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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis Executive Summary Effective science, clearly a mandate for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), involves asking significant questions about the physical and biological world and seeking definitive answers. Its product is new knowledge that has value to the nation. NASA's flight projects are highly visible and usually the most costly elements of this process, but they are only a part of the science enterprise. Flight projects are founded on research that defines clear scientific goals and questions, designs missions to address those questions, and develops the required technologies to accomplish the missions. This research is funded primarily by NASA's research and analysis (R&A) programs. Data from flight projects are transformed into knowledge through analysis and synthesis—research that is funded both by R&A and by the data analysis (DA) portion of mission operations and data analysis (MO&DA) programs. R&A and DA programs are the subject of this report and are grouped for convenience under the heading of research and data analysis (R&DA).1 Although there has been relatively widespread agreement about the importance of R&DA within the scientific community, senior agency managers and key decision makers outside NASA often have found the roles filled by these programs difficult to articulate and to prioritize. The diversity and ''softness" of R&DA activities compared to the sharp outlines of specific spaceflight missions have made R&DA particularly vulnerable during times of constrained resources and changing institutional structure and strategy. With the emergence of NASA's emphasis on streamlining missions, accelerating development cycles, accentuating innovation, and reducing costs—the "smaller, faster, cheaper" approach—the roles of R&DA in framing scientific issues, developing the necessary new technologies for future missions, and mining the data from extant missions to produce new scientific knowledge have become even more critical. In 1996 the Space Studies Board (SSB) formed the multidisciplinary Task Group on Research and Analysis Programs to study R&DA programs and trends in light of new agency approaches to space 1 The task group originally coined the composite term "R&DA" to designate research and data analyses that were funded outside of spaceflight projects. Because NASA budgets do not separate cleanly this way, R&DA became a catch-all surrogate for all science-related activities that were funded outside of spaceflight projects. More specific alternatives to "R&DA" were defined for the discussion of budget trends in Chapter 4. See also section 3.2 in Chapter 3.
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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis research. In creating the task group, special attention was given to involving a mix of scientists with long-standing familiarity with NASA science programs and "newcomers" who could bring a fresh perspective to the SSB's analyses. Efforts were also made to seek wide input from the research community via consultations with the SSB's discipline-specific standing committees, invitations for comments from members of key professional societies, and solicitation of comments to the task group on the Internet. The task group also engaged a consultant with expertise in the budgeting process to assist in compiling historical data on NASA science budgets for use in studying trends in resource allocations. The statement of task for the study identified a number of areas that would be appropriate topics for review. These included evolution of the character of R&DA projects; evolution of the relative roles of universities and NASA centers in R&DA programs; the relationship between R&DA, advanced technology development, and MO&DA programs; characteristics of R&DA projects judged to be successful in supporting a smaller, faster, cheaper approach to flight missions; assessment of the expectations for R&DA in different NASA science offices; management issues for R&DA; and options for strengthening the program in the current NASA environment. These areas provided general guideposts at the beginning of the study; specific topics emerged during the review to become focal points for attention. SCOPE AND CONTENT OF REPORT Chapter 1 of this report provides an introduction to the role and character of projects included in R&DA and summarizes the motivation for the study. Chapter 2 focuses on questions of the actual breadth and depth of impact of R&DA programs. In reviewing the history of research conducted under R&DA in NASA's three science offices—space science, Earth science, and life and microgravity science—the task group developed a sampler of specific accomplishments that illustrate the return on investments in R&DA. These examples highlight seven different kinds of contributions, namely: Discoveries that influence societal and economic issues and policies; Breakthroughs that change scientific understanding; Technologies that enable new observations; Information that improves mission design; Investments that increase the productivity of flight projects; Research that complements the work of other federal agencies; and Science-driven adventure that stimulates interest in math, science, or engineering education. Although the treatment of R&DA in different NASA offices often has been fragmented and nonuniform, the task group adopted (Chapter 3) a set of seven elements that form a suitable organizing framework: Theoretical investigations; New instrument development; Exploratory or supporting ground-based and suborbital research; Interpretation of data from individual or multiple space missions; Management of data; Support of U.S. investigators who participate in international missions; and Education, outreach, and public information.
