The International Space Station’s scientific payoff is real. And increasing.

October 25, 2013

(NASA/NASA)

This is a guest post by William Bianco, a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University.  His current work includes a study of the evolution of cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency,  in their joint operation of the International Space Station. 

A recent article by Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post posed a fundamental question about the International Space Station (ISS): “What is it for?”  While conceding that the space station is an engineering marvel and a monument to international cooperation, the article contrasts the costs and dangers of life on the ISS with the lack of a clear scientific rationale for continued operations.  As space policy analyst John Logsdon put it in the article, “It’s an awfully expensive engineering demonstration.  If that’s all it is, that’s a hell of a price to pay.”

Demanding that ISS supporters identify concrete, immediate, substantial benefits from station operations is setting the bar unrealistically high.  The ISS is designed for basic research, which is a long-term bet with an uncertain payoff.  A better way to judge the productivity of the ISS in the short-term is to use criteria that are familiar to any research scientist: the likelihood that ISS research projects yield published papers, the willingness of individuals from outside NASA to become Principal Investigators (PIs) on ISS projects, and the trend in the amount of research taking place on the ISS.

Publications are a basic measure of research quality, as they indicate that a project’s questions, methods, and findings have passed muster with peer reviewers and journal editors.  Moreover, inasmuch as journals are a primary venue for scientific debate, a high publication rate for ISS projects implies that the PIs are using the facility to address questions that are considered important by scholars in their home disciplines.  For example, early results from the ISS’s Alpha Mass Spectrometer, designed to detect dark matter and other exotic particles, were published in a flagship disciplinary journal, Physics Review Letters.

The presence of PIs from outside NASA on ISS projects confirms that the orbiting lab provides a venue for advancing ongoing research programs that have nothing to do with NASA’s mission – and that the facilities on ISS are unique enough to justify the investment of time and resources needed to carry out the work.  For example, a team of corporate and academic scientists combined with NASA researchers to study drugs designed to reduce astronaut bone loss during long-duration flights.  This research is important for NASA’s goal of sending crews to asteroids and Mars, but it also has applications for people on Earth who are immobilized or suffer from osteoporosis.

Analyzing the trend in research activity tests NASA’s claim that as researchers become aware of the station’s capabilities, they will develop new projects that leverage the station’s unique features.  For example, one upcoming study will install equipment on the ISS to measure the number and size of meteors that enter Earth’s atmosphere each day.  Using the ISS as a vantage point allows a longer-duration study with more accurate counts than ground-based measures.

NASA maintains a database of ISS research projects that contains information on all three of these criteria – the charts that follow summarize the 278 projects where NASA is the sponsoring agency and the primary goal was scientific research.  To begin with, these data confirm NASA’s claim about the increasing pace of ISS research.


(Graph by William Bianco.)

During the early years (2001-2003), when most of laboratory facilities had not been launched and crews were limited to three, there was less research activity.  Activity also decreased during the post-Columbia period of two-person caretaker crews (2003-2007). However, as station assembly resumed and crews expanded to six, both new and ongoing projects increased significantly, and are expected to increase in the next few years.

Moreover, ISS projects are generally managed by academic or corporate researchers, with a low level of all-NASA or joint projects.


(Graph by William Bianco.)

These percentages have been relatively stable since the beginning of crewed operations.  Most ISS research should be described as a collaboration between the government and private sector, where the government provides a unique, expensive experimental apparatus to which outside scientists and engineers bring research questions that can only be answered in an orbital environment.

Finally, here is the publication output of ISS research:


(Graph by William Bianco.)

The first bar shows the current (October 2013) rate of publication success – somewhat less than 50 percent.  However, most of the projects in the database are either ongoing or will commence operations at a future date, and thus cannot be expected to have produced publishable findings as of yet.   To correct for this bias, the second bar gives the predicted publication rate for ISS projects based on a statistical analysis that accounts for the identity of project PIs, the start date, and whether research was conducted during assembly of the ISS.   With these factors taken into account, the predicted publication rate is well over 90 percent, which is notable given that many journals have acceptance rates below 10 percent.

There is no guarantee that research on the ISS will cure cancer, end global warming, or earn their PIs a Nobel Prize.  However, the data show that ISS research satisfies the basic conditions for good science: attracting outside researchers, engaging disciplinary debates, and generating publishable results.  It is unrealistic to judge the ISS based on its short-term payoff; by that standard, virtually all basic research in the sciences would be judged a failure. Even given the data presented here, reasonable people can disagree about the benefits and costs of continued ISS operations.  But to make a judgment about the long-term value of the ISS barely three years after its completion makes no more sense than tearing up a lottery ticket a week before the drawing.

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