Summary

INTRODUCTION

Remote sensing data and models from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are the basis for a wide spectrum of scientific research endeavors and are key inputs to many public and private services. NASA has decades of experience in applying its Earth observation products to weather forecasting, aviation, climate observations and modeling, famine early warning, monitoring ocean current and surface conditions, agricultural planning, emergency planning and response, and natural hazard monitoring, among others, primarily through partnerships with other federal agencies, academia, or the private sector.

While many NASA programs conduct applied research using Earth observation data, the NASA Applied Sciences Program (ASP) and its precursors have, since the 1970s, been tasked with ensuring the extension of NASA Earth observation data and associated research into practical applications for society through external partnerships. With approximately five years having elapsed under the current ASP structure, and a growing government-wide emphasis on societal benefits in its Earth observing programs, NASA and the ASP leadership asked the National Research Council (NRC) to form an ad hoc committee to assess ASP’s approach in extending NASA research results to practical, societal applications.

In response to this request the NRC established the Committee on Extending Observations and Research Results to Practical Applications (Appendix A). This report is the committee’s response to that request. In particular, the committee was asked to examine: (1) strengths and weaknesses in NASA's approach to achieve its strategic objectives to realize economic and societal benefits from Earth science, information, and technology; (2) the extent to which the partner agencies and national organizations have found that their collaboration with NASA is helping them carry out their decision-support goals; (3) the extent to which ASP has been able to engage the broader community (for example, the private sector, academia, nongovernmental organizations) in developing



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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program Summary INTRODUCTION Remote sensing data and models from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are the basis for a wide spectrum of scientific research endeavors and are key inputs to many public and private services. NASA has decades of experience in applying its Earth observation products to weather forecasting, aviation, climate observations and modeling, famine early warning, monitoring ocean current and surface conditions, agricultural planning, emergency planning and response, and natural hazard monitoring, among others, primarily through partnerships with other federal agencies, academia, or the private sector. While many NASA programs conduct applied research using Earth observation data, the NASA Applied Sciences Program (ASP) and its precursors have, since the 1970s, been tasked with ensuring the extension of NASA Earth observation data and associated research into practical applications for society through external partnerships. With approximately five years having elapsed under the current ASP structure, and a growing government-wide emphasis on societal benefits in its Earth observing programs, NASA and the ASP leadership asked the National Research Council (NRC) to form an ad hoc committee to assess ASP’s approach in extending NASA research results to practical, societal applications. In response to this request the NRC established the Committee on Extending Observations and Research Results to Practical Applications (Appendix A). This report is the committee’s response to that request. In particular, the committee was asked to examine: (1) strengths and weaknesses in NASA's approach to achieve its strategic objectives to realize economic and societal benefits from Earth science, information, and technology; (2) the extent to which the partner agencies and national organizations have found that their collaboration with NASA is helping them carry out their decision-support goals; (3) the extent to which ASP has been able to engage the broader community (for example, the private sector, academia, nongovernmental organizations) in developing

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program improved decision-support tools; and (4) possible issues in ensuring that the extension of NASA’s research results into decision-support products maintains the scientific integrity of the data and models. As part of its assessment the committee examined ASP’s partnerships, community engagement, processes used to extend research results to partners with decision-support functions, and its means to measure and ensure success in these partnerships. OVERVIEW In its examination of ASP the committee found an energetic, structured, and enterprising program enmeshed in complex and changing circumstances related to the emerging federal government commitment to realize societal benefits from Earth observing systems. The systems engineering approach around which the program is organized is a framework for the program to coordinate a range of application areas and various research entities in NASA and across to partners; however, the committee identified several areas where the program could make significant steps to enhance its success in ensuring decision support for societal benefit through both federal and nonfederal partners (Box S.1). The committee recognizes that some of these steps can be enacted by ASP itself but that the success of the program and of the implementation of the recommendations in this report is also contingent on support and specific action from the broader NASA administration, coupled with consistent federal support. The committee also recognizes that addressing the broader NASA actions may require cultural and structural changes at higher levels within the agency, and has drawn these distinctions where appropriate to help ASP establish its role within NASA and toward the external community. The NRC Decadal Study on Earth science missions (NRC, 2007a) specifically included a panel on applications and societal benefits, recognizing the importance of these issues in the coming decade. Much of this emphasis on societal benefits has emerged in the last 10 years, creating a time for special opportunities for innovative thinking and program refinement with respect to Earth system applications. The committee recognizes the recommendations put forward by this other NRC report and encourages the ASP, with support from NASA, to help implement the recommendations especially in the programs oriented toward Earth-system applications.

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program Box S.1 Recommendations RECOMMENDATION 1: ASP should be assigned the responsibility within NASA to review and help establish the requirements and guidelines offered in Chapter 5 of the Decadal Study (NRC, 2007a) for effective extension of data and research to applications that meet societal needs. As part of this action, the committee recommends incorporating an ASP representative on NASA mission design and selection teams to aid ASP in increasing the use and impact of NASA products in the user community. RECOMMENDATION 2: ASP, in collaboration with other parts of NASA, should help to develop a formal plan and structure for effective transitions from research to operations with direct input from the entire range of users and with support from Congress. RECOMMENDATION 3: ASP should link NASA data and research to users and beneficiaries through communication in both directions, not simply in one direction that disseminates NASA products without user feedback. Communication between ASP and external users should be enhanced, as should ASP’s communications with other groups in NASA that conduct research on Earth-based observations. RECOMMENDATION 4: ASP should develop processes for sustained interactions with a broader base of users and beneficiaries of NASA observations. ASP should assess user benefits of applications of NASA observations, with public comment and user reviews, in order to evaluate levels of importance to society and to inform the development of outcome metrics. ASP should prioritize intended societal benefits from NASA products and focus efforts on high-priority benefits. RECOMMENDATION 5: To enhance the program’s success in facilitating effective partnerships between NASA and users of NASA products to generate societal benefits, ASP should directly engage with a broader community of users—not just federal agencies; add rigor with respect to performance metrics; evaluate the number and focus of its applications areas; improve the transparency and documentation of the process by which a partner agency engages the broader community, including clarification of the partner agency responsibilities in realizing the shared goal of benefits to society; and clarify and broaden its policies regarding productive relationships and collaborations with the private sector, including but not limited to remote sensing data products. THE PROGRAM’S APPROACH The systems engineering approach adopted by the ASP in 2001 provided an operational framework involving evaluation, verification and validation, and benchmarking to focus results from research activities and data collection in various parts of the NASA organization toward applications supported by other federal agencies. The ASP process was oriented

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program toward developing a tighter connection to social benefits with metrics and stronger input from federal users. The program moved away from previous direct partnerships with regional, local, tribal, state, and commercial members of the user community with a goal to clarify the practical benefits of NASA Earth science and reduce perceived and real duplication of effort with other federal agencies. This new approach welcomed nonfederal sectors as participants in discussions for project development, but not as NASA’s direct partners. With some exceptions nonfederal partners are supposed to be reached as a third party through the federal agency partnering with NASA. The ASP currently coordinates its efforts over 12 Applications of National Priority: Agricultural Efficiency; Air Quality; Aviation; Carbon Management; Coastal Management; Disaster Management; Ecological Forecasting; Energy Management; Homeland Security; Invasive Species; Public Health; and Water Management. Once a potential partner agency for use and implementation of NASA data and research is identified, ASP and the partner agency then determine baseline information requirements, assess the potential value and technical feasibility of assimilating NASA information into the decision-support system (DSS), and decide whether future collaboration is useful. If a project is initiated, the verification and validation phase of the systems engineering approach facilitates ASP and the partner agency measuring their performance against requirements and determining if the DSS can achieve the intended outcome. Lastly, the benchmarking phase tests and documents the value of incorporating data or models generated by NASA-sponsored Earth science programs into existing decision-making processes in other federal agencies. A clear emphasis of ASP’s approach is on demonstrating measurable outputs with clients. The importance of documentation in projects is underscored, and benchmarking is one facet of this documentation process. Metrics data collection through a system called the Metrics Planning and Reporting System (MPAR) is a formal, distinct facet of project documentation and is used by scientists who receive ASP funding. The committee found areas where both of these systems could be employed in more transparent and useful ways that could enable both NASA and its partners to measure and document the real successes of their partnerships that extend data and research into operations.

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program ASP’S ENGAGEMENT OF USERS Federal Partnerships The ASP has focused on developing partnerships with other federal agencies as the primary method to reach operational and resource management users of NASA products. This approach has generated a number of successes but improvements in establishing and supporting federal partnerships could be made. In the committee’s discussions and exchanges with numerous federal agency partners and potential partners, it found that the federal sector has broadly received attention and support from ASP, but that the lack of formal processes to establish requirements, coordinate activities, and extend NASA research to partner operations has affected the overall success of the partnerships in applying DSS for societal benefits. The experiences between NASA ASP and its federal partners have also been very varied. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and agencies in the Department of Defense, for example, have committed personnel resources to ensure they receive NASA priority support. Others, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have generated programs that help focus NASA efforts to solve their problems. Yet others such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a relatively “young” agency, have had a relatively passive relationship to date in which they are simply recipients of NASA data. NASA’s relationship with NOAA is the most mature with respect to weather research and prediction applications, but much room for improvement in extending research to operations still exists. Generally, the committee found that a systematic feedback mechanism from users to ASP and more broadly, to NASA program planners and decision makers, is lacking. Many federal partners expressed a need for high-resolution multispectral satellite data, for example, but find that neither NASA nor ASP has a formal mechanism to absorb this feedback. In general, federal users have a wide range of needs in terms of satellite data continuity, quality, format, and resolution. They adapt to data formats instituted by NASA, but have limited or no influence over data characteristics. The committee recognizes that some of the issues that hinder more effective partnerships can be addressed directly by ASP and NASA to improve the success of all federal partnerships, but that the different cultures, structural and administrative organization, and approach to applications varies between partner agencies across the federal government, and serves to contribute to the observed variation in the success of the partnerships. A cooperative approach to the partnerships that enhances bidirectional communication is thus of great importance.

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program Engagement of the Broader Community NASA’s decision to focus ASP primarily on federal agency partners for implementing practical applications of its products carried the expectation that these partners would engage the broader community and would assess the socioeconomic benefits of ASP products. However, the process by which partner agencies engage the broader community lacks transparency and documentation; quantitative metrics that connect the research-to-applications transition of NASA products are also lacking. The committee found that documentation of implementation processes and practices for applying NASA products to societal benefits are largely third-party evaluations, as opposed to evaluations that include input from the direct beneficiaries of the application of NASA products. Key documentation of DSS in the form of benchmark reports, while effective in providing guidance on the application of DSS, lacks critical input from the users of NASA data and models, especially from local governments and the private sector. However, the benchmark reports do provide a critically important database across many application areas for guiding future applications and the direction of the ASP. ASP’s pragmatic decision to focus on the decision-support needs of federal partners has isolated ASP from its ultimate user base and prevents efficient user feedback. ASP’s interests are spread over many application areas and will benefit from the ongoing re-examination of the number and scope of the application areas in order to maximize resource use with relation to national programs and priorities. KEY CONCLUSIONS In the NASA-wide context, ASP’s current role is limited to increasing the use of NASA products from existing missions, whereas ASP could be more effective if it fulfilled a holistic role in which it catalyzes user input from the earliest stages of mission planning. Until the perennial challenge of ensuring the transition of research sensors to operational status is properly addressed, ASP will continue to face an uphill struggle to convince potential users of the operational value of NASA products whose continuity is not guaranteed and whose specifications were not guided by the potential users. The committee reached the following conclusions from which the five recommendations outlined in Box S.1 derive: Applications of NASA’s data and research to societal benefits have historically been limited by questions about NASA’s mission and role, and have lacked sustained commitments and program

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program stability. The historical limitations have included, for example, variations in (1) emphasis on NASA’s responsibilities for Earth system programs versus space programs and (2) NASA’s responsibilities for directly delivering benefits versus delivering data and models for others to use in the delivery of benefits. NASA’s engagement in extending research to operations requires support from top agency officials who, in turn, need congressional support for their actions. The nature of NASA’s long-term planning and program implementation activities requires a degree of policy continuity to assure payoffs. The current U.S. government-wide emphasis on ensuring societal benefits from Earth observing systems is unprecedented, and presents a special opportunity for NASA to enhance its focus on achieving such benefits. The committee views ASP as a key asset for fulfilling the emerging national commitment to societal benefits. However, NASA does not involve ASP in the initial stages of mission planning in cases when societal benefits are anticipated. ASP’s current role is focused on increasing the use by other agencies of NASA products derived from Earth observing satellites already in orbit. Including ASP as a participant in the initial stages of mission planning and selection would enhance the program’s ability to perform its central role in advancing and improving NASA’s cooperation with users. Examination of the NASA research-to-operations transitions indicated minimal direct link with the nonfederal research community, and no active feedback mechanism. Such a mechanism is needed and should be sustained from the initial stages of mission planning onward to ensure that requirements are appropriately considered. ASP has an opportunity to contribute toward improving the structures that extend research to operations across the federal government. This potential role for ASP is far more comprehensive than serving merely as a mechanism to move NASA products outward. ASP’s networks with partner agencies enable it to serve as a conduit for information from partners about their operational needs and research programs, offering potential to improve the value and relevance of NASA’s research contributions to those operations. Support for ASP’s role in this process is provided by the fact that ASP has contributed to notable successes in encouraging and facilitating uses of NASA’s data and research for societal benefits. These successful projects include improved warning, monitoring, and recovery support from national disasters, more timely detection of tropical storms, improved wildfire detection, and improvements in El Niño forecasting for the planning and protection of crops. While these successes are not solely due to ASP’s actions—these examples of benefits from NASA programs had their genesis in the basic NASA Research and Analysis program— they do provide a reason to encourage continued and enhanced interac-

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program tion between NASA and external user communities through a formal program such as ASP. Despite contribution to these successes, ASP’s interactions with federal agencies and other potential users of NASA data and research show wide variations in experiences. Strengthening and improving NASA’s partnerships with users involves not only ASP action, but are also dependent upon organizational issues at the partnering agencies and variations in the motivation of potential partners to use a formal collaboration with NASA to realize social benefits. ASP currently does not engage the full range of potential users of NASA products to benefit society. Direct relationships with nonfederal users are notably missing from ASP’s portfolio and their absence limits ASP’s potential to be responsive to the full base of potential users of NASA products. The community of users is far broader than other federal agencies alone and encompasses state, tribal, and local governments, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and academic researchers. Because these users lie outside the federal system, the present lack of a formal structure that delineates the respective roles of NASA and its nonfederal partners leaves success of eventual partnerships largely to chance. Finally, the full potential of social benefits from NASA products will not be realized unless users are involved directly in determining priorities, designing products, and evaluating benefits. ASP also lacks a strong process to guide applications toward achieving societal benefits. ASP will be more effective in its bridging role between NASA and the users if it promotes two-way communication from the mission planning stages through to the incorporation of NASA products in DSS by external partners. Comprehensive assessments of benefits to society derived from NASA products do not include direct feedback from beneficiaries. Specific weaknesses in communications include: 1) documentation of implementation processes and practices that apply NASA products to achieve societal benefits consist largely of third-party evaluations without direct evaluations from the beneficiaries; 2) iterative, multidirectional communications about applications of NASA products also lack input from users and beneficiaries; and 3) current metrics for evaluating program performance do not meet needs for evaluating and assessing societal benefits of NASA products. The situation is not aided by the distribution of ASP’s work across a wide variety of application areas with relatively limited resources.

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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program CLOSING REMARKS ASP exhibits and communicates a strong commitment to NASA product transfer and decision support. The program displays a sound drive to provide information about research products and to relate those products to decision-support frameworks. The program’s commitment, energy, and momentum offer significant potential for further impact. Building on a solid number of successes in helping to apply NASA products to social needs, ASP has embarked on a path since 2001 that adds rigor to its process and aims to enhance the efficiency of its role. By addressing the committee’s recommendations on programmatic and broader contextual challenges, ASP can enhance its role in helping NASA to respond to the growing national and international demand for greater social benefit from national observation assets.

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