Friday, May 30, 2014

NASA Astrophysics Senior Review

 
 
The main panel of the 2014 NASA Astrophysics Senior Review had 10 members; none were women. I asked Paul Hertz what had happened to diversity. This is his formal response.
 
Response to Joan Schmelz, Chair, Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy 

Paul Hertz Director, Astrophysics Division, NASA Headquarters May 28, 2014 

 
 
 
The Senior Review of NASA Operating Missions is the formal review of operating missions and projects carried out every two years as required by law. The purpose of the Senior Review is to: 

• Prioritize continued funding of the operating missions and projects; 
• Define an implementation approach to achieve astrophysics strategic objectives;
• Provide programmatic and budgetary direction to missions and projects for the upcoming two fiscal years; and, 
• Issue initial funding guidelines for the following two fiscal years. 
  
The “Senior” part of the name “Senior Review” refers to both the missions (they are senior because they have exceeded their expected lifetime) and the senior members of the astrophysics community asked to assess those missions. The Senior Review has been referred to as “NASA’s highest level of peer review” because of its influence on the extension of missions. 

The recent 2014 NASA Senior Review of Astrophysics Operating Missions consisted of three formal panels: the first chartered to do an in-depth assessment of the Hubble Space Telescope Observatory, the second chartered to do a similar in-depth assessment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the third chartered to do a comparative assessment of the rest of the NASA operating mission portfolio. There were nine missions that came to the Main Panel: Fermi, Kepler, NuSTAR, Planck, Spitzer, Suzaku, Swift, WISE, and XMM-Newton. The reports from the three panels are available here.

In constructing each of the three Senior Review panels, careful attention was paid to eliminate anyone with personal or financial conflicts of interest – including NASA Civil Servants and contractors. Indeed, we recused several otherwise excellent panel members simply to avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest. In all, we solicited 68 panelists. Of that number invited, 8 agreed to serve on each of the CXO and HST panels, and 10 agreed to serve on the Main Panel. One panelist served on two panels for a total of 25 individual panelists. 

The Senior Review membership of each of the Hubble and Chandra panels was carefully chosen to enable a demanding scientific, technical, and managerial assessment of the mission. For each mission, senior review panelists were drawn from the user community, the sister observatory, similar ground-based observatory leadership, industry, and from outside of astrophysics. In each case, we were fortunate to secure excellent panel members. The Hubble panel included two female senior scientists; the Chandra panel was chaired by a woman. 

 For the Main Panel, given the breath of the missions and science under consideration, we concentrated on balancing wavelength, scientific research area, and mission expertise. It was also critical that panel members be able to assess the strength of observatory stewardship. Due to the constrained financial climate, it was most important for this panel that the membership be drawn from among the senior active researchers within the astronomical community.  

We were aggressive at asking women to be on the three panels, especially the Main Panel.  Overall we approached 68 candidates for the three panels, 17 of whom were women (25%).  For the Main Panel, we approached 40 candidates, 12 of whom were women (30%).  None of the women approached for the Main Panel agreed to serve.   

Across the three panels, we had three women out of 25 reviewers (12%) – a disappointingly small number but not dissimilar from the representation of women among senior members of the astrophysics community. 

I agree that having diversity on all of our NASA review panels is not only important but necessary, and I have established diversity as one of the metrics I use for ensuring a fair and competent review of all proposals received by NASA Astrophysics. I believe that we exerted considerable effort to get women on all three of the Senior Review panels. I also believe that the panels were fair and competent, that the reviewers across the three panels reflected the make-up of the senior astrophysics community from which we drew panelists, and that the Reports of the three Senior Review panels provide well substantiated findings upon which NASA can base programmatic and budgetary decisions.