Mar 10, 2020

A Once-in-a-Decade Opportunity: NASA to Solicit Science Community Input on NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Research Priorities via Decadal Survey

It’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity: the chance to identify the most compelling science and technology questions facing the decade ahead. This year, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) will be announcing a solicitation for white papers for the second Decadal Survey in the areas of Biological and Physical Sciences in Space.

Mizuna mustard greens aboard ISS
NASA astronauts (left to right) Christina Koch and Jessica Meir harvested Mizuna mustard greens on Thanksgiving day inside the ESA (European Space Agency) laboratory module's VEGGIE facility.

“The Decadal Survey process provides a rare opportunity for scientists and engineers to share their insights and help shape the scientific endeavors of the next decade,” says Dr. Craig Kundrot, director of NASA’s Division of Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) at NASA Headquarters. “And it provides us, at NASA, with the ability to expand our understanding of spaceflight impacts on biological and physical systems in ways that will help us accomplish our mission of sustaining human life on the Moon and, eventually, Mars.”

Scientists and engineers can get involved with the Decadal Survey process in a number of ways: submit a white paper to the Decadal Survey Committee; nominate someone (or oneself) for the Decadal Survey Committee or one of its discipline specific panels; or, participate in the final peer review. Submitted white papers will be made available for public viewing. Typically, no further work is required of the white paper author; however, in some instances the Committee may contact the authors for clarification or for participation in additional follow-up activities.

NASEM is currently soliciting input for preliminary ideas for the Decadal Survey. Researchers may submit key issues, challenges and emerging topics in the field for consideration online via the National Academies’ Decadal Survey web page. The official call for white papers is anticipated later in 2020, and the final Decadal Survey is expected to be published in 2022.

The process of developing the survey provides an opportunity for the scientific community at large to contribute ideas that will guide the activities and funding of NASA and possibly other federal agencies. White papers range between one to 10 pages in length and include arguments for why it is important NASA pursue the proposed area of study. The Decadal Survey Committee will give careful consideration to papers submitted during the solicitation period in 2020 as the committee works toward delivering the final recommendations in 2022.

“As we prepare to send our astronauts to the Moon and Mars, our focus is on both enabling exploration and pioneering the scientific discoveries that are enabled by that exploration,” continues Kundrot. “By understanding how critical biological and physical systems behave in the different spaceflight environments, we’re able to better support and sustain the crew on their long journeys. At the same time, the spaceflight environments provide unique tools, such as altered gravity levels and deep-space radiation, that can help us better understand how biological and physical systems work — and potentially contribute to technological innovations and scientific advancements back on Earth.”

Growing food in space, ensuring potable water supplies, and creating power plants that can support sustainable human exploration are just a few examples of the challenges facing NASA missions. “Recommendations from the Decadal Survey will help NASA prioritize the studies that will need to be conducted to ensure the safety and health of our astronauts,” adds Kundrot. “Those studies can be conducted using a variety of testing platforms, ranging from ground-based facilities on Earth to spaceflight facilities such the International Space Station and, eventually, the Moon and Mars.”

Low-Earth orbit and the Moon, with its distinct gravitational, radiation and regolith (or “Moon dust”) conditions, offer unique environments for research. These conditions enable scientists to manipulate experiments and explore phenomena in ways that aren’t available to them on Earth alone. Thus, the Decadal Survey presents the research community with the ability to contribute suggestions for areas of further study that can push the boundaries of current scientific understanding.

High-priority areas identified in the survey proposals may become focus areas for future NASA-funded research; research studies can in turn lead to important scientific discoveries that benefit both astronauts and life on Earth. Scientists participating in the Decadal Survey can contribute to furthering biological and physical science advancements that could extend beyond the NASA missions alone.

The 2022 Decadal Survey for biological and physical sciences is one of several organized by NASEM and are staggered across several years. Other disciplines include Astronomy and Astrophysics; Solar and Space Physics; and, Earth Science and Applications from Space. Solicitations for input for a Decadal Survey for Planetary Science will also commence 2020, with a report to be issued in 2022 as well.

About the Decadal Survey

At the most fundamental level, decadal surveys are community-driven, bottom-up studies that aim to formulate a community consensus about the most compelling science questions for the decade ahead in each of the disciplines. The studies also identify prioritized lists of research objectives that can address the highest-priority science.

The process involves the appointment of a steering committee and a set of topical panels involving a total of up to 80-120 volunteers. The studies involve extensive community input via hundreds of white papers (170 white papers were submitted for the previous survey), community forums, and other outreach activities. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine is expected to form and announce the steering committee in the spring of 2020.

Learn more about the Decadal Survey and keep abreast of the latest news at:
Watch a clip from the 2019 ASGSR Annual Meeting regarding the survey (starts at 33:40):
Stay informed on SLPSRA research initiatives:

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