Updates on the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program

Paul J. Green

The NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP) awards 24 postdoctoral prize fellowships annually. Each fellowship is funded for up to three years, for a young scientist to pursue independent research of their own design, at the U.S. host institution of their choice. The application and selection process, symposia and overall science policies for the NHFP are guided cooperatively by three leads: Andy Fruchter at STScI for the Hubble, Dawn Gelino at NExScI for the Sagan, and myself at CXC for the Einstein. Katey Alatalo is a Deputy Lead at STScI.

Selecting the 2022 NHFP Fellows

By the application deadline in early November 2021, we had received 446 complete applications, an increase of about 10% over the previous year. This was in part because, due to disruptions caused by the pandemic, we allowed a one-time extension of eligibility from three to four years past the date of completion of Ph.D.

The selection panel met virtually from Jan 18-25 2022, including 57 reviewers across 7 topical panels. Evaluation of applications was guided by a new rubric, with criteria posted on the web as part of the Announcement of Opportunity in September 2021. The rubric was developed by the NHFP Leads, modeled in part on one written for STScI’s Lasker Fellowship, and crafted in close consultation with diversity experts and a self-organized group of NHFP fellows working against racism. The rubric requires evaluation in 3 major categories, with specific evaluation considerations proposed for each: Proposed Research, Preparation & Past Research, and Leadership Potential. In addition, with the intention of diversifying the selected Fellows, every reviewer is allotted a small number of points that they can award to applicants who they believe show extra “perseverance and determination along a path that may have been more difficult than usual” or for other important factors that were not captured by the three primary criteria.

Before the initial offer list is determined, the highest-ranked applicants are assigned NHFP ‘flavors’ – Einstein, Hubble or Sagan – based on the gist of their proposed science program. As there is no quota or formula, the relative fractions of flavors change every year. The main impact of flavor comes down to which of the NHFP Leads will be the Fellow’s first point of contact for guidance and policy issues.

Bios and photos of the new Fellows show encouraging diversity along a number of axes and above all present a broad palette of frontier astrophysical research topics.

As of 2021, every year in between the application deadline and the selection review, the NHFP is distributing an optional demographic survey to all applicants. After the final selection of each new class, we ask those 24 new fellows to again fill out the survey. This provides going forward the opportunity for us to reflect any change in demographic distributions that occurs during selection. For as many whose contact information we could find, we offered the same survey to past fellows of the NHFP and its antecedents, the original Einstein, Hubble, Sagan, Michelson, Chandra and Fermi fellowship programs. The survey garnered about 500 responses from alumni dating back to the first Hubble Fellows of 1990.

NASA Review of the NHFP

In 2021, NASA Headquarters initiated the first review of the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP), with the aim to identify best practices, gaps, and areas of improvement. The review panel was charged with examining two broad areas:

  1. Success of the NHFP under its current structure
  2. Diversity, equity, and inclusion of the Program

The review panel, co-led by Rita Sambruna and Nicolle Zellner, worked hard over many months, and gathered input from the NHFP Leads, from current and past Fellows, from the Grants Administration group at STScI, and many others to evaluate the program. They summarized their work by providing a broad array of recommendations, several of which are already being addressed, touching on opportunities to gather information about applicants and fellows, provide more opportunities for information, discussion and mentoring among the fellows, to improve the diversity represented among the fellows, to streamline and clarify mechanisms for policy changes, etc. A presentation of the final review recommendations, entitled “The NASA Hubble Fellowship Program: A Review of 30 Years of Promoting Excellence in Astrophysics” was presented to NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC) in October 2021, and Pat Knezek, the NHFP Program Scientist for NASA, led a webinar in February 2022 presenting the panel’s findings and outlining a path forward for NASA’s response, which includes gathering community input. The Review Report and webinar are available on the NASA Astrophysics documents webpage. Several of the recommendations have already been implemented. Public discussion to gather community input was postponed from the canceled January 2022 AAS to a splinter session scheduled for the June 2022 AAS meeting in Pasadena to be held the morning of Wednesday, June 15. Early-career scientists are especially encouraged to attend and share their opinions. Input on the panel’s recommendations and their implementation will also be solicited community-wide. Keep an eye on the NHFP website for details.

The NHFP Leads look forward to working with NASA HQ, STScI, NASA fellows past and present and the community to realize opportunities to improve a program that the review panel themselves called “…one of the premier astrophysics fellowship programs in the country. The findings and recommendations in this report are offered in the spirit of improving something that is already highly regarded.”