12 March 2008

A Little Career Advice from Mike Griffin

Posted by briony

If you haven’t heard, the NASA Mars Exploration Program budget is in a bit of a tight spot.

The budget for the next 12 years was already going to be tricky, with the cost overruns of MSL, the delay of the 2011 Scout mission, and plans for the uber expensive 6-missions-in-1 Mars Sample Return. Now, because NASA is moving money to Outer Planets to fly a new flagship mission, the Mars budget is being slowly, and somewhat painfully, reduced, back down to the program’s 25 year average. And not just for the next funding cycle – this plan stretches through the next decade.

The rationale, according to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin during his talk at LPSC on Monday, is that there’s a fixed amount of money in the NASA budget, and that ramping up efforts in one program means we have to reduce another. In other words, Mars can’t maintain its high funding levels if we want to do other things. In Mike Griffin’s words, “the sun don’t shine on the same dog all the time.”

Brown University grad student Bethany Elhman brought up a great point, and one that’s been bothering me ever since they announced the funding cuts. The idea that we have to shuttle money around between different planetary programs means that each individual program, e.g. Mars, will experience cyclic funding cycles, on the scale of decades.  Unfortunately, this means that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a critical mass of scientists in a particular program, and that the community has to play catch-up every time the cycle starts again.  This is particularly worrying to young people (like us) just starting out in our careers in Mars research, since we’re developing specialized skill sets that may be useless (and unemployable…) in 5 years.

Mike Griffin’s response? “Don’t specialize.”

Ok, so that’s great if you’re an established scientist with lots of connections and an established reputation, but what kind of message is that to send to grad students? A PhD requires the most ridiculous degree of specialization – you have to become the world’s expert on a microcosm of a microcosm. There’s no other way to establish that reputation. And frankly, the idea of accomplishing that insane feat just to never use that knowledge again is a little discouraging.

I’ve been told the oil industry is so rich that it’s hiring anyone with a geology background… is NASA going to make me sell my soul to Exxon-Mobil?

… Not that I’m really that worried. Part of the beauty of planetary science is the possibility of being able to work on many different problems in different places – but I’d prefer to wait until after my dissertation to think about diving into that.