For the non-planetary scientists who are wondering what the hell my twitter timeline is about today.

Disclaimers: I am not a policy expert, I do not speak for my employer, and I’m not filling this post with links. This is what I understand to be true based on 9 years as a planetary science research assistant.

First of all, “PSD” is “Planetary Science Division”, the part of NASA that does science about planets – how they work, how they form, etc. “R and A” is “Research and Analysis” – which refers science specifically done on data collected by other programs.

This is a really complicated subject, which I cannot possibly cover exhaustively, but there are a few pieces of background that are important to understand and I think will help explain why a bunch of your science friends are freaking out a bit.

How Planetary Science Funding Works
In the United States, planetary science is 97%-ish funded by NASA. This takes two main forms – civil servants, who work directly for NASA full-time, and soft-money scientists, who apply for competitive grants in various programs (there’s some overlap). Faculty at universities, in particular, are usually a combination of “hard” and “soft” money, and are often supporting undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs out of their funds. They are currently divided into a couple dozen programs, so if I want to study Mercury’s atmosphere that’s submitted to a different group of people than if I want to look at the formation of exoplanets. Each of these programs typically has one “call”, or opportunity to submit a grant, each year. If you get funding, it typically covers part of your salary over the next 3-5 years.

How Planetary Science is Governed
Planetary science has a network of governing bodies, but since I promised no acronyms I’m not going into huge detail. The important bits are this: every ten years, there is a massive effort to write what is called “The Decadal Survey”, laying out what the community thinks should be the goals and priorities of planetary science over the next 10 years. There is also the Planetary Science Subcommittee, and several Assessment Groups that advise NASA in various areas. Outside of NASA, there is a collection of professional societies, each with their own elected officers. They act as a voice and an organizing force for the community.

Missions vs. Research and Analysis
Missions are often the things you hear about on TV – Curiosity found water, Cassini is going to be taking a picture of Earth, etc. That’s not exactly true. A group of scientists analyzed data they told Curiosity to collect, and they found water. Another scientist (who was actually interested in Saturn’s rings) told Cassini to point its camera in our direction.

Missions are built, launched, driven, and initial research completed out of their own budget. However, these first efforts only scratch the surface of the knowledge in the data the missions gather. Work continues for years or decades after a mission is completed. There are also experiments done in labs and on computers to help us understand what we find on other worlds. Those funds come out of another pot of money – Research and Analysis. That’s where we get back the millions or billions invested in building a robot and sending it into space. As Andy Rivkin said on Twitter today – “Exploration without science is TOURISM”. Taking pictures and ticking boxes is not what we’re out there for. And to learn from the missions, we need scientists doing research and analysis.

What’s Changing & Why it’s a Problem
What was being discussed today is a reorganization of the structure of the grant programs. The dozens of programs are to be reduced into only five. The combinations might mean some ideas are excluded all together, and that some scientists will be writing multiple proposals for the same deadline. Hundreds of proposals will be competing against each other in some categories.

This became public knowledge only a few weeks ago, and is supposed to be implemented in the next round of proposal calls – meaning, next February. Most of the community – and the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and various committees – call for detailed discussion and senior-level review of such a reorganization. This hasn’t happened.

Even worse – several of the new programs will not have calls for submission in 2014. An entire year of funding lost for a fraction of the community. That means there will be almost two years between opportunities for funding – enough time for scientists to run out of salary, for careers to end, and for jobs to disappear forever.

Replacing a lost scientist takes a decade, at least. The United States used to be the undisputed leader in space exploration. What was announced today might mean an end to that. 

Edit 12:07 MST – grammatical errors corrected