Where science and tech meet creativity.

Disclaimer: I am writing this post as a private individual. The views in this post are strictly my own, and no approval of an outside entity should be assumed.

I have spent the past several weeks trying to figure out how to write this post. Sometimes emotions are so raw that they don’t readily shape themselves into words: They manifest themselves as a face that can’t smile, a head that throbs with a stress migraine, and with an exhaustion driven not by lack of sleep but rather deriving from the emotional exhaustion that just makes a person want to hide in a dark room locked away from the world. My head hurts. I am exhausted. My emotions are raw. I am writing now because there is a very real possibility that the proposed restructuring the US education system may eliminate the NASA funding I and my staff rely on to pay our salaries. In the worst case, everyone I employ at my university will become unemployed – including me – when FY2014 begins. In the expected case – if no new funding is found – I will lose half the funding I use for salary, and I will need to decide who among my staff I will have to fire. I don’t plan to let funding cuts put us down; I will not die like a dog abandoned at the city shelter. We will fight our way free to continue… but we need your ideas and help.

TL;DR. You can help brainstorm solutions by emailing brainstorm at starstryder dot com or by donating here.

Here are the Facts

In late February, as the possibility of US Governmental Sequestration of budgets began to look like it would become a reality, many of us started to hear rumors that NASA education funding may be getting drastic cuts. This rumor dovetailed with whispered tales I’ve been hearing for almost a year that the White House’s Office of Management and Budget may be seeking to reorganize educational funding in the US to be wholly run through the Department of Education and (for research in learning) the National Science Foundation.

In the second week of March, we learned that all NASA travel is suspended pending a waiver unless it is funded through a grant that specifically requires travel (travel money may be part of a grant, contract, or a general budget at a NASA facility).

In the 3rd week in March we learned that all NASA EPO events/activities not funded through a NASA grant were to cease immediately, pending waiver, due to Sequestration. (see this and this)

In the second week of April we learned that NASA has been asked to plan to transition all educational activities. The White House budget proposes to restructure education in the US effective FY2014 . Under the proposed changes, education programs will be consolidated through the Department of Education (formal education), the National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach). From New Science Policy: “the budget proposes to reduce duplication in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education programs by consolidating them from 11 federal agencies into just three (NSF, Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution).”

My entire staff at SIUE is paid through NASA derived funding.

The second week of April I learned my university, like most universities in the State of Illinois, has been asked to plan for a 25% budget cut over the next 3 years.

A forthcoming State of Illinois hiring freeze will prevent me from hiring new people, even if I am hiring them off of Federal grant funds. (I should be able to contract people through LLCs and other private companies, and hirer temporary help). This means that if I lose a position, I may not be able to get that position back in the future.

My salary is often (but not always) paid at the 5-10% level by State of Illinois funding, at the 50-70% level through grant funding, and the remainder of my salary comes from outside the university through writing and voice work. (My speaker fees are split between paying my business manager and donations to fund CosmoQuest).

Here is what this means to me and the programs I love (e.g. CosmoQuest)

There is a very real chance that if I can not find new funding sources, this summer I will need to lay off many members of my staff (and I may never be able to get those positions back, even if things improve in the future). I have already had to retract my offer to a summer intern due to not being sure the funding would be there to fund him. This will mean that CosmoQuest, a project designed to engage the public in doing science and that is actively generating new results being used by scientists to write research papers, will lose the SIUE staffing it needs to effectively continue to grow and move forward. We have partners – we can keep the project going somehow – but things will have to change and the core team that has become family will become scattered to the winds.

Let me state that with more specifics: I will have to reduce my salary, and I will need to fire the equivalent of 1.5 – 2 additional people if we only lose NASA mission funding. In the worst case – if NASA education grants are also zeroed – I will need to fire all my staff working on citizen science and formal education if I don’t find replacement funding.


The creation of new science education programs (formal and informal) in the United States has long been distributed across multiple governmental agencies so that those generating the science content and the people translating that science into education content can work hand in hand. Across NASA, the Department of Energy, DARPA, the Department of Agriculture, and many other agencies and bureaus; we can find funding set aside to allow new science to be effectively, and in a timely manner, communicated out. These agencies fund the creation of classroom programs (including often free teacher training programs), after school programs, museum programs, NPR and PBS programming, web content, and more. If all these programs are consolidated under the Department of Education and the Smithsonian, existing partnerships will be shattered and networks of educators and scientists who have worked together for years (and sometimes decades) will go away. Entire professions will face massive layoffs, and due to lack of jobs, the experts in these fields – and this may include me – will have to find new career paths.

Overtime, something new may grow up, but… opportunities for  researchers like me to split our time between science and research will likely go away as walls are built between the agencies that create science and those that create education.

It would be very easy for me to simply tell my staff, as I heard John Grunsfeld Leland Melvin tell a woman on a telecon last week, (paraphrase) “You don’t have to start looking for a job, but if you see one, don’t turn it down.” It would be easy for me to give up and prepare to turn off our servers at the end of the fiscal year. It would be so easy to just stay in bed each day, hiding from the never ending deluge of worsening information as I give up and switch fields and leave astronomy behind. I could be a voice actress. I could be a writer. I would even be happy just being a horse groomer, and earning my income mucking stalls. Few things are quite as satisfying as hurling literal shit – it is certainly much more productive then the shit throwing I sometimes see in my inbox.

It would be easy to give up and close up shop, but I’m not one to ever take the easy route.

Our initial plan to survive

We are trying very hard to find ways to survive, and we are thinking both inside and outside of the box. I have to admit – I’m the type of academic who has no good understanding of commercial finance (or, in fact, finance in general). I like to think that if you do something good, people will be willing to donate to keep it going, and word will spread organically. I know from experience, that is generally true. Right now though, we don’t have the time to wait for grass roots fundraising to be successful. If you ideas on how we can raise money, please let me know. I have set up a special email account to discuss new ideas: brainstorming at starstryder dot com.

Here is what we’re doing:

1) We are cutting all unnecessary expenses. I’m turning off various cellular accounts, reducing server sizes (which admittedly means things are a little sluggish at the moment), and evaluating how many people are slated to go on trips where we may be able to get local volunteers to take the place of the second person we might normally send on a trip. We want to use volunteers for more work in general, but I have to admit, we’re so overwhelmed with Sequestration related paperwork, that just corresponding with possible volunteers is proving challenging.

2) We are working to try and raise donations both from individuals and corporations. Every $20 donation pays for a graduate and all of their equipment (prorated) for 1 hour.  Every $100 donation allows us to purchase the supplies and printed goods for a teacher training event or an outreach event for the public. Every $500 covers all of our servers and software for 1 month.  You can make a difference. Due to university constraints, I’m not allowed to cold call corporate representatives and ask if they would be interested in sponsoring us. In the past, individuals who like what they see, hear, and can do through our programs have gone to their employers and encouraged their employers to support us. This has also been a huge help.

3) We are looking for new funding sources that are non-governmental. I will be looking to numerous foundations for new grants to apply for.

4) We are currently formulating a program to try and crowd fund. Due to the need for the university to formulate policies to allow this, it will likely be June before we can actually initiate a crowd funding program. Since we may start to run out of funding in June… This isn’t exactly ideal, but it is something we will be doing once policies are in place.

Several people have asked why I don’t set up an endowment. An endowment of $15 million would fund CosmoQuest’s core costs forever (assuming a 4% draw and historic inflation rates). The State of Illinois spends this much money every 13.4 hours*. The reason we are not trying to raise an endowment is simple: none of us have a permanent position or tenure at SIUE, and setting up an endowment somewhere where I only sign a 12 month contract doesn’t make sense. Until I have a permanent position somewhere (something that very likely won’t happen**), it doesn’t make sense to raise an endowment. This does make everything much harder, but it is the reality we face.

I’m going to fight this the only ways I know how: I’m going to spend every waking moment I can (and some moments when I really should be asleep), fighting to find the funding we need to keep going.

What’s more, when (not if) we find the money to keep going, we will keep beating the bushes for ways to grow, and to contract those who will lose their jobs due to the upcoming budget cuts. Let me be clear: In the field of NASA astronomy education there will be layoffs, and if I and my team can raise enough money, we will try and contract (as university rules allow) amazing individuals laid off so that they can keep doing the same type of impressive work they have already been doing, but now within the context of CosmoQuest.

I’m going to fight, not just to keep CosmoQuest going, but to keep space science and astronomy education going. I may lose, but I’m going to fight until hope is lost. My head does ache, I am exhausted, and it may take gloves on a horse’s ears to make me smile, but I am going to keep fighting.

Will you help?

You can donate via paypal by following the links at this site: http://cosmoquest.org/Donate. You can contact me with ideas for raising funds through the email address brainstorm AT starstryder DOT com.

* Based on the 2013 fiscal budget found here, and by combining the budgets for educational labor relations, the Illinois Board of Education, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education. This total is $9,807,033,600 per year.

** Illinois has a hiring freeze, and in the 2 past years, I didn’t see any permanent/tenure track positions advertised for people who do what I do. At the same time, my husband and I own a house and my salary is not the primary salary in my house hold; thus the idea of moving for anything other than a job that lets me keep doing these things that matter to me really doesn’t make any sense.