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NASA in reverse

The US space agency's relationship with scientists is hitting a new low.

The NASA public-affairs office has this month been accused of trying to censor one of its most eminent climate researchers, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. And more evidence of press releases being doctored for political ends at the space agency is likely to emerge, disturbing everyone who values the free flow of scientific information to the public.

But the Hansen debacle is just one element of the increasingly adversarial relationship that is developing between NASA and the research community. The sour mood was apparent at last month's American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington DC, when NASA's science chief Mary Cleave told assembled scientists that her most important “stakeholders” were the White House and Congress. Cleave's real (if unintentional) message was clear: don't expect NASA to advocate research, as we work for other interests.

Scientists were also dismayed at how fast NASA administrator Mike Griffin reneged on a promise made last autumn not to take “one thin dime” from space science to address the budget problems of the space shuttle and the space station. At his budget news conference on 6 February, Griffin confessed to doing just that, shifting $2 billion over five years from research to the astronaut programme.

The cuts to science were deep, and they were decided behind closed doors. Take the research and analysis grants that fund the basic intellectual work underlying NASA's space missions. Previous NASA administrators, recognizing that many space scientists rely on these grants to stay in business, kept the grant programme healthy. But the new budget slashes research grants by 15–25%, and by even more in areas such as astrobiology. And NASA is yet to give details of how deep the cuts actually are.

Nor did the agency bother to inform some scientists that their projects were being axed. One investigator who was awaiting final approval of her NuSTAR Explorer mission after two years of hard work heard Cleave announce its cancellation at a press conference. Such a cavalier approach to communication is prompting outrage in the community.

“NASA is undergoing a historic shift in direction without consulting scientists or paying attention to their advice.”

NASA is undergoing a historic shift in direction without consulting scientists or paying attention to their advice. Projects with great appeal to scientists and to the public — including the search for planets around other stars and the study of dark energy — are being abandoned so that NASA can return astronauts to the moon half a century after the Apollo landings.

Griffin still enjoys some good will from researchers who know him. They understand that his overall budget is set by the White House, and that he is only cutting science reluctantly. But that good will is soon going to vanish if the Bush administration continues to steer the nation's $17-billion space programme on such a controversial course, without listening to alternative views of what NASA should be doing.

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NASA in reverse. Nature 439, 764 (2006).

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