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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
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.