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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program 6 Conclusions and Recommendations The committee’s assignment was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the approach used by NASA’s Applied Science Program (ASP) to promote the use of NASA data and research in decision-support systems (DSS) for the land, ocean, and atmosphere that yield benefits to society. As part of its assessment the committee examined ASP’s partnerships and community engagement, the processes used to extend research results to partners with decision-support functions, and the means to measure and ensure success in these partnerships and transfers. In its examination of ASP the committee found an energetic, structured, and enterprising program involved in complex and changing circumstances related to the emerging U.S. government commitment to realize societal benefits from Earth observing systems (for example, Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System, CENR/IWGEO ). The ASP, using the organizational system it adopted in 2001, has had some accomplishments and communicates strong commitment to NASA product transfer and decision support; but the program has several challenges to overcome, both within and outside NASA, before it can become more effective in its role. The committee views ASP as a key asset for fulfilling the national commitment to societal benefits. The systems engineering approach adopted in 2001 provides a framework in which to operate, but the program’s potential can be enhanced significantly through adoption of a number of steps. Some of these steps can be taken by ASP itself, but some depend additionally on cooperative actions taken by NASA more broadly, as well as by others whose policies determine missions and constraints for NASA. The committee outlines the main components of these suggested steps through the conclusions and recommendations that follow. The committee supports the key elements of the Decadal Study
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program (NRC, 2007a) regarding broader NASA approaches to DSS (as outlined in Chapter 1 of this report) but does not repeat those here. CONCLUSIONS CONCLUSION 1: 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 stability. Historical limitations have included variations in (1) emphasis on NASA’s responsibilities for Earth system programs versus space programs, and (2) NASA’s responsibilities for delivering benefits versus delivering data and models for others to use in the delivery of benefits. Mandated changes in these roles over time, in addition to perceived interpretations of these roles by NASA, have made ASP’s bridging role between NASA and the user community difficult to implement. The relatively long time periods required to deliver significant societal benefits through applications of NASA’s Earth observations and research depend on consistent interest and support from the top levels of the agency and integration with the wider range of NASA programs. Because of the long-term nature of NASA’s activities, NASA’s successful engagement in extending research to operations also requires policy continuity that is supported by Congress. CONCLUSION 2: 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. At no time in the history of efforts to relate space-based observations and Earth system models has so much U.S. government-wide emphasis been placed on assuring societal benefits from observing systems. Notable examples include the strategic plans for the Integrated Earth Observing System (IEOS) Program and the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) Program. Moreover, the Decadal Study (NRC, 2007a) specifically included a panel on applications and societal benefits, recognizing the importance of these issues in the coming decade. Much of this kind of emphasis has emerged in the last 10 years, creating a time when special opportunities exist for innovative thinking and program refinement.
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program CONCLUSION 3: 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 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. CONCLUSION 4: 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 more comprehensive than serving merely as a mechanism to move NASA products outward. ASP’s networks with partner agencies could 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. ASP exhibits and communicates a commitment to product transfer and decision support on behalf of NASA. The program displays a strong drive to provide information about research products and to relate those products to decision-support frameworks. This commitment, energy, and momentum offer significant potential for further impact. CONCLUSION 5: ASP has contributed to notable successes in encouraging and facilitating uses of NASA’s data and research for societal benefits. ASP’s contributions to successes in encouraging and facilitating uses of NASA’s data for societal benefits include (1) improved warning, monitoring, and recovery support from national disasters, such as hurricanes and floods; (2) more timely detection of tropical storms, resulting in much improved evacuation decisions; (3) improved wildfire detection; and (4) 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 interaction between NASA and external user communities through a formal program such as ASP. CONCLUSION 6: ASP’s interactions with federal agencies and other potential users of NASA data and research show wide variations in experiences.
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program Strengthening and improving NASA’s partnerships with users involves not only ASP action, but is also dependent upon organizational issues at the partnering agency and variations in the motivation of potential partners to use a formal collaboration with NASA to realize social benefits. A mature level of engagement in partnering with NASA is apparent on the part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and agencies in the Department of Defense which have committed personnel resources to ensure they receive NASA priority support through ASP. Other agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have generated programs that help focus NASA efforts to solve their problems. Yet others, such as the Department of Homeland Security, a young agency, have a more passive relationship in which they are presently only recipients of NASA data. Even in cases of mature partnerships such as NASA’s relationship with NOAA in the area weather research and prediction applications, much room for improvement still exists in the research-to-operations transition process. CONCLUSION 7: 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 users of NASA products include not only federal agencies but also a broad community of 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. While there are examples of successful development and employment of DSSs by nonfederal entities, the general ad hoc nature of the relationship between ASP and potential nonfederal users of DSSs suggests that maximum benefit is not being obtained. CONCLUSION 8: The full potential of societal 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.
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program Comprehensive assessments of benefits to society derived from NASA products do not include direct feedback from all the 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. Examination of the research-to-operations transitions between NASA and users indicated no direct link with the nonfederal research community, and no active, established feedback mechanism from the user community to NASA. Such a mechanism is needed from the initial stages of mission planning to ensure that requirements are considered. A feedback mechanism needs to be sustained, even as sensors and models move to operations, to ensure science-based support, data quality, and a path for developing new and creative management solutions. Structures do not exist for user needs and priorities to be considered in NASA program agenda setting and design, nor for users to convey their data needs to NASA on a routine basis. RECOMMENDATIONS Based upon the foregoing conclusions, the committee makes the following set of 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. This recommendation derives from Conclusions 1, 2, and 3. Chapter 5 of the Decadal Study (NRC, 2007a) addresses improving the process by which research and applications interact, to the benefit of society. To foster the effective extension of data and research to applica-
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program tions for societal benefits, the chapter outlines the following requirements: -understanding of the research to applications chain, including societal information needs, conducting research on the uses of information, generating relevant scientific observations with value and benefits recognized in advance, transforming the observations into useful information, and distributing the information in a form that is accessible and meets private and public requirements; -cultivating broad institutional and organizational capacity amongst potential applications users in public, private, and not-for-profit sectors; -creating an informed citizenry through education about the application of Earth science data and research to societal benefits; -defining the research and application goals of a potential measurement, the degree to which existing or proposed measurements support those goals, and developing an optimal implementation strategy; -developing strong links between the measurements themselves and those who will use the measurements through the entire lifecycle of a mission. Because the issue of ensuring that NASA’s data and research achieve societal benefits falls under ASP’s purview, our committee recommends that implementation of the proposed requirements in Chapter 5 of the Decadal Study (NRC, 2007a) should be assigned to ASP. This assignment would give ASP direct involvement and voice in affecting better and more effective communications with its NASA colleagues, and with the external community of active and potential partners. As part of the recommendation, NASA should engage both ASP and the user community in the mission planning and selection process. 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. This recommendation derives from Conclusions 1, 4, and 8 above. Many previous NRC studies have identified issues that have prevented greater success in ensuring effective transitions from NASA research to external partner operations. This committee found some of the same issues affecting the success of these transitions in its examination of ASP. ASP’s role is to ensure effective transitions of NASA products to operations and applications that result in societal benefits. As such, ASP is positioned to make an impact on making these transitions effective and should be granted the main role in establishing and formalizing plans and structures to affect these transitions between NASA and the range of users of NASA products. The plans and structures for these
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program transitions should be appropriate and applicable both to federal partnerships and to partnerships with members of the broader user community, as determined by input from these groups. In order to make these plans effective across agencies, Congressional support is needed. 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. This recommendation derives from Conclusions 3, 4, 6, and 7. Whether the main partner to extend research to operations is a federal agency or a nonfederal entity, ASP will be more effective if it understands and responds to user needs and perspectives through an established feedback loop. Input from the broad community of users is also necessary to aid ASP in developing plans that ensure users can communicate and partner effectively with NASA. To avoid a unidirectional transfer of NASA products outward to partners for the purpose of achieving societal benefits, ASP should document: 1) whether all the elements in the chain leading from inputs to societal benefits exist, 2) whether the elements are adequately connected, 3) how various organizations at the federal, state, and local levels fit into the chain, and 4) how the flow of communication and information would be managed. In direct communication with the broad spectrum of users, ASP should identify the outcomes and impacts to be realized from application of NASA products so that activities and resources can be targeted accordingly—a formal feedback loop will enhance ASP’s ability to communicate effectively. 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. This recommendation derives from Conclusions 6, 7, and 8. Engaging the broader community of users in direct dialogue will help ASP to define user needs, communicate these needs to NASA, and assist in defining appropriate metrics to assess the success of eventual partnerships with these users. NASA’s prioritization of intended societal
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Assessment of the NASA Applied Sciences Program benefits from its products would aid ASP in targeting its limited resources to reach the most appropriate user communities. RECOMMENDATION 5: To ensure 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 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. This recommendation derives from Conclusions 5 through 8. ASP’s emphasis on developing federal partnerships for NASA, in effect since 2001 when ASP was established in its current structure, should be expanded to include partnership development with the many potential nonfederal users of NASA products. While similar conceptually to the broad user base with which NASA Applications programs communicated prior to 2001, this committee recommends in these new engagement efforts that ASP expand and build upon its current structured approach, as outlined in the 5 points above, to ensure that users generate effective and innovative applications of NASA data to achieve societal benefits.
Representative terms from entire chapter: