Findings and Recommendations
The statement of task for this study asks the committee to assess the status of NASA’s laboratory capabilities and to determine whether they are equipped and maintained to support NASA’s research activities. At the core of this challenge is determining whether adequate funding has been available to support the acquisition and maintenance of laboratory equipment and the associated research activities and the upgrades for them. The committee has learned that over the past 5 years there has been a steady and significant decrease in the funding for all these aspects of fundamental research at NASA, including equipment, maintenance, and facility upgrades and support to the scientists conducting the research. This is evident from the funding trends shown in Chapter 3. The committee believes that the fundamental research community supported by NASA, both internally and externally, has been severely impacted by these budget reductions and that the ability to achieve future NASA goals is in serious jeopardy. This conclusion is based on extensive tours of fundamental research laboratories at six NASA centers, discussions with a few hundred scientists and engineers, both on the tours and in private sessions, and in-depth meetings with senior technology managers at each of the centers. The committee has attempted to understand the reasons for this degradation in capability and discovered several changes since the mid-1990s that had adversely impacted NASA’s funding for laboratory equipment and support services.
Organizational control of the NASA research and technology program changed a number of times in the past two decades, with the net result that the developmental investment that enables new missions and capabilities has been substantially reduced. Before 1992, the associate administrator in the Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST) was responsible for managing the aeronautics and space research and technology programs, including the R&T base investment, and also had institutional management responsibility for the Ames, Langley, and Lewis (now Glenn) Research Centers. (Note that at the time, the Dryden Flight Research Facility was part of the Ames Research Center.) The OAST programs provided a base of research and technology to support the needs of NASA and some of the broader aerospace technology needs of the nation. There was synergism between the aeronautics and space technology efforts because a number of researchers in the basic disciplines, such as materials, fluid dynamics, controls, and so forth, worked on both aeronautics and space technology development. While much of the OAST funding went to the research centers, the high-TRL development centers also depended on OAST for basic technology funding.
In 1992, the OAST space R&T budgets were moved out of OAST and separated organizationally from the aeronautics R&T budgets. Subsequently, a number of organizational constructs were used to manage the research and technology investment. Before 1996, NASA had managed much of its R&T investment separately from the main flight projects to protect the strategic technology funding from being reprogrammed to solve short-term project-oriented needs in the mission directorates. The principal purpose of such an organizational construct was to balance project-pull investments with technology-push that enables breakthrough innovations.
Eventually, the R&T budgets were moved into the NASA Headquarters mission directorates. Once management of the technology investment was moved to the mission directorates, there was a significant decline in the amount of funding used to support research activities, equipment purchases, and
laboratory facilities, all affecting primarily TRL 1-3 research. As indicated in Table 3.1 in Chapter 3, NASA’s basic research funding declined in then-year dollars by $0.5 billion from FY 2005 to FY 2009. During that same time frame, applied research declined by $0.9 billion. From a top-level technology management perspective, the result has been technology programs aligned with near-term mission needs, a lack of opportunity to explore new ideas with new equipment and capabilities, less breakthrough research, and less application of NASA-developed technology to the broader needs of the national aerospace community.
According to the NASA personnel with whom the committee met at the centers, these reductions in research budgets 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,
Researchers are expending inordinate amounts of time writing proposals for funding to maintain their laboratory capabilities, and
Efforts are diverted as researchers seek funding from outside NASA for work that may not be completely consistent with NASA’s goals.
The NASA aeronautics budget has also declined significantly in the past decade, as indicated by Table 3.3 in Chapter 3. The overarching mission of the ARMD is to advance U.S. technological leadership in aeronautics in partnership with industry, academia, and government agencies that conduct aeronautics-related research. To accomplish this mission requires not only having top-quality research programs but also having first-rate laboratories and facilities to support those programs. During the past 15 years, as seen in Figure 3.1 in Chapter 3, the aeronautics budget has decreased 72 percent, from 6 percent of the total NASA budget to 2.8 percent of that budget. It is clear that this large reduction in funding has led to laboratories that are only marginally providing the support required for NASA’s aeronautics research. Essentially no TRL 1-3 work is being done in developing test technology that would lead to new advanced test capabilities and the new laboratories and facilities required for NASA to be the technology leader in the broad area of aeronautics. Clearly, NASA is providing technology leadership in some areas in the NASA aeronautics research program, but even in these areas the resources are generally so limited that it is only through the dedication of the staff, who often work in unfavorable environments, that NASA continues this leadership.
