Scientific Research

NASA Laboratory System, Scientific Research Enterprise Assignmnents

The Scientific Research Enterprise contributes to the creation of new scientific knowledge by exploring the Solar System and the Universe beyond and by studying the space environment and its effects on biological and physical processes. The purpose of the Scientific Research Enterprise is to seek answers to fundamental scientific questions on the origin, evolution, and uniqueness of the Earth, the Sun, and the Solar System. It seeks to provide knowledge and understanding on the origin of life on the Earth, in the Solar System, and in the Universe and on how the conditions for life on the Earth are maintained.

For FY94, the budget for the Scientific Research Enterprise was $2.7 billion, of which approximately $2.0 billion was for R&D activities. The map shows the principal roles played by the NASA Centers in this Enterprise. At the beginning of this review, the Scientific Research Enterprise included scientific research programs in the Office of Space Science and the Office of Life and Microgravity Science and Applications. However, in November those research programs in the Office of Life and Microgravity Science and Applications were removed from the Scientific Research Enterprise and assigned to the HEDS Enterprise. This portion of the NASA Federal Laboratory Review only addresses the programs that remain in the Scientific Research Enterprise.

Contributions to National Needs

The Task Force found that the Scientific Research Enterprise has produced and continues to produce outstanding scientific achievements that are without equal in the world. These accomplishments have resulted in major revisions in scientific knowledge of the space environment in which planet Earth resides and of the origin and evolution of the Earth's major environmental systems. This Enterprise also makes a large contribution to national needs for fundamental science, space exploration, and civil space and aeronautical R&D. The Task Force determined that the resource commitments to the ongoing fundamental research program have made it difficult for the program to adequately address rapidly emerging national strategic needs. In particular, the general public's concern with the environmental consequences of the impact of a large asteroid, the possible destruction of ozone by supernova, effects of solar variability on climate, and so forth, need to have increased programmatic emphasis and public visibility.

NASA's responses to changing Executive Branch and congressional agendas over the past two decades has caused fragmentation of scientific research within the Agency. The management of scientific research in three separate Headquarters' offices has resulted in redundancies and duplication of effort throughout NASA's Centers. Today, portions of the Scientific Research Enterprise can be found in almost every NASA Center.

The Task Force found that astrophysics, space physics, and fundamental earth science research should continue to be conducted at both JPL and GSFC because those program elements are complementary and not redundant and are the core capabilities for both Scientific Research and MTPE. The appropriate conduct of these programs at both Centers can be facilitated through careful joint planning and good leadership. However, space science and earth science activities at Centers other than JPL and GSFC should be evaluated for transfer or closure. Once the AXAF mission is completed, Scientific Research Enterprise activities at MSFC should be transferred to JPL or GSFC or closed, as appropriate.

Recommendation: Astrophysics, space physics, and fundamental earth science research should continue to be done at both JPL and GSFC. Scientific Research Enterprise activities at other Centers should be evaluated for transfer or closure.

Recommendation: JPL should be the lead Center for management of programs within the Scientific Research Enterprise. GSFC should continue to support this lead Center through its astrophysics, space physics, and fundamental earth science programs. Scientific Research Enterprise activities at other Centers should be evaluated for transfer to GSFC or JPL, consolidation, or closure.

Near-Term Strategy

The near-term strategy of the Scientific Research Enterprise is to complete the current program of missions in astrophysics and Solar System exploration. The Task Force found that there may be insufficient funds for analyzing science data from these missions.

Recommendation: NASA must be disciplined to budget funds for ensuring adequate and timely science data analysis from the approved missions.

In his February 6, 1995, budget press conference, the NASA Administrator clearly articulated a goal of achieving the $5 billion budget reduction by restructuring NASA. The implication of this goal is that each of its Centers will have to reduce staff. Perhaps some will be closed. In so doing, the Centers of the new NASA will have to learn to share the functional capabilities across the Agency more than they have in the past. They also will have to use industry, universities, and other Government agencies more effectively.

New paradigms are needed to determine the distribution of work among the various sectors. Even before the February 6 announcement, the Task Force detected the Centers are having difficulty in coping with the transition from the era of large programs, like Cassini and Hubble, to the future "faster, better, cheaper" programs.

For example, JPL's strategy before February 6 was to keep a core in-house development capability by doing at least one large program mainly with in-house personnel. Given the new situation, this plan will require modification. JPL, like the other NASA Centers, will have to define a new set on core in-house capabilities that are affordable. JPL, and the others, must learn to look elsewhere for the remaining functions required to efficiently conduct the programs they are assigned.

This redefinition of necessary in-house NASA core competencies and a new paradigm for industry, university, and other Government agency support to NASA programs are major undertakings.

Recommendation: Each Center within NASA should begin as soon as possible, in concert with the Enterprise leaders, a bottoms up cataloging of its core competencies and alternate sources for as many of these as possible from both inside and outside of NASA. These data will serve to highlight those functional capabilities that must be supported within the Center complex and those capabilities that NASA can reasonably expect to acquire in the future from the other sectors. This data analysis will be a useful first step in restructuring NASA. The Task Force expects that the new NASA will of necessity be more reliant on intercenter cooperation and the private sector than the current NASA. We are confident that this "new" NASA can be successful if all layers of NASA management work diligently on developing the new modus operandi.

Strategic Planning

The Task Force found NASA in transition in the development of its strategic and implementation plans for scientific research. The Scientific Research Enterprise had produced a strategic plan for space science and a strategic plan for infusion of new technology. A plan for educational programs was under development. JPL had incorporated elements of the Headquarters strategic plan for Scientific Research and had also incorporated the Headquarters plan for MTPE. JPL is to be commended for the development of the Microdevices Laboratory, which, with substantial private support, clearly addresses the needs for advanced technology to support "faster, better, cheaper" systems.

Multidisciplinary Research

The Task Force found that there was a compelling need for the Scientific Research Enterprise and the MTPE Enterprise to develop an integrated strategic plan to promote multidisciplinary research. The major downsizing at NASA Headquarters should drive the two Enterprises to work closely together to jointly foster the development of technology and to foster the conduct of multidisciplinary research.

The communities of scientific peers are different for the Scientific Research Enterprise and the MTPE Enterprise and the two Enterprises use different constituencies to assist in the formulation of programs. For this reason, the combination of the two Enterprises into one new Enterprise does not seem prudent. However, the Task Force strongly recommends that NASA develop a mechanism to promote multidisciplinary research among programs in the two Enterprises.

Recommendation:NASA should develop mechanisms to promote multidisciplinary research between the programs of the Scientific Research Enterprise and the MTPE Enterprise.

Recommendation: NASA should coordinate the research content in the MTPE and Scientific Research Enterprises with a single integrated plan.

Leadership and Management

The Task Force found that the vision and knowledge for strategic planning in the Scientific Research and MTPE Enterprises were at NASA Headquarters. While the Scientific Research Enterprise largely empowers JPL to manage the planetary and Solar System exploration programs, Headquarters assumes more of a management role versus an oversight role in dealing with GSFC. The JPL/Cal Tech model, linking the intellectual resources of a premier research university with the science, engineering, and technology of a major scientific research facility, was judged as a potential model for other NASA laboratories. Through its Solar System exploration programs, JPL has developed valuable technology for the MTPE Enterprise, including: high-spatial resolution, hyperspectral imaging spectrometers (AVIRIS, HIRIS); multiband thermal mappers (TIMS, ASTER); and multifrequency/multipolarization spaceborne radar (SIR-C/X-SAR). In a similar manner, GSFC has developed instruments for astronomy, astrophysics, and space physics while engaged in the study of the Earth's environments. In this regard, the Task Force found that management by Enterprise needs to be done to preserve the synergism between programs at JPL and GSFC. Specifically, designation of lead Centers for major programs should be done with the understanding that both JPL and GSFC will have strong support roles in the other's programs, respectively. The joint development of a single, integrated implementation plan by JPL and GSFC, but under Headquarters leadership, should accomplish this.

Recommendation: NASA Headquarters should be responsible for developing the vision and strategic plan for the Scientific Research Enterprise. The Centers should develop implementation plans jointly and should be empowered to manage the integrated scientific research programs.

