Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Training and Diversifying Space Project Principal Investigators

NASA and its partner organizations are working on several fronts to remove barriers to entry into space mission leadership positions.

By and Bruce Jakosky

NASA science spaceflight projects are often headed up by team leaders called principal investigators (PIs). The project PI not only leads the scientific and technical aspects of the research but also manages the project’s finances and administrative aspects (e.g., disbursing funds and writing status reports) and oversees a team of coinvestigators, students, staff, and other personnel associated with the project.

NASA has successfully used the PI model for project management in each of its science discipline areas (Heliophysics, Astrophysics, Planetary Science, and Earth Science). In this approach, clear programmatic objectives for a space mission are established by direction from NASA Headquarters or through a project proposal competition. The project’s PI and the team then take over scientific, technical, and budgetary responsibility for the project.

In all of NASA’s programs, more excellent ideas and missions are proposed for development than can possibly be chosen, so the road to becoming a PI is very selective. Nonetheless, the success of the PI model and of NASA’s space missions relies on broad participation and a continual supply of fresh ideas.

To foster this participation, the agency sponsored a workshop in November 2018 that focused on educating and training scientists aspiring to become project-level PIs and on increasing diversity among PIs. The workshop revealed a large cadre of researchers who aspire to be NASA mission PIs. Workshop attendees seeking such an opportunity were obviously enthusiastic, but they were also frustrated about the lack of opportunities for professional development that could lead to becoming PIs. Another source of frustration was the lack of equity in the present PI ranks and explicit hindrances that have prevented women, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups from becoming PIs.

NASA already has followed up on this workshop with an email to the science community about actions the agency will take. NASA has also made available a livestreamed talk on the nature of flight proposals and mission PIs, and they are planning additional workshops on becoming a PI. Here we talk about steps that the science community and NASA can take together to support and continue to advance these goals.

Pathways to Becoming a PI

At the workshop, several panelists (including the two of us) spoke about the role of the project PI. The PI acts, of course, as the mission science lead. But this person also must pay attention to melding the science, engineering, and implementation aspects of the mission. Doing so involves connections among the technical, managerial, political, social, and fiduciary duties that come with designing, developing, building, testing, and operating a NASA space mission. There is thus a clear requirement for a PI to have a broad experience base in flight projects, in addition to the considerable time, energy, commitment, and willingness to sacrifice personal goals that being a PI demands.

There is no single path to gain the experience necessary to become a successful mission PI. Missions in the NASA Heliophysics and Astrophysics divisions have been led most often by scientists who have a strong hardware background. These PIs have been instrument leads on earlier missions or have developed their skills through the rocket or CubeSat programs. In Planetary Science and Earth Science, some PIs have instrument or hardware backgrounds, but many do not. In the latter camp are individuals whose project experience often comes from being a science coinvestigator on a previous project or an interdisciplinary scientist, a laboratory scientist, or even a theoretician or modeler.

The common theme, however, is the ability to integrate efforts across all aspects of the project. To succeed, a PI must balance science, cost, scheduling, and engineering and operational complexity. The PI must also assemble and lead a team that has the necessary experience in each of these areas.

Space Mission 101

The experience and knowledge necessary to step into the PI role must be made available to everybody through education and training opportunities. Going forward, it is crucial that NASA offer what might be called “Space Mission 101”—a short course on all the elements that go into designing and developing a space mission.

Such a course could not only introduce science definition methods but also give primers on systems engineering, project management, mission operations, team building, budgeting, and a long list of other topics that go into a successful space flight mission. Ideally, this Space Mission 101 course would significantly elevate the awareness and capability of scientists with respect to the requirements of flight projects.

INSPIRE students learn by doing. Here, they learn to assemble solar panels.
Students receive hands-on training during the 2017 INSPIRE meeting. Here they learn to assemble solar panels. Credit: CU Boulder/LASP

NASA should also provide more entry points for PIs looking to build experience by expanding small-end mission programs for sounding rocket, balloon, and CubeSat projects. Such missions involve all the same elements that characterize a major flight missions, but on smaller scales and at fractions of the cost. Their lower cost and higher risk tolerance could provide more individuals with opportunities to learn by doing.

NASA and the science community also need to identify mechanisms for providing project-level experience to up-and-coming leaders who might not have been invited to join project science teams or involved in original project proposals. This might involve, for example, adding participating scientists to a team very early after project selection so that these scientists can be more intimately involved in mission development or adding NASA-supported science team members who were not part of the original proposal team. This approach could also address concerns expressed by some workshop participants about the difficulty that scientists from smaller institutions (which may lack an emphasis on flight projects) sometimes have in getting experience.

Opportunities for All

One of the major themes voiced in workshop discussions centered on efforts to increase diversity among PIs. These efforts must begin with proactive approaches to address issues of explicit and implicit bias as well as of harassment against women and underrepresented minorities. Participants agreed that the community must immediately acknowledge that bias and harassment are completely unacceptable. Many of our professional societies and research institutions are starting to lead the way in this area, but we cannot leave the responsibility to a few people. We have to ensure that all individuals and institutions are supportive and actively working to remove obstacles—this idea came up repeatedly at the workshop.

NASA should take steps to ensure that individuals from underrepresented groups have opportunities to become involved in flight projects early in their careers and to gain experience that will enable them to submit proposals as potential mission PIs. In addition to the ideas mentioned above to increase participation in NASA missions, these steps could include developing training programs specifically for underrepresented groups and having team diversity be a factor in proposal evaluations. Research institutions with strong space science programs should work harder to recruit, train, and advance women and underrepresented minorities in their programs; they also need to address those parts of the workforce development pipeline under their control, including undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs at universities.

NASA must also ensure that the playing field is level for everyone in the proposal evaluation process. At the workshop, participants gave examples of proposals submitted by women that received greater scrutiny from review panels or that were reviewed more harshly. Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, indicated in an email to the community that NASA will be taking steps to ensure diversity among review panels and that an explicit code of conduct for researchers funded by NASA will be implemented.

Most importantly, leaders in the community should listen to women and underrepresented minorities—individuals who have been affected by bias, harassment, and lack of opportunities—to find out what these groups perceive would be of the most value in helping them to advance their careers and move toward becoming PIs.

These steps must be aimed not just at creating a diverse cadre of potential PIs but also at creating a larger group of engaged, supported, and active scientists at all levels; doing this is the means to develop a sustainable program of training future PIs.

A Chance to Lead

None of these efforts are the responsibility of any one institution. They require collaboration between universities, industry, and NASA centers, led and coordinated by NASA Headquarters.

NASA and the U.S. space program have benefited for more than 6 decades by giving passionate, dedicated individuals the chance to provide leadership in exploring our home planet and beyond. NASA and all the institutions participating in space science need to work together to provide better training, experience, and opportunities for everybody and to remove barriers to participation by women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.

We have whetted the appetites and fueled the dreams of young scientists who simply want to be given a chance. The means of satisfying these aspirations are readily and affordably at hand. It is in everybody’s interests—NASA’s, other space research institutions’, and the country’s—to level the playing field and help fulfill these dreams.

Author Information

Daniel N. Baker ([email protected]) and Bruce Jakosky, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado Boulder

Citation: Baker, D. N., and B. Jakosky (2019), Training and diversifying space project principal investigators, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136521. Published on 15 November 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY 3.0
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