Setting the Tone for Diversity in the Space Sciences

Twenty months in the making, a new, NASA-sponsored report set 15 recommendations for improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in space mission roles, including principal investigators.

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in the Leadership of Competed Space Missions released its report on DEIA in the space sciences, offering both recommendations and actionable steps. The report noted that NASA is making some progress, having created its own strategic plan and beginning to evaluate DEIA in the proposals process.

“Moving forward, it’s encouraging that there are indeed new PIs, and more in the pipeline,” Fran Bagenal, Ph.D., senior research scientist, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado Boulder, said in a webinar ( announcing the report’s release to the public. “That’s good news for NASA, it’s moving in the right direction.”

The report’s first recommendation is for NASA to empanel an ongoing committee focused solely on DEIA, whose committee chair serves on the NASA Advisory Council. “This conspicuously sets the tone throughout the entire agency that this is serious,” Wanda Ward, Ph.D., committee co-chair and executive associate chancellor for public engagement, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said. “It’s a big deal, and it’s a priority at the highest level.”

Proportion of physics departments at HBCUs and HWIs with African Americans and Latinx faculty in 2008

SOURCE: Data from Ivie (2010). Courtesy National Academy of Sciences.

Barriers to diversity

Though NASA continues to evolve, more effort is needed to overcome the institutional, systemic, and human-centered barriers that have kept women and minorities shockingly and largely absent from space mission leadership roles. One of the chief institutional barriers is that universities with more financial support, networking capability, technology, and proposal-writing resources have greater advantages than smaller institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). And when the pipeline is full of advantaged people from one group, it can unintentionally (or intentionally) self-perpetuate a cycle of keeping others out.

The report’s authors also identified human-centered barriers, finding through extensive research and interviews a perception that “people in the space sciences tend to stick together in close circles that can be unwelcoming to outsiders.” Additionally, they found that there is often a stereotypical “personality” assumed for a PI that doesn’t necessarily fit the traits actually required for the job — a bias that needs pushback.

“Within STEM fields, an exclusionary climate and perceptions that one’s own value and identity are incongruent with STEM disciplinary culture are often experienced by historically excluded, underrepresented, and minoritized groups,” the report states. “Culture and climate can affect prospective PI engagement, sense of belonging, persistence, and performance.”

Two other key findings stand out. Prospective PIs perceive multiple forms of bias during the proposal process, from development to submission, and report experiencing discrimination even after becoming a PI for a successful competed mission. Further, on average, those from historically excluded and underrepresented groups (i.e., women, scientists of color) do not have the same access to collaborative networks and mentoring relationships as those with nonmarginalized identities.

NSPIRES Race/Ethnicity Participation: All PIs & Co-ls 2014-2020

Participation as PI or Co-I on all proposals submitted via NSPIRES between 2014 and 2020. Race/ethnicity information is submitted via questions on the Personal Profile questionnaire. The values of N for each division are the total numbers of proposals submitted. SOURCE: Adapted from Office of the Chief Scientist, NASA Headquarters. Courtesy National Academy of Sciences.

Building career pathways

Turning back these disparities is essential to growing a diverse, next generation of PIs. “A midcareer potential PI for a space mission today would have been a college freshman right around 1990,” Keivan Stassun, Ph.D., one of the report’s lead authors and Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, said. “That really conveys what a long pathway of experiences, investments, and training are necessary to develop that future leadership.

“Many of the major investments that we recommend should be made immediately, to ensure that undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and early-career researchers have direct access to mission-related experience,” he continued. “I think that phrase is one that hopefully will stick in people’s minds. For decades, NASA has been involved in important and impactful outreach and public education, and that has a place. What we’re really focused on here is diverse and inclusive mission leadership. And that means investing now in direct, mission-related leadership opportunities.”

Participation by Women in Mission Teams 2006-Present

Across 4 Divisions: participation of women increased 10% to 25%. Earth Science: participation of women has remained quite flat. Planetary Science: participation of women is above average. No data provided on race/ethnicity of mission science teams. SOURCE: NASA SMD Data Analytics Team. Courtesy National Academy of Sciences.

Immediate, near-term, and multigenerational goals

Actionable steps for the immediate and near term include empowering the DEIA subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council; including DEIA in the innovation criteria of announcements of opportunities (AOs); making AOs more transparent; and improving data gathering, both in demographics of proposers and the workforce.

Other near-term recommendations include increasing NASA funding for mission-related work and activities that enhance the research capacity of MSIs. The report clearly shows the current funding discrepancies: In FY2020, for example, one research institution with its own applied physics laboratory received 21.8% of NASA’s R&D funding awarded to higher education institutions, while the nation’s HBCUs received a combined share of just 0.87%.

Addressing that inequality by financing collaborations between MSIs and NASA centers that expand opportunities for student-built instruments on missions like cubesats, rockets, and balloons is a start. “Most importantly, these actionable steps need to be regularly assessed for their effectiveness,” Dr. Bagenal said.

“Finally, there’s a larger, multigenerational problem that really is a national issue, not just for NASA,” she said. “We need to address the high rate of women and underrepresented groups dropping out of the STEM workforce, particularly in physics, and that will take a big national effort to resolve.”

Transparency and mentoring

The report’s authors zeroed in on the need for mentoring and training from within existing missions, including early-career and emerging researchers as trainees or as mentees in leadership positions, as one way to bring more diverse people into co- and principal investigator statuses early on in the pathway.

“This is exactly what we mean when we talk about direct mission leadership experience,” Dr. Stassun said. “For an early-career scientist, it could mean being co-investigator or a project scientist. But even before that, for postdoc or graduate students, even undergraduates, it could mean being an intern, formally connected to a mission team. It’s a whole spectrum of experiences directed to actual mission work.”

“We need to be transparent and explicit about what full career pathway training experiences are,” he said. “Currently, some people get them and others don’t. We’re advocating for intentionality and transparency to ensure that everyone, especially including those who have been historically underrepresented, knows about what training opportunities lead to leadership opportunities, and have access to them. Not just the people who happen to know, not just the people who happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

Dr. Bagenal believes one approach is making sure that MSIs have access to research experience within their own institutions. “But I also think we need productive collaborations, partnerships, and bridge systems built between MSIs and institutions that have considerable experience with involving students and junior researchers in space missions and NASA centers,” she said. “Partnerships that allow and provide for training and capacity-building, so MSIs can begin to get more actively and more quickly involved in smaller, suborbital missions that don’t require huge labs or vast investments.”

Such partnerships are a two-way street, according to Dr. Ward. “There are assets and strengths that exist in many MSIs that lack instrumentation aside from certain types of resources,” she said. “Some of the barriers that we talked about, such as exclusive and un-nurturing climates — MSIs thrive on developing excellent talent among learners and students, and this is a strength they can bring to the table. Having faculty and researchers from predominantly white institutions partner with MSIs in their space, and vice versa of course, with faculty and staff.

“It is especially important that this be seen as mutually beneficial collaboration,” she emphasized. “That everyone has something to bring to the table. I’m very excited about the ability to optimize these possibilities, again toward the benefit of the students, creating a robust, 21st century space science workforce and strengthening the enterprise overall for everyone involved.”

See the full report at: