NASA’s Postdoctoral Program

In many ways, our investments in graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the most important investments we make in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). These early career leaders are the talent pipeline of scientists that will lead the next generation, whether it is a new space telescope, a new modeling center developing predictive capabilities for the Earth that saves and improves lives, or new insights about the nature of our universe. We focus on these leaders by giving them time to grow, new opportunities, and also by providing then with a stipend commensurate with their achievements to date.

NASA’s SMD supports many graduate students and postdocs, most of whom work with academic partners who are engaged in our missions and research programs. We also have graduate students and postdocs who work at our NASA centers and gain important and unparalleled experiences. About 120–130  post-docs are funded each year for fellowships lasting up to two years through the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP). With the recent award of a new, five-year contract to Oakridge Associated Research Universities (ORAU) for the management of the NPP, now seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the program.

Unique among postdoctoral programs, the NPP places its Fellows into NASA labs at NASA Centers. NPP Fellows work side-by-side with NASA’s world-class scientists and engineers on projects intimately related to NASA’s goals, objectives, and missions. The NPP has been open to non-US citizens for most of its existence. During the height of the recent COVID pandemic, long and unpredictable delays in the issuance of needed visas for non-US citizens resulted in NASA restricting applications to the program to US citizens and permanent residents. Happily, with the waning of the pandemic, visa wait times have become closer to the pre-pandemic norm and NASA is once again opening applications to the NPP to non-US citizens.

At the Fall 2021 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, NASA announced that it was raising the NPP base stipend to $70,000. Additionally, stipends are adjusted upward to account for the local cost of living. These changes should ensure that NPP Fellows are paid a just salary for their efforts.

Under the new contract, ORAU has created a Participant Assistance Program that offers financial and legal advice to NPP Fellows and their families as well as providing support for their mental health. This new program was something that NASA hoped would be proposed in the re-competition of the NPP management organization. ORAU is also working with NASA Headquarters to define some optional professional development activities for the NPP Fellows, such as proposal writing workshops. All in all, the NASA Postdoctoral Program is growing stronger in multiple ways.

This growth, though, has brought with it new costs. Some of the cost increases are due to the higher stipends; some are due to the additional services being offered to Fellows. Much of the increase, though, has come from simple inflation over the last five years. Since the new contract has not been in place for a full year yet, the full size of the cost increase is not yet known. However, projections of the potential annual cost for the program as SMD managed it — 130 Fellows at NASA Centers and JPL — are quite large. So large that they could amount to a non-trivial fraction of the SMD Support Budget. In order to maintain a balance between SMD’s missions and research, the size of the SMD Support Budget must be controlled. To this end, SMD is taking the following steps:

  1. To reduce the likelihood of rapid changes or lasting reductions in the number of NPP Fellows, the number of SMD-funded NPP Fellows will be reduced by 10% for the next year or two. This reduction will not be spread uniformly among all the Centers and JPL but will, instead be borne by those institutions that have the largest number of NPP Fellows, as well as other rationales to be decided on. These reductions will be implemented gradually over the next few application cycles.
  2. Cost increases for the remaining approximately 120 Fellows will be paid for by the five SMD science divisions out of their research budgets.
  3. While the number of NPP Fellows is reduced, SMD will be gathering information on the actual costs of running the NASA Postdoctoral Program under the new contract. If the actual costs are significantly lower than current projections, then the number of SMD-supported Fellows may be restored.
  4. An independent review team under the leadership of Dr. Paul Hertz will examine the NASA Postdoctoral Program and determine the extent to which the current program meets NASA’s objectives.

NASA strongly supports all graduate students and post-docs in our science disciplines including the NASA Postdoctoral Program and expects this period of reduced numbers of Fellows to be short — only one or two years. SMD is confident that once the above-described analyses and reviews are complete, the NASA Postdoctoral Program will emerge stronger than before.

-Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Associate Administrator

-Paul Hertz, Senior Advisor to the Associate Administrator

-Michael New, Deputy Associate Administrator for Research