Letter to Dan Goldin About Space Life Science Research

Dear Mr. Goldin

I am writing to offer some thoughts on your upcoming address to the 6th International Congress on Cell Biology in San Francisco next month. We anticipate a large audience of established investigators, both domestic and international, as well as thousands of graduate and postdoctoral trainees in cell and molecular biology.

It may be helpful if I begin with some credentials so you can put my comments in perspective. I am a molecular/cell biologist and Professor at Washington University, immediate past-president of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), member of the steering committee of FOSS [or whatever they wound up calling it) at the NRC, and chair of the NASA subcommittee of FASEB (Federation of American Societies in Experimental Biology) Consensus Conference, which makes funding recommendations to Congress. My research on the evolution of sex is supported by the NIH and NSF.

Diane has faxed me the text of the speech that you presented at the NAS on April 30. I admire its sweep and energy, and imagine it would generate a certain amount of resonance in an ASCB audience. There seem to be a sufficient number of references to possible life on Mars that a few allusions to the putative evidence in the meteorite could be readily added without breaking the flow.

If, however, the goal of your ASCB address is to interest talented young biomedical researchers in the pursuit of NASA-related careers (which I understood to be the case form talking to Bruce Alberts), then it is not clear to me that the NAS text hits the mark. What I would imagine you wish to convey is NASA's determination to develop comprehensive and long-term research programs in areas of deep interest [to] young investigators in cell and molecular biology. A description of such programs would be far more relevant to this group than anything else.

So what would these programs be? Unfortunately, most biomedical researchers equate NASA Life Science with the various lines of inquiry funded through the OLMSA program; they would, I believe, say it has something to do with putting frogs in the shuttle and seeing if they lay eggs. I have looked at the OLMSA-funded cell and molecular projects quite carefully of late, and although some are apparently more sophisticated than the frog caricature, they can't hold a candle to the spectacular kinds of earth-based biomedical science now available to young people. The "frontier" of microgravity never did interest first-rate scientists, physical or biological, in the first place, and this is all the more true now that it is clear that nothing of any real interest has emerged from the many-in-flight studies on the effects of microgravity on this or that.

In contrast, a program dedicated to a deep. multifaceted analysis of the origin and evolution of early life would be on enormous interest. The technological tools that have been developed for biomedical science are beautifully suited to such studies. One can imagine fascinating collaborations between geochemists, surface physicists, paleontologists, and molecular/cell biologists as they seek to understand how this all got started and how it has proceeded. Much of this kind of thing is in the text of the NAS speech, but it is presented in an inspirational context rather than as something these kids could really imagine themselves being hired and funded to do.

This idea is not,. of course, from nowhere. Such a program is alive and very well indeed on the form of the exobiology program in the OSS, and some spectacular science is being supported by this initiative. Problem is, its $4M budget bears no relations hip to the opportunities available, and almost nobody knows that the program exists.

Therefore, what I would recommend is a very specific, focused, and yes, Goldin-style-inspirational presentation of the opportunities in these areas, coupled, if politically possible, with a statement to the effect that NASA plans to take leadership in understanding 1) how life came to be on earth and 2) whether it ever came to be elsewhere in the solar system. This would be undertaken, of course, in parallel with NASA's spectacular space science program geared to understand how the universe, stars, and planets came to be.

So, then, the sticky part: what about station, astronauts, human Mars travel, etc.? I would respectfully suggest that you leave this out. Everybody knows that NASA does this stuff, but it is associated in scientists' minds at least with non-scientific pursuits. What would be far more exciting for this group to hear would be your excitement about the fantastic future of robotics as a means to explore the planets and moons, drill deep holes (as they do here on earth!), bring back all sorts of samples, and so on. I remember seeing, on some network news program last spring, a video of a prototype NASA Mars robot chugging around and it was most intriguing. Showing something like that would be really memorable.

I am aware that with that VP 'space summit' coming up next month, it may not seem like an auspicious time to be articulating NASA directions. But, as you are doubtless far more aware than I, these are the directions in which the wind is blowing, and taking initiative has always been one of your imprimaturs.

AS I told Diane, I will be in Washington Thursday at the NAS and would be free Friday afternoon to meet with you if you felt this would be useful, you can leave a message on my voicemail at 314-935-6836, which I check several times a day. I can also offer my assistance in contacting scientist friends in these areas who could provide you with slides of archabacteria, RNA catalysis, ocean vents, and be on should these not already be in your possession.

If we are unable to connect in Washington, I very much look forward to meeting you in San Francisco.


Ursula Goodenough
Professor of Biology

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on November 4, 1996 1:13 PM.

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