Thursday, October 1, 2009

The End of Planetary Science?

A couple of months ago, an agency colleague of mine asserted to me that planetary science was a dying field and that I should branch out. This has been repeated to me several times since by others. This is not a comment I took lightly, sitting as I am here at the start of my career. We all want to be on the right side of history; it’s much better to be around for the start of a grand enterprise then to represent the last of a dying breed. Thus, I needed to think carefully on my response to this comment, and decide for myself which way to go.

A good start is to clearly lay out what Planetary Science is. A good definition might be the study of bodies not large enough to initiate nuclear fusion, typically located around a star. Thus it is an interdisciplinary field existing conceptually between Earth Science and Astronomy. Strictly speaking, the study of the Earth is a sub discipline, but in practice, it tends to be split off. But this distinction is somewhat fuzzy. As we learn more about different bodies, especially those that are more earth-like, the study of these bodies is taken up more and more by Earth Scientists. Thus while few would argue that the study of Jupiter and its satellites are the domain of Planetary Science, the study of Mars is to a increasing extent seen as within the realm of the Earth Sciences. This implies that Planetary Science inhabits an unstable border which moves along with our understanding of the solar system.

At first blush, Planetary Science seems to be doing fine. There is no shortage of quality research with planetary science discoveries being reported in prestigious journals like Nature and Science. Even trade journals, like Icarus, typically have over a hundred papers in press and hundreds more under review. There are certainly plenty of people in the field, as indicated by record turn-outs at conferences, like the signature LPSC (Lunar and Planetary Science Conference) which recently upgraded to a larger venue in part to accommodate the ever swelling ranks.

However, there is a bit of a darker side that belies the tenuousness of the field. This can be seen in geography. The vast majority of planetary scientists are found in the United States where many are supported by a single lifeline: NASA grants and missions. This can make life somewhat precarious. For instance, many of us know of someone who had a job offer cancelled or postponed a few years ago when NASA made the decision to halve the funding to a single program in Astrobiology. When the outer planets granting segment was threatened, there was an uproar.

Making matters worse is the glut of young planetary scientists which have come on the market in the last ten years or so. A string of mission successes in that time – pathfinder, Galileo, cassini, MER – got many people interested in the field. Many universities opened dedicated planetary science departments or tacked a ‘and planetary’ designator onto their earth sciences department to deal with the inflow. The result is a swelling of the ranks with 3000 scientists signing on to planning white papers for the recent decadal survey.

In most times this would be a good thing. Green shoots suggesting that the field is a growing one. However, with the economic crisis in full swing and NASA in full introspection mode, everyone’s funding is in question and many missions are being put off. MSL slipped 2 years, and the future of Mars science after it is hardly secure. The outer planets are in even worse shape, given the long timescales required for the transit of spacecraft. While Cassini looks forward to a successful campaign through 2018, and New Horizons will reach Pluto in 2015, future prospects are far from bright.

So what’s a young PhD to do? Two suggestions have been made to me. First, I could broaden my field, go into the earth sciences or astronomy formally so that I would be a part time planetary guy. This is a common solution; many of the Canadian “planetary scientists” I know are really atmospheric physicists or engineers or geologists who happen to take on a planetary project every now and then.

Or I could double down on my investment, do all that I can do to find a job and hold on with hopes for happier times ahead. But in the process, I would risk that if that job ends there won’t be another place within reach for me to jump to.

I won’t pretend that I’ve made a decision, but I know which way I’m leaning. Nothing in life is without risk and we can only make the best choice with the information we have at the time. I feel like I should make the best use of my skills while they are in demand, and keep on following my dreams as far as I can take them.