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Space Studies Board Annual Report 1995
4.5On the Establishment of Science Institutes
On August 11, 1995, the Space Studies Board sent the following letter to NASA Chief Scientist France Cordova.
The Space Studies Board is pleased to respond to your request of June 8, 1995, for comments on several issues related to NASA’s proposed concept of establishing science institutes as part of its Zero Base Review. You requested a rapid response with our initial comments in order to meet your schedule for further definition of the concept and the possible establishment of pilot institutes.
Your presentation to the Board during our meeting of June 8, together with some background material mailed earlier to all members, was the starting point for our deliberations on this topic. Our discussions continued on the following day with the Associate Administrators for Space Science and Mission to Planet Earth and the Deputy Associate Administrator for Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications. A subset of the Board, together with members of the Future of Space Science (FOSS) Steering Group, also had the opportunity to discuss the proposed institutes with the Administrator, Mr. Daniel Goldin.
Your written request asked for input on three points, which I summarize here: (1) the institute concept and the conditions under which institutes could meet the stated goals of “strengthening the quality of NASA’s science and expanding communication and cooperation with the external community (academia and industry)”; (2) the makeup of NASA’s proposed “Institute Framework Team” and additional issues it should consider; and (3) lessons learned by the community from its experience with other, existing research institutes.
Given the need for a rapid response, this letter focuses on the first two points, although some of the Board’s response is necessarily shaped by the combined experience of our members with existing institutes, as requested in point (3). In addition to space scientists, the members present during our discussions included individuals with experience with Defense Department and industrial laboratories. This response draws on the Board’s assessment of the roles and missions of NASA center scientists contained in my letter to you of March 29, 1995 (the Center Science Letter). Please note that the following observations are based on our understanding of ideas and plans still in a seminal state, with many important details not yet filled in.
At the most general level, the Board believes that the formation of science institutes, under the management of external academic or industrial research entities, and for some carefully selected portions of NASA science, may contribute to the stated goals. It will be a challenge to NASA management, to the affected centers, and to their non-government partners to ensure that the adopted structures and processes achieve the goals stated in your letter, namely, to strengthen the quality of NASA’s science and to expand communication and cooperation with the external community. The Board assumes that any plan for establishing science institutes would be part of a larger science plan that considers how national space research goals will be met by the sum of NASA’s science activities, including both civil service and non-civil service components. Key elements of this plan would be charters for each institute that are broad enough to permit the institutes to take advantage of their independence from NASA but focused enough to implement their assigned roles in the overall science plan. These charters should be customized to each institute, and there must be incentives for each institute to adhere to its charter. Planning should also reflect a realistic appraisal of prospects for future funding (especially from non-NASA sources) for institute activities.
The Board’s Center Science Letter states that the most important mission of NASA scientists is to “bind NASA’s immense engineering and technical capabilities to the still larger and more diverse industrial and academic research communities across the country and the world.” It further states that “this binding requires that NASA have world-class scientists who, as a group, combine both…internal and external functional roles…and are sufficiently tightly integrated into NASA’s engineering and technical infrastructure.” That letter identifies key examples of external and internal functions for NASA scientists and then describes four principles or qualities of NASA science that would support the stated mission. In brief, these qualities are (i) scientific excellence and depth, (ii) sufficient scientific breadth, (iii) firm integration into NASA’s technical and engineering infrastructure, and (iv) interdependency among NASA centers and with the external community.
Certain internal and external functions described in the Center Science Letter, such as participation in policy formulation and selection of external investigators, are properly the province of government employees, but should not be vested in field centers in order to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest vis-à-vis outside scientific competitors. It is therefore the recommendation of the Board that these functions be retained by Headquarters, where they would be discharged by government employees.