In April 1994 the National Research Council received a request from NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin that the NRC's Space Studies Board provide guidance on several questions relating to the management of NASA's programs in the space sciences.1 The issues raised in the Administrator's request closely reflect questions posed in the agency's fiscal year 1994 Senate appropriations report. These questions included the following:
Should all the NASA space science programs be gathered into a “National Institute for Space Science”?
What other organizational changes might be made to improve the coordination and oversight of NASA space science programs?
What processes should be used for establishing interdisciplinary science priorities based on scientific merit and other criteria, while ensuring opportunities for newer fields and disciplines to emerge?
What steps could be taken to improve utilization of advanced technologies in future science missions?
Since the creation of NASA in 1958, space science has been a key element of its mission. Indeed, the Augustine Committee report,2 submitted at the end of 1990, asserted that science was NASA's most important mission. The committee responsible for the present report has proceeded on the same premise. A balanced and healthy program of space science is crucial to the future of NASA, regardless of the overall level of support available to the agency.
The most important recommendations of this report are listed below. They are further elaborated following the list.
In this report, “space sciences” refers to all of NASA's science programs conducted in or from space, including space astronomy, space physics, planetary exploration, microgravity research, space life sciences, and Earth science.
Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, Report of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, December 1990.
NASA should not establish a “National Institute for Space Science” that would pull together the three present science program offices.
NASA should augment the responsibilities and authorities of the NASA Chief Scientist.
NASA should establish a set of fair, open, and understandable processes to be used in the prioritization of space science research. These processes will ensure that major project proposals considered at progressively higher levels within the agency have the heritage of scientific merit that comes from a successful confrontation with competing proposals at lower levels.
NASA should create a comprehensive strategy and plan for the technologies that support the space sciences, with the responsibility for near-term technology development residing in the science programs to be served and the responsibility for longer-term technology strategy and development residing in the Office of Space Access and Technology.
NASA should change the funding of its field centers to full-cost accounting (“industrial funding”). Cost accounting should be based on full program costs, including civil service salaries. The committee endorses NASA's intentions to move in this direction.
NASA should exercise caution in downsizing its Headquarters staff and transferring functions to the centers; this process could be carried too far and have unintended consequences. The committee identified a number of areas where it believes control should be retained at Headquarters.
NASA science budgets should include a limited amount of dedicated funding for innovative ideas in high-risk, high-return areas lying outside the current framework of inquiry or design.
NASA should take a cautious approach to the recently proposed establishment of focused science institutes. There should be a well-defined process for their selection and creation, and a clear plan for the phased transfer of base funds to programmatic funding.
The following expands key recommendations of the report:
Institute for Space Science—In response to direction in the FY 1994 Senate appropriations report, the committee considered a space sciences umbrella organization within NASA to coordinate and oversee all space science activities, functioning like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services. The committee reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of such a model and concluded that the NIH model, while effective in the arena of health research, is not appropriate for the space sciences. NASA space science benefits from close coordination with other elements of NASA, such as hardware development, launch services, and tracking and data operations, which have no counterparts in the NIH model. The committee believes the required coordination would be hampered by the creation of a quasi-autonomous space science institute. The committee therefore does not recommend establishment of such an umbrella institute.
The Role of the Chief Scientist—The role of the Chief Scientist was found to be a critical one from many perspectives, leading the committee to recommend expanding the authorities and responsibilities of this position. Despite the central role of the science associate administrators in the management of their respective science areas, the committee finds a need for greater integration and coordination of these programs. To achieve this, the position of Chief Scientist should be strengthened, particularly by the addition of concurrence authority in key matters affecting space science. The Chief Scientist should be a person of eminent standing in the scientific community with a significant record of accomplishment. A proposed “functional statement” for the Chief Scientist is given in Chapter 4. A major component of this official's integration responsibility is coordination and oversight of the recommended science prioritization process. Another component is coordination of the technology development programs that support space science.
The Prioritization Process—The committee believes that peer review is the most effective form of merit review for the selection of scientific research. A clear set of criteria, known and understood by all parties, is crucial to the prioritization of scientific goals. The relative ranking of science and mission
plans will be most strongly affected by scientific factors at the entry level, where proposals from the same discipline or subdiscipline compete against one another. As the arena of competition broadens to the interdisciplinary and then to the agency-wide level, other programmatic and political influences become increasingly important. It is essential, however, that all proposals being considered at progressively higher levels retain the heritage of scientific merit that comes from successful confrontation with their peers at lower levels. The office of the Chief Scientist should oversee these prioritization processes, especially as they cross disciplinary boundaries. NASA management should cancel those programs or projects that are failing or whose priority has dropped substantially in this prioritization process. The committee found that peer review and the above corollary principles apply generally to technology research as well.
Technology Planning—New technologies are important as agents of change, enhancing the quality of scientific output and the ability to accomplish more with less. Technology development is undertaken both by NASA's science program offices and by its Office of Space Access and Technology (OSAT). The committee recommends that NASA establish an agency-wide strategy and plan for the technologies that support the space sciences. These technologies may be characterized as near-term or far-term technologies (the latter defined as requiring more than five years to be ready for flight demonstration). The space science offices should have primary responsibility for identifying and reviewing near-term technologies, giving them greatest control of the technologies that most immediately affect the success of their programs. Each science office should allocate a significant fraction of its resources to Advanced Technology Development activities and should be willing to pool resources to achieve shared objectives. Most importantly, the implementation of all categories of technology development should be undertaken by the best-qualified individuals or teams within NASA, other government laboratories, industry, or academia, as determined by peer review.
Promising far-term technologies should be identified, funded, and managed by OSAT. Projects in these areas should be reviewed jointly by the science offices and by OSAT. Like near-term technology development, far-term projects should be carried out by the best-qualified individual or teams, as determined by peer review. These projects should stimulate exploratory development of possibly unconventional technologies having the potential of producing breakthroughs in capability. Finally, a rigorous review process should be put in place to identify those projects that ought to be terminated in the present constrained budgetary environment.
“Industrial Funding ”—The committee examined the advantages and disadvantages of an explicit full-cost accounting system in which all charges, including salaries and facilities, are charged against projects (so-called “industrial funding”). This approach permits ready assessment of comparative costs that might otherwise be hidden in an institutional funding environment. The committee endorses NASA's decision (stated in the “Zero Base Review” briefing to the Congress) to identify, budget, and manage by total program costs, including civil service labor costs. The committee recommends that NASA change the funding of its field centers to an industrial funding arrangement. The committee believes that decisions on program priorities and budgets would be more rational if based on full-cost accounting, and program accountability and discipline in personnel management would thereby be enhanced. A similar recommendation was made in the NASA Federal Laboratory Review report.3
The Downsizing of Headquarters—NASA is currently “re-engineering” its organization. This re-engineering entails a very large downsizing of its Headquarters staff and a concurrent transfer of functions to the centers. The result is expected to be the analog of a lean “corporate management” model. While the committee endorses the intent, it notes that an unintended consequence could be a center-dominated model as opposed to the desired enterprise-focused one. Several recommendations are offered to avert this outcome. Not all program management functions should be transferred to centers.
Federal Laboratory Review Task Force, NASA Advisory Council, NASA Federal Laboratory Review, February 1995.
Those complex programs that cut across centers should be retained at Headquarters and integrated with enterprise management. Support of scientific disciplines, management of peer review, and oversight and integration across center boundaries should remain Headquarters functions. Likewise, creation of a strategy and plan for the technologies that support space science should be a Headquarters responsibility. The adoption of industrial funding will further emphasize the importance of a suitably strong Headquarters organization.
Research in New Fields—The committee recognizes the competitive obstacles faced by smaller, newer, or less well established fields of science. The committee recommends that NASA science budgets include dedicated funding for innovative, high-risk, high-return ideas falling outside current frameworks of inquiry or design. This research is highly important and deserves special management attention, including that of the Chief Scientist. This recommendation is not intended to allow circumventing of peer review for the major parts of any science program.
Science Institutes—Creation of contractor-operated institutes may be advantageous in specific instances. However, the committee recommends that, as NASA proceeds with arrangements for the first focused science institutes, it give due attention to the processes by which these institutes are selected and created and by which, over a few years, their guaranteed base funding will be transformed into competed programmatic funding. Further, there should be consideration of a review process that will ensure either (1) that they compete successfully to maintain or increase their size, or (2) if less successful, that they are phased down in an orderly fashion. The committee recommends that additional initiatives along these lines be deferred until the above processes have been defined and the success of the two proposed institute pilots can be evaluated.
The committee's recommendations are gathered together by main theme in Chapter 7.
The NASA space science programs, from the dawn of the space age to the present, have produced an unprecedented flow of discoveries. The fiscal, political, and technological environment of the agency is now in a state of rapid change. It is vital that NASA respond to its challenges and opportunities in the most constructive manner to ensure the success of its future space science endeavors. The committee believes that the recommendations made in this report, if accepted by NASA, will aid in this objective.