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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis A fundamental premise of this study is that these seven activities are integral elements of an effective research program strategy; thus, they must be explicitly linked to the strategic plan of the science organization. The task group's analysis of NASA budget data (Chapter 4) focuses on four areas: Overall funding trends for R&DA from FY 1991 to 1998; Distribution of funding for basic research among NASA laboratories, private industry, academia, and other organizations from FY 1991 to 1997; Distribution of funding to universities by type of activity (e.g., research, development, operations, training) from FY 1986 to 1995; and Number and size of research awards to universities from FY 1986 to 1995. These data illuminate a number of issues regarding the balance between funding for R&DA and for flight programs and the balance between different kinds of activities within NASA's R&DA portfolio. Chapter 5 summarizes a number of concerns and perceptions about R&DA support as viewed, often anecdotally, in the research community and notes where the task group's budget trend analysis can illuminate the concerns quantitatively. In Chapter 6, the task group's conclusions are framed in terms of a set of strategic principles, an overarching finding that emerges from the study, and a set of six recommendations to NASA regarding the management of R&DA programs in the three science offices. These six recommendations cover the following areas: Principles for strategic planning, Innovation and infrastructure, Management of the R&DA programs, Participation in the R&DA programs, Creation of intellectual capital, and Accounting as a management tool in the R&DA programs. FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Principles For Strategic Planning Finding: The task group finds that R&DA is not always thoroughly and explicitly integrated into the NASA enterprise strategic plans and that not all decisions about the direction of R&DA are made with a view toward achieving the goals of the strategies. The task group examined the trend and balance of R&DA budgets and found alarming results (Chapter 4, Sections 4.1 and 4.3); it questions whether these results are what NASA intends. Recommendation 1: The task group recommends that each science program office at NASA do the following: Regularly evaluate the impact of R&DA on progress toward the goals of the strategic plans. Link NASA research announcements (NRAs) to addressing key scientific questions that can be related to the goals of these strategic plans. Regularly evaluate the balance between the funding allocations for flight programs and the
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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis R&DA required to support those programs (e.g., assess whether the current program can support R&DA for the International Space Station). Regularly evaluate the balance among various subelements of the R&DA program (e.g., theoretical investigations; new instrument development; exploratory or supporting ground-based and suborbital research; interpretation of data from individual or multiple space missions; management of data; support of U.S. investigators who participate in international missions; and education, outreach, and public information). Use broadly based, independent scientific peer review panels to define suitable metrics and review the agency's internal evaluations of balance.2 Examine ways to maximize familiarity with contemporary advances and directions in science and technology in the process of managing R&DA, for example, via the appropriate use of rotators.3 Innovation And Infrastructure Finding: Although there are sporadic funding opportunities for research infrastructure, there is no systematic assessment of the state of the research infrastructure, nor are there coherent programs to address weaknesses in the infrastructure base (Section 5.2). Recommendation 2: The task group recommends that NASA take the following actions on research infrastructure: Conduct an initial assessment of the need and potential for acquiring and sustaining infrastructure in universities and field centers. Determine options for minimizing duplication of expensive research facilities. Evaluate the level of support for infrastructure in the context of the overall direction and plans for R&DA activities. Maximize the use of infrastructure by supporting partnering between universities and field centers. Explore approaches for providing peer review and oversight of infrastructure investments, which should include regular evaluation of a facility's role and contribution as a national academic resource, its degree of scientific and technical excellence, and its contribution to NASA's long-term technology planning and development. Institute periodic assessment of the research infrastructure in university and NASA field centers to ensure that the infrastructure is appropriate for current programs. 2 National Research Council (NRC), Space Studies Board, "On NASA Field Center Science and Scientists," letter to NASA Chief Scientist France Cordova, March 29, 1995; NRC, Space Studies Board and the Committee on Space Biology and Medicine, "On Peer Review in NASA Life Sciences Programs," letter to Dr. Joan Vernikos, director of NASA's Life Sciences Division, July 26, 1995; NRC, Space Studies Board, "On the Establishment of Science Institutes," letter to NASA Chief Scientist France Cordova, August 11, 1995. 3 Federal agencies have used rotators—scientists from outside the federal government—for 1 to 2 years to participate in management of research programs. NASA has used interagency personnel appointments—visiting scientists administered by the Universities Space Research Association and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—as rotators to circulate new ideas and new individuals, on temporary appointments, into the agency system.
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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis Management Of The Research And Data Analysis Programs Finding: The median size of NASA research grants to universities decreased in constant FY 1995 dollars from $64,000 per year in FY 1986 to $59,000 in FY 1995 for the Office of Space Science disciplines, remained relatively flat at $79,000 for Earth science disciplines, and grew from $69,000 to $100,000 for life and microgravity science disciplines during the period from 1986 to 1995 (Section 4.4, Figure 4.3). (These award sizes compare to a median of $85,000 at the National Science Foundation and a mean of between $110,000 and $120,000 at the Environmental Protection Agency.) It is well known that a single researcher cannot support a salary and a graduate student at grant levels of $50,000 and that such researchers must seek additional grants to maintain a viable research program. Recommendation 3: NASA should routinely examine the size and number of grants awarded to individual investigators to ensure that grant sizes are adequate to achieve the proposed research and that their number is consistent with the time commitments of each investigator. The differences in award sizes for the Offices of Space Science, Earth Science, and Life and Microgravity Science and Applications should be reconciled with program objectives, especially those for space sciences, which often are funded at levels of less than $50,000 to $60,000. Where warranted, actions should be taken to address the deficiencies. Participation In The Research And Data Analysis Programs Finding: The task group recognizes that university-based instrument development projects led by principal investigators (PIs) can provide important training and versatility for graduate students in NASA-funded sciences. Often, innovative instrument prototypes can be developed at a fraction of the cost of facility instruments, and the analysis of instrument data and the preparation of high-quality scientific results are closely coupled with understanding of and experience in the design of scientific instrumentation. However, although the university arena frequently offers these opportunities, the task group also recognizes that some research facilities do not offer training advantages, that the economies of scale for some facility development projects are high, and that support of nonuniversity, multiuser facilities is sometimes necessary. Recommendation 4: NASA should preserve a mix of PI-university awards and nonuniversity funding for the development of technologies, instruments, and facilities. NASA should make these decisions within the agency's overall plan for R&DA activities (Recommendation 1), with sensitivity to the advantages of the academic environment but guided by peer review of scientific and technical merit. Creation Of Intellectual Capital Finding: NASA's principal graduate student fellowship programs are all tied to student research interests or concentrations. Recommendation 5: NASA should explore using training grants like those of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for first-year graduate students as a possible alternative to supporting these students as research assistants or NASA fellows. These training grants should be designed to ensure breadth in graduate education and thereby may expand students' opportunities for employment within or beyond NASA-funded sciences.
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Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis Accounting As A Management Tool In The Research And Data Analysis Programs Finding: NASA does not use the extended records of its budgets and expenditures as management tools to monitor the health of its R&A and DA programs. Moreover, the fragmented budget structure for R&DA makes it difficult for the scientific community to understand the content of the program and for NASA to explain the content to federal budget decision makers. Recommendation 6: NASA's science offices should establish a uniform procedure for tracking budgets and expenditures by the class of activities and the types of organizations (including intramural and extramural laboratories, industry, and nonprofit entities) that are actually performing the work. These data should be gathered and reported annually and used to inform regular evaluations of R&DA activities (Recommendations 1 and 2). One approach would be to itemize the following elements in the budget: theoretical investigations; new instrument development; exploratory or supporting ground-based and suborbital research; interpretation of data from individual or multiple space missions; management of data; support of U.S. investigators who participate in international missions; and education, outreach, and public information. In addition, these data should be made publicly available and reported annually to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress.
Representative terms from entire chapter: