5.1 The Role of NASA Headquarters in Science Management
Space Studies Board member Anthony A. England delivered the following testimony before the Subcommittee on Space of the U.S. House of Representatives on April 17, 1996.
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Minority Member, and members of the committee: thank you for again inviting the Space Studies Board here to testify this morning. Board Chair Claude Canizares was not able to be here today, and has asked me to come and speak to you on behalf of the Board. My name is Anthony England, and I am a professor of electrical engineering and Earth and space science at the University of Michigan. My research field is Earth science, specifically in remote sensing of land and land cover, and I flew as a Mission Specialist on STS-51F in August 1985. More recently, I was Co-Chair of the technology panel of the National Research Council committee that authored the report Managing the Space Sciences.
As you know, the Space Studies Board has been the principal independent advisor to the civil space research program since NASA was created by statute in 1958. The Board’s primary advisory focus has been strategic guidance for NASA’s many and diverse science programs. During the past year, the Board has also considered and commented in several management areas intimately related to space science. The Board recognizes the downsizing pressures that NASA faces as a result of the National Performance Review and the agency’s budget projections for future years. Administrator Daniel Goldin has previously pledged to carry out this downsizing without terminating deserving programs, to the maximum extent possible. The Board endorses this principle, which seeks to preserve the investment, in some cases very substantial, already made in high priority flight programs. One consequence of the adopted approach, however, is a dramatic reduction in the Headquarters complement that has had oversight responsibility for NASA programs. The motivation for forming a number of new science institutes at selected NASA centers is represented as a concern for quality, not cost savings; but it is clear that any actions to preserve or improve program quality must be taken in an environment of increasing budgetary pressure so that the two considerations will be closely coupled.
The Board’s recent suggestions and recommendations regarding science management are contained in letter reports from the Board to Chief Scientist France Cordova on March 29 and August 11, and in the Board’s full-length report, Managing the Space Sciences. The latter report was developed by a special task group chaired by Dr. John Armstrong, formerly of IBM, in response to requests by the Senate Subcommittee on VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies and by Administrator Goldin. In my testimony, I would like to review some of the key recommendations of the Board that relate to the Zero Base Review, and highlight some concerns identified by the Board and its committees as NASA’s restructuring proceeds.
The March 29, 1995, letter to Dr. Cordova analyzes the role of NASA’s field centers and of the scientists at these field centers in the broader context of U.S. space research today. The principal findings of the Board were that:
The primary mission of NASA center science should be to tightly bind NASA’s immense technical capabilities to the diverse and still larger industrial and academic research community around the country.
To carry out this binding function, NASA science and scientists must be excellent in quality and sufficiently broad and deep. NASA science must also be firmly integrated into the agency’s infrastructure, and it should foster interdependency among centers. Although a certain amount of competition is healthy for maintenance of quality, NASA Headquarters has an important oversight role in managing this competition between centers.
When the Board met last June, Dr. Cordova presented some early thinking about the proposed new science institutes and requested that the Board comment on it. In a letter dated August 11, 1995, the Board cautiously supported the preliminary planning, phrasing its guidance in terms of the previous letter on center science and scientists. Promising to speak more comprehensively in its imminent report, Managing the Space Sciences, the Board suggested in the August letter that:
Institute planning should be part of a larger science plan that considers how national space goals will be attained by the sum of all NASA science activities.
Planning should be openly developed and consistently implemented to prevent uncertainty and turmoil from degrading scientific excellence.
According to the earlier letter, center scientists were to play the major role in binding outside science and scientists to NASA’s technical capabilities and facilities; but the ability of external scientists who might be viewed as “contractors” to accomplish this role might be impaired.
An important role of center scientists is to diminish center insularity; it was not clear to the Board how external institutes would do this effectively.
Managing the Space Sciences, which originated in FY1994 Senate appropriations report language, was completed by the Board and delivered and briefed to Administrator Goldin on September 26, 1995. In all, the report offers 31 recommendations in the areas of science management organization, science selection and prioritization, and technology planning and integration. At its February 1996 meeting, the Board was provided a set of formal responses from NASA’s executive management team. Some of the report’s recommendations that bear most directly on the Zero Base Review and the management changes now under way at NASA can be summarized (with agency responses) as follows:
Program management” responsibilities should be split between those that must be retained at Headquarters and the remainder. The former should be assigned to the Strategic Enterprises at Headquarters, and the balance delegated to the field centers. NASA found this recommendation consistent with the results of its own Headquarters Workforce Review and has initiated implementation. Related to this were Board recommendations for strengthening the role of the project scientist and maximizing project responsibility of executing agents. NASA concurred with this finding as well.
An “industrial funding model” should be adopted for field centers whereby all costs for a given project or program would be identified and managed, including civil service salaries. The Board thought that this would facilitate rational budget and program planning. NASA noted that it had already made a decision to proceed with full-cost accounting for the centers.
The Board gave a limited endorsement to the science institutes concept, noting that creation of individual institutes should be tailored to specific scientific and facility needs. The Board’s report also cautioned that NASA should give advance consideration to the funding evolution of institutes, including transition to a competitive status and mechanisms for shrinking or termination of those that did not compete successfully. NASA agreed to address these concerns as its planning for the institutes evolved.
The report listed a number of cases where research should be conducted in-house at NASA centers, for example to attract staff of the necessary quality, maintain competence needed for program management, or to
maintain and operate unique national facilities. Otherwise, the report recommends that research be conducted out-of-house. NASA concurred.
