By Paul Voosen
Sometimes, change starts with a single sentence.
In December 2016, NASA began accepting bids for its next New Frontiers competition, a chance to mount a $1 billion mission to solar system destinations such as the moon, Venus, or Saturn’s moon Titan. It is a careermaking opportunity, and scientists devoured the rules in the announcement. In the second paragraph, they read something new: a sentence stating that “NASA recognizes and supports the benefits of having diverse and inclusive” communities and “fully expects that such values will be reflected in the composition of all proposal teams.”
Many scientists hope the language will help NASA get out of a rut. Over the past 15 years, women have made up just 15% of planetary mission science teams, even though at least a quarter of planetary scientists are women. The disparity is even worse for ethnic minorities: Blacks and Hispanics make up 13% and 16% of the country, respectively, but each group makes up just 1% of the nation’s planetary scientists. (Firm numbers for specific missions are not available.)
The New Frontiers deadline arrived last week, and although the proposals are not public, observers say that women lead at least four of the dozen or so NASA received. “I suspect teams that come in will be significantly more diverse than previous rounds,” says Louise Prockter, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas.
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