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What are the impacts of performing a Decadal Survey during a global pandemic?

May 14, 2020

The following post was written and contributed by the members of the Professional Culture and Climate Subcommittee of the AAS’s DPS.

The Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey is a once-in-ten-years opportunity for the research community to provide critical input into the U.S. strategy for space research.  The survey is in its early stages; nominations for panel membership were due on May 1st, and white papers (a major form of community input[1]) are due July 4th.

However, since the Statement of Task for this Decadal Survey was formulated, the coronavirus pandemic has caused major disruption throughout our society, including in the work of planetary scientists.  Of greatest concern for the Decadal Survey, this burden falls unevenly.  For example, the pandemic has disproportionately affected the scientific productivity of women researchers[2], and racial and ethnic minority communities overall[3].

In response to  the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), all but 5 states in the US have issued stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic (as had DC and Puerto Rico)[4].  Although some states have more recently moved to partially or fully reopen, these reopenings do not necessarily make it safe or logistically possible for all members of our community to fully participate in the Decadal process.  The pandemic has caused the vast majority of planetary scientists to experience major disruptions to their work.  Many are teaching, researching, and collaborating from homes that aren’t set up for remote work; working while also taking care of other family members, sometimes involving illness or death; and switching normal activities to remote with as little as a single day of preparation.  The full impact of this change on scientists’ productivity is yet unclear.  However, early journal submission data suggest that the general productivity of women, in particular, is much lower[5]. This is, at least in part, due to the traditional uneven load of homekeeping duties falling on women[6]

Furthermore, the pandemic is increasing people’s stress, anxiety, and fatigue[7], which is affecting their work.  Members of the community who fall in high-risk groups (e.g., those with underlying medical conditions and/or are older) may be experiencing increased isolation as well as coping with difficulty obtaining necessary supplies. Additionally, COVID-19 infection is disproportionately affecting members of racial and ethnic minority communities, particularly black[8], latinx[9] and Native American[10] communities[11] (and social stigmatization of Asian American communities – ref).  As such, it is likely that planetary scientists who are also members of these communities are experiencing even higher levels of stress and difficulty.  The stress and uncertainty in the near-future for themselves and their family members make it particularly difficult to make plans for the longer-term future, which is the goal of any Decadal Survey.

Unfortunately, members of racial and ethnic minority groups, those who identify as disabled, and white women are already underrepresented in the planetary science community.  That these scientists are disproportionately affected by the pandemic suggests that it will be harder for these scientists to participate in an activity such as the Decadal Survey.  It is vital that the Decadal Survey process fully include researchers who are members of underrepresented groups.  Otherwise, we will continue to perpetuate the inequities that have led to the current demographics in our field, and the range of ideas presented to the Decadal Survey will not be representative of even the current planetary science population.

Then there are the members of our community who have been infected or whose immediate family have been infected.  Even mild cases tend to last 10-14 days and hamper one’s ability to work,[12] while reports from some cases suggest symptoms may persist even longer and may lead to increased anxiety and distress for those who are thought to be “recovered”[13].

While some of the work in which planetary scientists engage could be accomplished from anywhere, with sufficient access to technology, other work requires facilities that are currently unavailable.  Many telescopes and laboratories have been shut down[14] resulting in the possible delay of projects that require these data. Some community members are putting unforecasted time into converting lessons for online classes, checking in on students, and taking on new duties with regards to facility shutdown and eventual reopen planning. Interactions with colleagues, advisors, coauthors, etc. have been impacted significantly. In-person interaction, which our community has always valued, is now impossible. With all workshops, meetings and conferences canceled or being held virtually, none of the traditional opportunities for building collaborations are available. This especially impacts early career researchers who are just beginning to share their science and make connections in the field. A direct consequence of this on the Decadal Survey is the additional difficulties in finding coauthors and cosigners for white papers.

Given these issues, we pose these questions:

  • How can we ensure participation in the survey by all members of our community, especially groups most vulnerable and underrepresented in planetary science?  Will we end up with a plan dominated by the voices and ideas of only those without caregiving duties, of those with families and friends or who are themselves at low-risk of infection, of those with the most pre-existing resources for making it through the pandemic?  There is clearly a disproportionately-negative effect of the pandemic on exactly the same groups that are historically marginalized in our field. Some mitigation strategies might include: reworking the Survey task timeline to enable white paper inputs at the second panel meeting instead of the first to allow more time for white paper submission, flexibility in the panel meeting schedule and format to enable non-synchronous participation by people with family or other commitments, delaying the survey (possibly by as much as a year), and working with institutions to ensure that panelists will be remunerated for their time in some manner (even if it not directly by the National Academies).
  • If the Decadal Survey process moves forward as planned, are there ways to make the results more robust within the larger-than-normal uncertainty currently facing the US and global economy?  In the future, will the federal agencies prioritize the recommendations resulting from the Decadal Survey, or would this current situation be used as a reason to not follow-through on the recommendations provided?  Will our community be perceived as insensitive (“failing to read the room”) as we discuss priorities for multi-billion dollar projects amidst dire economic predictions?
  • Given the major issues surrounding inclusivity within the white paper and panel process, the unknown impacts on our financial future and professional workplaces, and the timeliness of being able to prioritize a largely volunteer effort that is the Decadal process — if we don’t significantly rethink the timeline and community commitment that enables  the process, how can we mitigate the long-term ramifications on our field?

We close by pointing out the the Decadal Survey website (https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/planetary-science-and-astrobiology-decadal-survey-2023-2032) has, near the top right, a link to “Provide feedback on this topic” that, as we understand, can be used by anyone.

Signed by the Professional Culture and Climate Subcommittee of the AAS’s DPS


[1] https://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/ssbsite/documents/webpage/ssb_056163.pdf, slide 15.

[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/us-map-stay-at-home-orders-lockdowns-2020-3

[5] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity

[6]  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-015-0575-9; https://www.russellsage.org/publications/changing-rhythms-american-family-life-1

[7] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html

[8] https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21225610/us-coronavirus-death-rates-blacks-latinos-whites

[9] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/latinos-hardest-hit-coronavirus-job-losses-staggering-18-9-unemployed-n1202881?fbclid=IwAR1551wxkuOOKMbkfp9kNHaBC-pAf_G9WBI7YT_Wtfir44kls-FVYkZ6UCM

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/24/us-native-americans-left-out-coronavirus-data

[11] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[12] https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/a31284395/how-long-does-coronavirus-last/

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/opinion/coronavirus-recovery.html

[14] https://astronomy.com/news/2020/04/covid-19-forces-earths-largest-telescopes-to-close

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2020 1:53 pm

    I also do believe this timeline has to shift, otherwise important ideas, voices, and information will be missed. The outcome of the present timeline will compromise the conclusions of the survey, and will undermine faith in the results and in the process as a whole.

  2. May 14, 2020 12:43 pm

    Delaying (in my mind) is the only path forward! Thanks to Julie and the PCCS for writing this blog since this has been on my mind a lot. We were talking about this at the meeting last week – we, as a community, really need to think seriously about the timeline for the Decadal survey.

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