A major concern of the Board’s report was science selection, how it should be accomplished, and how to ensure equity and the highest quality. The report strongly states that peer review should be continued,1 and that Headquarters should retain control of the process. The report’s recommendations on NASA technology management, developed with participation by the NRC’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, likewise urged the use of peer review managed from Headquarters. A key concern expressed in the report is that “The process should be structured such that proposals from either outside or inside the agency are not placed at a real or apparent disadvantage.” NASA agreed with the endorsement of peer review, and noted that the institution of full-cost accounting should ensure a level playing field.
The above illustrates a broad consistency between the Board’s findings and current thinking at NASA as expressed in agency responses to Managing the Space Sciences.
Nonetheless, the distribution of program management responsibilities from Headquarters to the field centers does open the door to some new problems. On the one hand, the separation and integrity of objectives of different elements of NASA’s overall program that are maintained in the present Headquarters organization could be weakened. On the other hand, conflicts of interest could arise, especially at the institutes if they in turn inherit some of these program management responsibilities. Let me elaborate on these two possibilities.
On March 6, Administrator Goldin distributed a directive to Officials-in-Charge of Headquarters Offices and Directors of Field Installations entitled “Space Station Budget.” This directive, which concerns the powers and responsibilities of the Program Manager of the Space Station Program Office, provides that:
…The Program Manager is now responsible for the cost, schedule, and technical performance of the total program, including the science, aeronautics, and technology (SA&T) implementation. The research and user community will respond to the direction of the Program Manager to ensure utilization priorities and requirements are consistent with the overall Space Station objectives.
One implication of this directive could be the substitution of the Johnson Space Station Program Manager for the cognizant Headquarters science office management in planning and oversight of scientific research to be carried out on that platform. The Board has very clearly stated recommendations on this subject. In a letter to Administrator Goldin on February 25, 1994, the Board joined its Committees on Space Biology and Medicine and on Microgravity Research to lay out the hazards of structuring science management along flight hardware development lines. The Board and committees then made the following specific recommendations:
2. The Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications (OLMSA) should be responsible for defining life and microgravity sciences research to be performed aboard the space station. To ensure a broad and balanced research program, including theoretical and ground-based components, OLMSA should actively involve the microgravity and life sciences research communities.
3. Once it has defined the science program, OLMSA should manage and conduct open solicitation and peer-reviewed selection of all experiments to be flown, including those for both operational and fundamental science studies, in concert with its international collaborators.
This subject is currently of heightened concern to the life sciences research community.
The potential for conflicts of interests at the field center level is most easily seen in the context of the science institutes. Recently, NASA released the “Final Publication” of its NASA Science Institutes Plan. While generally consistent with Managing the Space Sciences, this exposition of agency planning for the science institutes has left some concerns about implementation. The Institutes Plan states that:
Each institute should have stable funding from NASA to support core service and research functions…. Institutes will be encouraged to compete for additional NASA funding (e.g., through grants and funding proposals submitted in response to research announcements, (page 9)
All work assigned to institutes should be the result of a competitive selection process. This competitive process may be part of the initial selection process or subsequent selections for scientific research grants or individual projects. In the case of scientific research, all selections should result from a process that conforms to standard policies including peer review as appropriate, (page 5)
In many cases, the science community will receive funding from NASA via the Institute based on a competitive peer review process…. Institutes will facilitate peer reviewed extramural research, and may also engage in peer reviewed intramural research. Enterprises may also delegate authority to Institutes to manage scientific research programs, (page 6)
Thus, only part of an institute’s funding will be provided as core funding and the balance must be sought competitively. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, because experience has shown that a brisk competition for resources maximizes research program quality. However, in a situation where an institute would depend to a significant extent on competitive funding in an area for which it exercised program management responsibilities, the possibility of a structural conflict of interest plainly exists. Note that a similar conflict of interest situation could arise in a NASA field center which, finding itself operating under full cost accounting, would be competing for research funding in areas for which it played a program management role delegated from Headquarters.
In its Executive Summary, Managing the Space Sciences states that:
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.
Having identified two areas where such unintended consequences may result, I would like to quote specifically two recommendations from this Board report that we believe would protect the agency from these unintended outcomes:
Peer review for scientific investigations should be continued. Control of the peer review process should remain with Headquarters, and adequate Headquarters staff should be retained for this purpose. The process should be structured such that proposals from either outside or inside the agency are not placed at a real or apparent disadvantage. (Recommendation 5–8)
Within NASA Headquarters, there must be a capable scientific staff to support management priority setting in order to help ensure compatibility of program and science priorities. These scientists must also interface with field center managers and external investigators to ensure science program integrity. (Recommendation 5–12)
The common element of these two important recommendations is the need to maintain and exercise sufficient scientific expertise at Headquarters. One key role for these science managers should be to impartially oversee selection of research investigators and investigations. In addition, NASA’s organizational structure should enable them to cooperate and negotiate with other senior agency officials from a position of parity. The scientific yield of NASA’s programs since the inception of the agency nearly 40 years ago is one of the jewels of 20th century civilization. In meeting the policy and budgetary imperatives of today, we should be careful to preserve for tomorrow our ability to extend this record of achievement into the future.
Thank you for your attention; I would be happy to try to answer any questions you might have.