Research and science center institutional responsibility at NASA Headquarters moved from OAST (Code R) and the Office of Space Sciences (Code S) to the NASA associate administrator (AA). Until 1992, the AA for OAST had responsibility for both the aeronautics and space technology programs, including the R&T base and the institutional responsibility for ARC, DFRC (once part of ARC), LaRC, and GRC. The OAST center directors reported to the AA for OAST. The AA for space sciences had institutional responsibility for GSFC and JPL, and those center directors reported to the AA for Code S. The Code R and Code S AAs were accountable both for their programs and for maintaining the institutional capabilities of their centers. This often made it easier to resolve issues associated with equipment and support and maintenance, minor facilities issues, and so forth, all of which affect center laboratory capabilities and early TRL research. Under that former structure, center directors used to have a great deal of authority working with AAs to address programmatic and institutional issues. Center management traditionally had the responsibility for creating an environment, which includes facilities, laboratories, and equipment, conducive to high-quality innovation and breakthroughs important to national security and scientific understanding. There are many examples of breakthroughs, such as winglets, supercritical wings, swept wings, the lunar rendezvous approach for the Apollo Moon landing, and communications satellite enhancements. Under the current structure, much of the former budgetary flexibility of the center directors to resolve institutional issues affecting laboratory capabilities has been
shifted to Headquarters. Although the current approach limits unnecessary duplication across the centers, center directors have become like base commanders, and their intellectual leadership has been eroded.
In response to congressional concerns about the cost of ISS development, NASA’s accounting and budgeting approach shifted from covering all NASA manpower in a single appropriation line to an approach whereby all costs, including manpower costs, had to be recovered by charges against either specific programs for which a budget existed or by overhead costs accrued. Under the earlier construct, center directors had significant discretion in assigning manpower to activities because that manpower was already paid for. After the change, employees had to be charged to a specific project or to overhead. If center management does not aggressively limit overhead charges, rates rise and the center cannot compete effectively for new projects. The old construct gave center management flexibility to allocate manpower to laboratories where they believed the highest payoffs could be achieved. The committee learned from its discussions at the centers that the change to full-cost budgeting and accounting has reduced the discretion and flexibility of center management in promoting research and technology innovation consistent with NASA’s charter. This impedes quick-start research investigations and the assignment of research support in the form of technicians, equipment, and the like, and it has increased the administrative burden. According to the NASA personnel with whom the committee met at the centers, this has been damaging to the laboratory capabilities of the research centers.
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. Capabilities that have taken years to develop can be destroyed in a short time if not supported with adequate resources and the authority to selectively hire new people to learn from those who built and nurtured the laboratories. It is flawed reasoning to believe those capabilities, once destroyed, can be reconstituted rapidly at will. The laboratory capabilities that are essential to the formulation and execution of NASA’s future missions must be properly resourced.
As also shown in Chapter 3, the funding for basic and applied research programs was simultaneously decreasing as the main programs began supporting a greater number of nearer-term development projects. Many centers either abandoned or significantly reduced their IRAD programs, which funded basic research when CM&O budgets became inadequate. In 2007 a major decision to support the Constellation program within a flat top-line NASA budget further reduced the funding available for fundamental research.
