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Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research Summary The National Research Council (NRC) selected and tasked the Committee on the Assessment of NASA Laboratory Capabilities to assess the status of the laboratory capabilities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and to determine whether they are equipped and maintained to support NASA’s fundamental research activities. Over the past 5 years or more, there has been a steady and significant decrease in NASA’s laboratory capabilities, including equipment, maintenance, and facility upgrades. This adversely affects the support of NASA’s scientists, who rely on these capabilities, as well as NASA’s ability to make the basic scientific and technical contributions that others depend on for programs of national importance. The fundamental research community at NASA has been severely impacted by the budget reductions that are responsible for this decrease in laboratory capabilities, and as a result NASA’s ability to support even NASA’s future goals is in serious jeopardy. This conclusion is based on the committee’s extensive reviews conducted at fundamental research laboratories at six NASA centers (Ames Research Center, Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Langley Research Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center), discussions with a few hundred scientists and engineers, both during the reviews and in private sessions, and in-depth meetings with senior technology managers at each of the NASA centers. Several changes since the mid-1990s have had a significant adverse impact on NASA’s funding for laboratory equipment and support services: Control of the research and technology “seed corn” investment was moved from an associate administrator focused on strategic technology investment and independent of important flight development programs’ short-term needs, to an associate administrator responsible for executing such flight programs. The predictable result was a substantial reduction over time in the level of fundamental—lower technology readiness level, TRL—research budgets, which laboratories depend on to maintain and enhance their capabilities, including the procurement of equipment and support services. The result was a greater emphasis on higher TRL investments, which would reduce project risk. A reduction in funding of 48 percent for the aeronautics programs over the period fiscal year (FY) 2005-FY 2009 has significantly challenged NASA’s ability to achieve its mission to advance U.S. technological leadership in aeronautics in partnership with industry, academia, and other government agencies that conduct aeronautics-related research and to keep U.S. aeronautics in the lead internationally. Institutional responsibility for maintaining the health of the research centers was changed from the associate administrator responsible for also managing the technology investment to the single associate administrator to whom all the center directors now report. NASA changed from a budgeting and accounting system in which all civil service manpower was covered in a single congressional appropriation to one in which all costs, including manpower, had to be budgeted and accounted for against a particular program or overhead account. NASA personnel at the centers reported that reductions in budgets supporting fundamental research have had several consequences: Equipment and support have become inadequate. Centers are unable to provide adequate and stable funding and manpower for the fundamental science and technology advancements needed to support long-term objectives. Research has been deferred.
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Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research Researchers are expending inordinate amounts of time writing proposals seeking funding to maintain their laboratory capabilities. Efforts are diverted as researchers seek funding from outside NASA for work that may not be completely consistent with NASA’s goals. The institutional capabilities of the NASA centers, including their laboratories, have always been critical to the successful execution of NASA’s flight projects. These capabilities have taken years to develop and depend very strongly on highly competent and experienced personnel and the infrastructure that supports their research. Such capabilities can be destroyed in a short time if not supported with adequate resources and the ability to hire new people to learn from those who built and nurtured the laboratories. Capabilities, once destroyed, cannot be reconstituted rapidly at will. Laboratory capabilities essential to the formulation and execution of NASA’s future missions must be properly resourced. In the Strategic Plan for the Years 2007-2016, NASA states that it cannot accomplish its mission and vision without a healthy and stable research program. The fundamental research community at NASA is not provided with healthy or stable funding for laboratory capabilities, and therefore NASA’s vision and missions for the future are in jeopardy. The innovation and technologies required to advance aeronautics, explore the outer planets, search for intelligent life, and understand the beginnings of the universe have been severely restricted by a short-term perspective and funding. The changes in the management of fundamental research represent a structural impediment to resolving this problem. Despite all these challenges, the NASA researchers encountered by the committee remain dedicated to their work and focused on NASA’s future. Approximately 20 percent of all NASA facilities are dedicated to research and development: on average, they are not state of the art: they are merely adequate to meet current needs. Nor are they attractive to prospective hires when compared with other national and international laboratory facilities. Over 80 percent of NASA facilities are more than 40 years old and need significant maintenance and upgrades to preserve the safety and continuity of operations for critical missions. A notable exception to this assessment is the new science building commissioned at GSFC. NASA categorizes the overall condition of its facilities, including the research centers, as “fairly good,” but deferred maintenance (DM) over the past 5 years has grown substantially. Every year, NASA is spending about 1.5 percent of the current replacement value (CRV) of its active facilities on maintenance, repairs, and upgrades,1 but the accepted industry guideline is between 2 percent and 4 percent of CRV.2 Deferred maintenance grew from $1.77 billion to $2.46 billion from 2004 to 2009, presenting a staggering repair and maintenance bill for the future. The facilities that house fundamental research activities at NASA are typically old and require more maintenance than current funding will permit. As a result, they are crowded and often lack the modern layouts and utilities that improve operational efficiency. The equipment and facilities of NASA’s fundamental research laboratories are inferior to those witnessed by committee members at comparable laboratories at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), at top-tier U.S. universities, and at many corporate research institutions and are comparable to laboratories at the Department of Defense (DOD). If its basic research facilities were equipped to make them state of the art, NASA would be in a better position to maintain U.S. leadership in the space, Earth, and aeronautical sciences and to attract the scientists and engineers needed for the future. The committee believes that NASA could reverse the decline in laboratory capabilities cited above by restoring the balance between funding for long-term fundamental research and technology development and short-term, mission-focused applications. The situation could be significantly improved if fundamental long-term research and advanced technology development at NASA were managed and 1 NASA FY 2008 Budget. Available at http://www.nasa.gov/news/budget/FY2008.html. 2 Statement made by William L. Gregory, member of the NRC Committee to Assess Techniques for Developing Maintenance and Repair Budgets for Federal Facilities, to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, Hazardous Material and Pipeline Transportation, April 29, 1999.
