the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2022-2032. To keep track of this activity and submit white papers (due by July 4), see: https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/planetary-science-and-astrobiology-decadal-survey-2023-2032
Please make sure to subscribe to the NASA Astrobiology Program mailing list for the latest news, https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/mailing-list/
If you have any questions, please contact any of us. As a team spread over geographical locations, centers, time zones, etc., NASA Astrobiology is well positioned to face the challenges that the pandemic has raised, and each and every one of us is committed to being here for our community. Please let us know what we can do to help.
To end on a positive note, although our world will be very different in the future, we will get through this together. I am looking forward to seeing you all at AbSciCon 2021 in Atlanta!
Stay safe, stay well, and stay connected.