The impact on basic researchers when the focus shifted from basic science to carrying out missions and when research funding decreased has been severe. Further, in the era of full-cost management, it has become extremely difficult for researchers to obtain sufficient funding support for themselves, their modest staffs, or the equipment and the supplies that they need to conduct their research. Researchers have sought funding from sources beyond the center CM&O and the NASA Headquarters program funding offices. NASA Headquarters provided some relief in the form of modest competitive research opportunities such as ROSES. However, the demand is far greater than the available funding, and even excellent proposals are discouragingly short of funds, leading to a loss of institutional confidence. Even when successful, the typical funding available from these programs is only a fraction of what is required. The sources from which NASA researchers can seek competitive funding are also limited. For example, the NSF does not fund proposals by NASA scientists. Also, conducting research for other agencies with different goals can be inefficient and can dilute NASA objectives. Most senior researchers told the committee that to support their research groups, they have been forced to create and submit as many as 15 proposals per year and dedicate between 30 percent and 50 percent of their time to proposal writing. This is a highly inefficient application of a senior researcher’s time. At NASA, senior researchers are highly trained, internationally recognized Ph.D.-level scientists. They do not object to submitting competitive proposals, but they should be spending most of their time on innovative research for future NASA goals.
The scarcity of institutional research funding has also adversely impacted the equipping of research laboratories, the focus of this assessment. The extremely limited or nonexistent IRAD program
funding has forced most researchers to seek the funding that they need for small laboratory equipment from the large NASA program offices. Such funds are granted in modest amounts and only for near-term program needs. Major laboratory equipment, such as modern analytical instruments costing several hundred thousand dollars, is rarely being procured. This situation threatens the state-of-the-art capability that is expected of our national research laboratories. Support from technicians at NASA has all but vanished owing to the shortage of funding. Senior scientists must often perform work normally performed by technicians, and that is a highly inefficient use of talent.
That fundamental research at NASA is in a troubled state is further evidenced by the fact that at some centers, according to what the committee was told, highly educated and experienced researchers are beginning to leave for academia and high-tech companies. They say that this is because they can better pursue the research for which they were educated and trained, including the ability to acquire the equipment needed in their research. In addition, experienced researchers at some centers are not able to hire their successors because of hiring freezes or lack of funds. Another troubling indicator is the drastic reduction in the number of postdoctoral research opportunities at NASA due to funding limitations. For the same reason, NASA is not participating adequately in important new activities, such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
In its Strategic Plan for the Years 2007-2016, NASA states that it cannot accomplish its mission and vision without a healthy and stable research program. Owing partly to the inadequate funding of facilities, equipment, and support staff and partly to the organizational changes discussed above, the fundamental research community at NASA is neither healthy nor stable, jeopardizing NASA’s vision and missions for the future. The innovation and advanced technologies required to explore the outer planets, search for intelligent life, understand the beginnings of the universe, and advance aeronautics have been severely restricted by the short-term perspective. Despite all these challenges, the committee saw that most NASA researchers remain dedicated to their work and focused on NASA’s future.
The statement of task says that NASA’s laboratories are a critical component of its research capability, and it directs the committee to determine whether these laboratories are equipped and maintained to support NASA’s research activities. The total funding expended by NASA on R&D facilities and equipment has been reported as flat over the 2005-2009 period (Table 3.2 in Chapter 3), but the committee learned through several visits to the centers that spending over the past 5 years has emphasized equipment needs for operations and missions and not research laboratory needs. In extensive interviews with laboratory scientists at all of the research centers, the committee learned that capital-equipment budgets for procuring sophisticated laboratory equipment for fundamental research were extremely limited. Researchers must provide the necessary funding from their modest research grants or must petition mission programs for funding, but only if the request can be linked to supporting short-term mission goals. Researchers must also procure out of their modest grants small laboratory equipment and the supplies necessary to support their research, such as liquid nitrogen, gases, and parts.
Sophisticated and more expensive research equipment to achieve state-of-the-art capability is not being procured, with researchers doing their best to maintain older instruments. Repair and maintenance contracts for expensive equipment are almost nonexistent. In some cases, when an expensive instrument fails it must be left unusable and the research suffers.
NASA has an upper limit on the number of civil service staff at each center. As that staff limit decreases, the approach at many centers has been to maintain the professional staffing as high a number as possible and to reduce the number of civil service technicians. This increases contract technician staffing, which of course necessitates reallocating program money for those contractors. The centers need to ensure that the expertise exists to be smart buyers and managers of the contractor technician workforce and that continuity of knowledge exists when these contracts are changed. Currently, technical support to help maintain laboratory equipment in good working order is extremely limited.
Typically, maintenance of the laboratories and facilities was inadequate. The tendency was to operate the equipment to failure, making repairs if and when funds were available, or to operate the laboratory/facility less frequently. The large laboratories and facilities appear to be in the poorest state of
repair. It is not clear to the committee how the DM and cost of replacement numbers influence maintenance policy, if at all.
Because more than 80 percent of NASA facilities are more than 40 years old, they need significant maintenance to preserve safety and the continuity of operations for critical missions. Some 20 percent of all NASA facilities are dedicated to R&D activities. NASA categorizes the overall condition of its facilities, including the research centers, as fairly good, but DM over the past 5 years has grown substantially. NASA is currently spending about 1.5 percent of the CRV of its facilities on annual maintenance and repairs, whereas the accepted industry guideline is between 2 and 4 percent of CRV. DM has grown from $1.77 billion to $2.46 billion from 2004 to 2009, which leaves a staggering repair and maintenance bill for the future.
The NASA centers are largely responsible for funding the maintenance of their facilities out of the CM&O budgets provided by NASA Headquarters. Major repairs in excess of $1 million are funded by NASA Headquarters, but many projects remain unfunded from year to year. The CM&O budgets are inadequate to fund required maintenance or to do what is necessary to prevent catastrophic failures. As a result, many repair and maintenance jobs that have been categorized by NASA Headquarters as very high in both the consequence-of-failure metric and the probability-of-failure metric remain unfunded every year. There are serious facility problems waiting to happen, with potentially major adverse impact on missions and fundamental research operations.
ATP and SCAP facilities do have a maintenance funding line provided by NASA Headquarters. These facilities are ones that NASA has deemed nationally important because they are used by several NASA mission directorates as well as by other government agencies and U.S. industry. They are used minimally for fundamental research and primarily to support the testing needs of development programs. However, the maintenance funding provided by NASA Headquarters for these high-CRV facilities is far less than the recommended value of 2 to 4 percent of their CRV.
In the committee visits, researchers did not complain much about maintenance and repair issues but seemed to concentrate on making the best use of older facilities with very limited upgrades. In general, the committee categorizes the facilities not as state of the art but merely as marginally adequate to conduct the research. It believes, however, that the facilities are not attractive to prospective hires if compared with other national and international laboratories. A notable exception to this assessment is the new science building commissioned at GSFC.
The statement of task asks the committee to compare NASA’s laboratory equipment and facilities to laboratories elsewhere. This comparison with non-NASA facilities, which is reported in the remainder of this chapter, is based on the expertise of the committee members, who have personal experience with the facilities of the DOE, DOD, several large U.S. universities, and major corporations including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and the Aerospace Corporation. The committee chose to develop an overall impression of all of the facilities and equipment viewed in the course of the site visits and then to compare this impression with the equipment and facilities at non-NASA analogues. The committee chose not to make one-to-one comparisons between NASA and non-NASA equipment and facilities or detailed comparisons between the equipment and facilities at various NASA centers.
DOE has established a Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program,1 which was mandated by Congress and had the following objectives:
Maintain the scientific and technical vitality of the laboratories,
Enhance the laboratories’ ability to address future DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration needs,
Foster creativity and stimulate exploration of forefront science and technology,
Serve as a proving ground for new concepts in research and development, and
Support high-risk, potentially high-value research and development.
LDRD projects in basic research are limited to 36 months and typically are funded at between 2 and 6 percent but no more than 8 percent of a laboratory’s annual operating and capital equipment budgets, including non-DOE-funded work. The laboratory equipment or facility modifications for an LDRD project are typically included in the request for funding, if it is not a capital-like expense. LDRD projects also include funding to cover the salaries of researchers, technicians, and other support services. Research staff and management have the discretion to use their research project funds to satisfy small-equipment needs. Equipment exceeding a certain cost level must be approved and procured from separate capital-equipment funding. The committee did not witness any equivalent program at the NASA laboratories which it visited that ensures funding for basic research, including such salaries and general-purpose equipment, and could on that basis alone say that NASA’s basic research laboratories are of lower quality than comparable DOE laboratories.
As at NASA, the DOE facilities are old, many having been used for 50 years or more. Because DOE facilities support the testing and qualification of the nuclear weapons program, they are for the most part kept in very good shape. However, little-used facilities have been decommissioned when the costs of maintenance or refurbishment have been prohibitive. The funding typically includes the refurbishment of facilities, the maintenance of support staff, and the (potential) replacement of high-value equipment. Research facilities benefit directly only if they support a broad range of TRL work. All facilities must conform to environmental, safety, and health regulations.
DOE laboratories are not as constrained as their NASA brethren in seeking external funding. They solicit a fair amount of reimbursable work, also known as Work for Others. Funding for such work bridges gaps when DOE laboratory staff and facilities are not fully supported.
Although funding streams for DOD facilities, laboratories, and equipment are completely different from those for NASA, a random sample of DOD facilities reveals many of the same problems and concerns that NASA has. While there are, of course, notable exceptions, analogous DOD facilities are generally adequate—although on occasion somewhat inadequate—to meet DOD’s long-term goals. Further, it was reported to the committee that some, or many, of DOD’s strategic capabilities and/or competencies have been completely lost, primarily due to a lack of funding. For many years budgets have simply been unable to maintain the facilities, laboratories, and equipment required to perform the work of the research community.
Most of the funding for low-TRL work performed within the DOD is initiated through the research laboratories of the various service branches such as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Naval Research Laboratory. Their funding is typically identified as 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 funding. The 6.1 funding is typically used for funding universities with some presence in the government laboratories. The 6.2 and 6.3 funding is used mainly to support research in industry (70 to 80 percent of AFRL funding goes to industry) with some support for government laboratory work (20 to 30 percent of AFRL funding staying in-house). This funding does cover salaries for the civil servants and any support contractors in the government laboratories. However, if funding is needed for equipment, it must be used at the expense of supporting salaries. The amount of this funding is determined at a high level and corresponds to the strategic, long-term research needs of the particular branch of the DOD. It is delivered to researchers through either programs that can be targeted to meet a specific need or that can be very broad, such as broad agency announcements. Some additional funding may be available by connecting a research need with a higher-TRL effort. This is in direct contrast to NASA’s mechanisms for funding low-TRL work such as ROSES, for which individual researchers generate proposals that fit within their own individually defined research areas and projects and also in some broader category of NASA’s needs. NASA’s researchers reported to the committee that they typically try to get two or three awards to support their own research agenda completely.
Like those at NASA, DOD facilities are typically old. And, as at NASA, the facilities could benefit enormously by getting some funding from programs. Unlike NASA’s treatment of repair and maintenance backlogs, DOD assigns a quality rating to each facility that reflects the cost of repair relative
to its value.2 Beyond this quality rating, DOD does not track the backlog of repair needs. A quality rating of Q1 indicates that the estimated cost of repair(s) is 10 percent or less of the asset’s value and that the asset is less than 25 years old. Q1 coincides with a condition index of 95. A quality rating of Q2 indicates that the estimated cost of repair(s) is between 11 and 20 percent of the asset’s value and that the asset is more than 25 years old. Q2 coincides with a condition index of 85. A quality rating of Q3, which coincides with a condition index of 70, indicates that the estimated cost of repair(s) is between 21 and 40 percent of the value and that the asset is considered substandard. An Office of Management and Budget report3 calls for DOD to reduce the share of facilities quality rated Q3 or Q4, over the long term. In 2007, for instance, the target was 9 percent and the actual share was 34 percent, and in 2008 the target was 7 percent with the share at 32.2 percent. In 2007 DOD reported that a rough order-of-magnitude estimate for its DM was $72.0 billion dollars. Care should be taken in using (consolidated) dollars reported for DOD to make direct comparisons to those for NASA, because DOD facilities include many types of facilities that do not exist at NASA—for example, family housing, barracks, hospitals, and others. In any case, members of the committee judged that the condition of NASA and DOD facilities ranged widely from adequate to inadequate.
Much of the basic research in the science and engineering of space studies relevant to NASA is now performed in the graduate departments of top-tier universities in the United States. These universities are leading the way in strong, multifaceted research programs involving faculty, graduate students, and adequate funding. NASA increasingly depends on academia to define the decadal scientific goals for its most important space science and aeronautics undertakings.
It is highly relevant to this study to compare the support provided to a new senior researcher at NASA and one at a top-tier university. (Support at a less-than-top-tier university will be significantly less.) An assistant professor at a top-tier university will receive a start-up package that covers 2 years of summer salary, coverage of 9 months’ salary for 2 years, funds for assistance from several graduate students for the first 2 years, travel to scientific meetings, and funds for special equipment. If a new faculty member needs a fully equipped laboratory, it is not unusual for the academic department and school to contribute between $600,000 and $1.5 million for refurbishment and outfitting with equipment. The committee did not witness such support for new, key-hire scientists at NASA. With the exception of a very few key-hire individuals, the typical, new-hire Ph.D.-level scientist or engineer at NASA receives only modest support and must almost immediately seek salary and equipment support for him- or herself and the group.
It is expected that faculty who have worked for 2 years in top-tier universities will find research contracts or grants to sustain their research programs. Sources of funds for students, summer salaries, postdocs, research scientists, and equipment will include NASA, NSF, DOE, DOD, private foundations, corporations, and endowment funds. NASA researchers are severely handicapped by practices that limit them to seek funding from NASA for their research, and those NASA sources are extremely limited.
Top faculty will often be attracted to a major university by the existence or promise of an outstanding technical facility for research. Stanford University’s Nanotechnology Fabrication Facility and the University of Michigan’s Lurie Nanofabrication Facility are two recent examples of extraordinary investments from private donors, the NSF, DOD, university funds, college funds, and research programs. Each cost well over $50 million to build and more than $20 million to equip. Such facilities are huge magnets for technical talent and surpass anything that the committee witnessed on its NASA visits. Similar programs for basic research are available to researchers at universities but not to NASA researchers. An example is the Defense Universities Research Instrumentation Program, which made more than 320 awards to university faculty in 2009. In 2010, more than 200 awards are expected, with a
General Accountability Office, “Federal Real Property: Government’s Fiscal Exposure from Repair and Maintenance Backlogs Is Unclear,” available at http://www.gao.gov/htext/d0910.html.
Office of Management and Budget, “Detailed Information on the Military,” available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/expectmore/detail/10003215.2006.html.
total value to the winners of $40 million. The committee did not witness any comparable program at NASA. NSF also has significant equipment grant programs for researchers in all disciplines, including disciplines that overlap those of NASA. NSF sponsors 8 to 10 new engineering research centers every year, awarding up to $20 million to university consortia and paying both salaries and instrumentation costs. NASA researchers cannot apply for such funding.
Clearly, NASA basic researchers are disadvantaged relative to their colleagues at top-tier academic institutions. Yet, they fulfill a very important role for NASA: they are the individuals who bring the advances, whether made at NASA or in the external technical community, into the view of NASA mission planners and managers. It is NASA researchers who help to translate decadal priorities into a rational program of NASA engineering, leading to the missions that underlie NASA’s large science undertakings. To be successful at this, NASA scientists and engineers must be aware of outside developments as they work on in-house projects that translate outside science and technologies into the interests of NASA and act as the technical eyes and ears of the agency. A successful example of how NASA has made this transition was pointed out in Chapter 4, which describes the new investments made by GRC in alternative fuels research.
Laboratories at large corporations that conduct research comparable to that of NASA fund their programs through independent/internal research and development (IRAD) as a part of their overhead structure. Current funding accounts for a few percent of the total revenue of the company but is significantly lower than it was a decade ago. IRAD programs provide the funding for scientists and technicians and for the small equipment necessary to conduct the research. To acquire large pieces of equipment, researchers must prioritize requests that have already been approved and purchased through a company-wide capital equipment program. Corporate research laboratories are not constrained by facility upgrade programs such as the CoF program at NASA. Companies include the cost of upgrading facilities in their operating overheads and can borrow monies, if necessary, to upgrade or replace outdated facilities. The pressure to control company overhead to remain competitive places a natural constraint on upgrading activities.
Many corporate laboratories expect researchers to supplement the internal funding of their work by winning awards from NASA, NSF, DOD, DOE, and other government agencies. Companies provide B&P funding for preparing these competitive proposals, but NASA staff often must prepare any competitive proposals on their own time. Similarly, the committee noted that several NASA centers either did not fund IRAD or B&P programs for research or funded them at a low level due to the lack of overall CM&O funding, so that researchers at those centers had to seek support for their research from NASA mission programs or from extremely limited external sources.
Almost all corporate laboratories are expected to be actively engaged with their product divisions, which are likely to fund such involvement. This involvement may take the form of technology transfer, problem solving, and advising on technical matters. It makes the researchers highly relevant to the company’s goals, while allowing them ample time for independent and contracted research. Such product support from a product division can often amount to 30 percent of a researcher’s total time. At the NASA centers that provide limited or no IRAD funding, researchers are often placed at the total discretion of the mission managers, and basic research suffers.
Some comparisons between corporate research laboratories and NASA are relevant to this study. If business conditions decline, corporate laboratories may need to cut back on research facilities, equipment, and scientific staff if the company is to survive, making layoffs necessary. The director of a corporate research laboratory must tailor the mix of scientific personnel, equipment, and facilities as business conditions evolve and must plan for the retirement of senior staff by hiring new, younger staff in time to ensure overlap and on-the-job training.
In contrast, the reduction of staff at NASA during flat or declining government budget times is not typically the result of political pressure. Instead, excess pressure is placed on limited CM&O budgets, and equipment budgets decline, facility upgrades decline, DM increases, and IRAD budgets are reduced or eliminated to offset the excess labor burden. Basically, the entire organization suffers as a result of inadequate funding. Currently the NASA administrator also does not have the authority to tailor the size
of the NASA workforce or the number of centers to the current needs. This limits the ability to address skill-mix issues as well as the replacements for senior researchers close to retirement. In other words, the staff, equipment, and facilities that NASA currently has to perform research in many cases are not necessarily the right ones for the future. NASA may wish to question whether it should have the capability to “right size” in order to perform its mission.
In summary, the committee believes that most corporate research laboratories are as well equipped and supported as (or even better than) many of the NASA research laboratories visited and may even be better equipped. They also have much greater flexibility to adapt to changing needs.
The committee believes that NASA could reverse the decrease in laboratory capabilities cited above by restoring a better balance between funding for long-term fundamental research and technology development and short-term, mission-focused applications. The situation would be significantly improved if fundamental long-term research and advanced technology development at NASA were managed and nurtured separately from short-term mission programs. Moreover, in light of the significant changes in direction, NASA may wish to consider reevaluating 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 currently not providing the laboratory equipment and support services necessary to address long-term research needs and is increasingly relying on a contractor-provided technician workforce to support the laboratories and facilities. If this practice continues and 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. Researchers in the smaller laboratories are forced to buy needed laboratory equipment from their modest research grants, and it is not unusual for researchers in the larger laboratories/facilities to operate facilities at reduced capabilities or not at all due to a lack of resources needed for repairs. Sophisticated and expensive research equipment needed to achieve and maintain 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.
SPECIFIC FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
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 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.