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Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research nurtured separately from short-term mission programs. Moreover, in the light of recent significant changes in direction, NASA might wish to consider re-evaluating its strategic plan and developing a tactical implementation plan that will create, manage, and financially support the needed research capabilities and associated laboratories, equipment, and facilities. NASA is increasingly relying on a contractor-provided technician workforce to support those needs. If this practice continues, and if a strategy to ensure the continuity and retention of technical knowledge as the agency increasingly relies on a contractor-provided technician workforce is not currently in place, then such a strategy should be considered. Researchers in the smaller laboratories are forced to buy necessary laboratory equipment from their modest research grants, and it is not unusual for researchers in the larger laboratories to operate them at reduced throughput or not at all because the sophisticated and expensive research equipment for maintaining state-of-the-art capabilities is not being procured in sufficient quantities. Mechanisms need to be found that will provide the equipment and support services required to conduct the high-quality fundamental research befitting the nation’s top aeronautics and space institution. The specific findings and recommendations of this report are as follows: Finding 1. On average, the committee classifies the facilities and equipment observed in the NASA laboratories as marginally adequate, with some clearly being totally inadequate and others being very adequate. The trend in quality appears to have been downward in recent years. NASA is not providing sufficient laboratory equipment and support services to address immediate or long-term research needs and is increasingly relying on the contract technician workforce to support the laboratories and facilities. Researchers in the smaller laboratories are forced to buy needed laboratory equipment from their modest research grants, while it is not unusual for researchers in the larger laboratories/facilities to operate facilities at reduced capabilities or not at all due to lack of needed repair resources. The sophisticated and expensive research equipment needed to achieve and maintain state-of-the-art capabilities is not being procured. Recommendation 1A. Sufficient equipment and support services needed to conduct high-quality fundamental research should be provided to NASA’s research community. Recommendation 1B. If a strategy is not currently in place to ensure the continuity and retention of technical knowledge as the agency increasingly relies on a contractor-provided technician workforce, then such a strategy should be considered. Finding 2. The facilities that house fundamental research activities at NASA are typically old and require more maintenance than funding permits. As a result, research laboratories are crowded and often lack the modern layouts and utilities that improve operational efficiency. The lack of timely maintenance can lead to safety issues, particularly with large, high-powered equipment. A notable exception is the new science building commissioned at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2009. Recommendation 2A. NASA should find a solution to its deferred maintenance issues before catastrophic failures occur that will seriously impact missions and research operations. Recommendation 2B. To optimize limited maintenance resources, NASA should implement predictive-equipment-failure processes, often known as health monitoring, currently used by many organizations. Finding 3. Over the past 5 years or more, the funding of fundamental research at NASA, including the funding of facilities and equipment, has declined dramatically, such that unless corrective action is taken soon, the fundamental research community at NASA will be unable to support the agency’s long-term goals. For example, if funding continues to decline, NASA may not be able to
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Capabilities for the Future: An Assessment of NASA Laboratories for Basic Research claim aeronautics technology leadership from an international and in some areas even a national perspective. Recommendation 3A. To restore the health of the fundamental research laboratories, including their equipment, facilities, and support services, NASA should restore a better funding and leadership balance between long-term fundamental research/technology development and short-term mission-focused applications. Recommendation 3B. NASA must increase resources to its aeronautics laboratories and facilities to attract and retain the best and brightest researchers and to remain at least on a par with international aeronautical research organizations in Europe and Asia. Finding 4. Based on the experience and expertise of its members, the committee believes that the equipment and facilities at NASA’s basic research laboratories are inferior to those at comparable DOE laboratories, top-tier U.S. universities, and corporate research laboratories and are about the same as those at basic research laboratories of DOD. Recommendation 4. NASA should improve the quality and equipping of its basic research facilities, to make them at least as good as those at top-tier universities, corporate laboratories, and other better-equipped government laboratories in order to maintain U.S. leadership in the space, Earth, and aeronautic sciences and to attract the scientists and engineers needed for the future.