In their enthusiasm to go prospecting for life elsewhere in the universe, NASA managers have created a research enterprise that needs better focus and more interaction with other scientific disciplines. Those were among the conclusions of a blue-ribbon National Research Council panel tasked with ensuring that the agency's fledgling astrobiology effort, begun just five years ago, is moving in the right directions.
"Life in the Universe," a report issued a week ago by the NRC's Committee on the Origin and Evolution of Life, assesses the progress in astrobiology to date and, in particular, how well the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) has performed. Conceived in 1998 as a "virtual institute" by former space-agency administrator Daniel Goldin, NAI currently comprises more than 700 researchers scattered at institutions across the United States. It is headquartered at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and directed by Nobel laureate Baruch S. Blumberg.
The NRC assessment gives NASA's efforts "a high four, but not a high five," says Jonathan I. Lunine (University of Arizona), who chaired the 14-member study committee together with John A. Baross (University of Washington). They found that astrobiology needs tighter focus because it is currently trying to be both an intellectual endeavor and a NASA program. The space agency has earmarked more than $40 million in fiscal 2002 for astrobiology research, about half of which goes to the NAI. But the NRC panel hints that some winnowing is in order, suggesting that the institute's 15 research groups undertake "detailed, soul-searching reviews" to determine whether they're being scientifically productive and cost-effective.
Moreover, the institute's scientists should guard against becoming too insular and instead strive to create partnerships, both elsewhere within NASA and internationally, to catalyze the research effort. For example, the Spanish government has set up an astrobiology research center near Madrid, and the International Astronomical Union's Commission 51, devoted to bioastronomy, has existed since 1982.
Stressing that the NAI's problems are more akin to growing pains than serious flaws, Lunine notes that he began the assessment with a more critical and skeptical view than he later realized was warranted. In fact, the committee recommends that NASA look into adopting the virtual-institute model for the Origins program, under which many of NASA's astrophysics and planetary-science activities fall.