Rapid Infusion of New Technology

The large budget demands of the ongoing Scientific Research Enterprise programs produce limited opportunities for developing technologies that will address "faster, better, cheaper." The Task Force found that the Millennium Program provides an excellent roadmap for the infusion of such technology. However, the Task Force found that Center discretionary funds need to be increased significantly to facilitate the rapid development, testing, and engineering of innovative technologies for Scientific Research programs on a short-term basis.

Recommendation: Center discretionary funds need to increase several fold to facilitate rapid development, testing, and engineering of innovative technologies on a short-term basis for Scientific Research programs.

Peer Review

Over the past 30 years, the National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board, through its standing discipline committees, has developed and published a series of research strategies for each major space research discipline. NASA uses these strategies in formulating its Scientific Research programs. The committees of the Space Studies Board that define strategies for NASA are Astronomy and Astrophysics, Planetary and Lunar Exploration, and Solar and Space Physics.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) has a Space Science Advisory Committee with three attendant subcommittees that parallel those of the Space Studies Board. Members of the Space Studies Board committees and the subcommittees of the Space Science Advisory Committee are from Government, academic, and industrial communities outside NASA. NASA program managers study options for obtaining the measurements required to address the scientific questions defined by the National Academy of Sciences. Personnel from NASA Headquarters and the Centers define specific missions intended to respond to the Academy's questions. These candidate missions are reviewed by NAC advisory committees and again by the Academy to ensure they are responsive to the science community's needs.

The peer review process is viewed as the cornerstone in maintaining high quality within the Scientific Research Enterprise. Both scientific "peer review" and "peer approval" are used as parts of the decision-making processes. All of the Enterprise's programs are subject to the combination of peer review and peer approval. Peer review involves the selection of research investigations based on peer and/or scientific panel review, taking into consideration intrinsic scientific and technical merit, cost, and relevance to NASA's objectives. Peer approval involves an evaluation by advisory and/or user groups of mission design, development, and operations and the identification of opportunities for international collaboration with respect to payload and instrument development.

The Task Force felt that while the peer review process for the Scientific Research Enterprise was probably the best process around, there was still room for improvement. Specifically, NASA must make the length of time associated with the solicitation/peer review process consistent with the Agency's overall direction toward "faster, better, cheaper" missions. The Agency should develop innovative approaches to streamline the peer review process while enhancing its quality.

Recommendation: NASA must make the length of time associated with the solicitation/peer review process for Scientific Research consistent with the Agency's overall direction toward "faster, better, cheaper" missions without compromising the quality of that process.


The achievements of NASA's Scientific Research program are much greater than those of any other nation in the world. Therefore, measures of performance cannot be readily derived from comparison to achievements of other nations. Discoveries from the conduct of fundamental scientific research are difficult to map against time. The Task Force found that the Scientific Research Enterprise leaders are just beginning to develop metrics, including some of the following: success in achieving the roadmap of science milestones on schedule and within budget; scientific return versus cost in terms of time and money; the results of external peer review of ongoing programs; spinoffs from research and technology; etc. In addition, the Task Force recognized that the development of metrics must be done jointly with the assistance of the Centers as they develop their implementation plans for the Scientific Research Enterprise.

The Task Force notes, however, that many of the Scientific Research projects involve management, engineering, and operational activities nearly identical to commercial and other Government projects involving the development, deployment, and operation of space assets. The opportunity for meaningful definition of metrics and bench marking of major activities against "best-in-class" are substantial. NASA would benefit from increased efforts in this direction.

Recommendation: Metrics should be developed that will quantify the quality and productivity of the Scientific Research Enterprise with respect to national strategic needs. A schedule for completion of implementing the performance metrics should be developed.

Discovery Program

Even though the selection of the new Discovery missions had not been done at the time of this evaluation, the Task Force supports the pursuit of innovative concepts to perform space exploration with a reduced budget. NASA should ensure that the most advanced lightweight technologies developed by the Federal Government, industry, and academia are integrated into the Discovery missions.

Recommendation: NASA should pursue an aggressive Discovery program that integrates not only products from in-house research but also technologies developed outside when the latter's work is more advanced than NASA's.

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