Do NASA’s Safety-Related Research Programs Have Well-Defined, Prioritized, and Appropriate Research Objectives?

Findings: NASA needs a more objective process for prioritizing safety research. While the objectives of ARMD’s Aviation Safety Program are worthy guideposts for safety research, ARMD lacks a well-founded process for prioritizing the research needs associated with each objective, and thus for ensuring that its research is well aligned with meeting critical national aviation safety needs. Internal interests are overemphasized in the programming of safety research. ARMD gives undue weight to research that aligns well with its existing activities, personnel, and assets rather than the results of critical evaluations of current and emerging aviation safety needs.

The Aviation Safety Program has developed research projects to address safety issues associated with new operations, operating in hazardous conditions, loss of control, and on-board system failures and faults. The research also seeks to enhance the durability of aircraft structures and systems and to improve capabilities to analyze complex systems for safety. In the committee’s view, these are worthy objectives to guide research aimed at improving both the current and the future state of aviation safety. What is not clear, however, is whether the research being undertaken in each of these areas represents the best use of ARMD’s capabilities and resources to make a meaningful contribution to the targeted safety objectives.

The committee expected to find a research prioritization process that is deliberate and well informed, supported by empirical analyses, careful reviews of research being undertaken elsewhere, and advice from outside experts to enable ARMD to identify the key research needs associated with each objective and to determine where its programs can contribute the most to meeting them. The existing prioritization process, however, appears to be driven largely by ARMD’s interest in employing existing personnel and assets at the NASA research centers. Those safety objectives that map well with ongoing research activities and with these internal interests are generally given priority in the programming of research and allocation of resources. By not having such a defensible, analytically based process for prioritizing its safety research, ARMD could not justify, in a convincing manner, much of the content of its research programs. Thus, in not having access to such an independent assessment of safety research needs, the committee could not determine whether ARMD’s safety research programs are well prioritized to make use of available resources or identify whether changes in NASA personnel and facilities are required, and neither can ARMD.

Have Resources Been Allocated Appropriately to Research Objectives?

Finding: Too few resources are devoted to sustaining and acquiring critical safety research capabilities. Continued emphasis on preserving existing research expertise and assets risks degradation of ARMD’s core safety research strengths and the prolonged neglect of competencies required to address new and emerging safety issues.

ARMD currently has nationally and internationally recognized research competencies in critical safety areas, such as icing research. While these existing nodes of expertise need to be recognized and their critical mass sustained, they risk being neglected as research funding is spread widely to preserve all of ARMD’s research capabilities, including those that are no longer unique to NASA or of high safety relevance. Yet, even as ARMD seeks to retain and strengthen its core safety research competencies, it must give sufficient attention to investing in the research expertise that will be needed to address new and emerging safety issues, including the capability to address safety issues extending beyond aircraft to the broader aviation environment. ARMD recognizes the importance of such forward-looking investments, as evidenced by its efforts to expand and strengthen its expertise in critical software verification and validation (V&V).

To acquire the needed expertise going forward, ARMD will need to make many difficult decisions about the allocation of resources among its existing facilities and program areas, requiring that some capabilities be eliminated and others substantially scaled back. By not having in place an objective and well-informed means of

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