Monday, December 12, 2011

Kepler: A Love Story

Last week NASA announced the discovery of an Earth-like planet in a 290-day orbit, placing it firmly in the habitable zone of its Sun. I was attending the Kepler Science Conference where the announcement was made, and I was part of the team that determined the absolute size of the planet in the discovery paper using a technique known as asteroseismology to characterize the host star. Ironically, NASA recently rejected my proposal to perform this type of analysis in the future -- but they are willing to let me do it for free.

Last February, I submitted a proposal to do "Precision Asteroseismology of Kepler Exoplanet Host Stars". I did not have access to the Kepler data on these targets, but the methods that I had developed for asteroseismic analysis were yielding very exciting results for other solar-type stars in the Kepler field, including precise values of the stellar radius, mass, and age. Becoming a Kepler Participating Scientist would give me access to the exoplanet data and allow the mission to benefit from these developments. In early May, I was contacted by members of the Kepler science team and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement to become part of a small team doing asteroseismology of exoplanet host stars. Previously, all such analysis was done by just three people on the science team and they were quickly finding that they could not keep up with the demand. The expanded team included about a dozen people recruited from the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium -- a large collaboration of primarily European scientists who were providing their expertise in exchange for early access to the data (without funding from NASA). Before signing the agreement, I contacted the Participating Scientist program officer to express my concern that doing so may influence the selection process. He assured me that there was a "firewall" between the science team and the panel review. I signed the agreement and became part of the new team.

As promised, the science team did not influence the ranking of proposals by a panel of experts, and my proposal was ranked high enough to be funded by the program. However, the selection of proposals for funding was based not only on the panel rankings but also on a "programmatic evaluation" by the program officer in consultation with several members of the Kepler team, including the Science PI, Project Scientist, Deputy Project Scientist, Science Team Lead, and Deputy Science Team Lead. This evaluation occurred several weeks after I had signed the agreement to become part of the team that would do for free the analysis that I was asking NASA to support in my proposal. In other words, the same people who asked me to become part of the team doing asteroseismology of exoplanet host stars in early May told the program officer several weeks later that "the need for a Participating Scientist in the area of asteroseismology was not as pressing as it was in other areas". The experts determined that the science was worthy of funding, but the Kepler team passed over my proposal to fund several others that were judged inferior based on the science. They were happy to have me do the work for free, they just didn't want to pay for it.

This was not the first time that the Kepler team had rejected my asteroseismology proposal due to a "programmatic" evaluation that trumped the rankings based on science. In 2007, I submitted a Participating Scientist proposal to develop the method that I am now using to do asteroseismology of the stars observed by Kepler. That proposal was also ranked in the top tier, high enough to be funded by the program but again passed over to fund lower-ranked proposals. As a direct consequence of that decision, in early 2008 I started the Pale Blue Dot project -- an attempt to raise private funding by putting the Kepler target stars up for adoption for $10 each through a non-profit website. This program has provided enough funding to help sponsor two international workshops of the Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium, waiving the registration fee for all of the students and early career scientists. Even so, the available funds are meager compared to the grant support that I was requesting from NASA. To make things even more difficult, due to federal budget cuts my current position as a research scientist will be eliminated next year -- so I am faced with a decision to either contribute the analysis for free, or be left out of the team doing this exciting work.

It is understandable that NASA wants to apply its scarce resources to areas where it will have the most impact. But with a large team in Europe doing asteroseismology for free, the few U.S. scientists who are working in this field are facing an uphill battle for funding. The science will certainly push forward, but without support the U.S. asteroseismology community will ultimately disappear.