SUPPORTING RESEARCH AND DATA ANALYSIS IN NASA'S SCIENCE PROGRAMS: ENGINES FOR INNOVATION AND SYNTHESIS
Claude R. Canizares, Ph.D.
Chairman of the Space Studies Board
National Research Council
Director of the Center for Space Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
Committee on Science
The U.S. House of Representatives
FEBRUARY 11, 1999
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Minority Member, and members of the committee: thank you for inviting the Space Studies Board here to testify. My name is Claude Canizares and I am professor of physics and director of the Center for Space Research at MIT. My research field is astrophysics, specifically X-ray astronomy, and I am a Principal Investigator on the NASA Chandra X-ray Observatory, formerly called AXAF. I appear today in my capacity of as chair of the Space Studies Board.
As you know the SSB is the unit of the National Research Council that is responsible for providing independent advice to the federal government on civil space science and applications research and for representing the Academy complex in international relations in these areas.
The Board conducts its work through a cadre of about 180 experts drawn from academia, industry, and other institutions who serve as volunteers on the Board or its committees and task groups. Another seventy-some experts serve each year as independent external reviewers of our reports before they are released. In 1998 we published 16 reports covering a broad range of space-related topics, providing advice not only to NASA but also to NOAA, NSF, DoD, and DoE. A complete bibliography of SSB reports for the past 3 years is appended to my statement.
Last October, the Space Studies Board published a report entitled Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs. Your invitation indicated that my testimony should focus on this report, as well as on improvements NASA might make to ensure full scientific utilization of each of its missions.
Let me begin by addressing our report, which was prepared over a two-year period by a task group led by Prof. Anthony England of the University of Michigan, an Earth scientist and former astronaut. The charge for our study was to articulate the role of the Research and Data Analysis programs in NASA and to suggest ways to improve them so as to encourage the most effective science for NASA and for the nation.
The Research and Data Analysis, or R&DA, portion of NASA's science activity is generally much less visible than the flight programs or missions with names like Hubble, Galileo or International Space Station. But they are no less important to the conduct of NASA's research.
It is obvious that without the missions there would be no data. Research progress would grind to a halt. But without the R&DA programs there would be no missions, or at least no missions that really address important scientific questions, because part of R&DA support provides the scientific underpinnings and often some key enabling technologies for NASA's missions. And without R&DA the data from any mission that did fly would remain as meaningless, undigested bits on some computer disk, because the other part of R&DA supports the process of science that transforms raw information into understanding, insight and discovery.
The R&DA programs are primarily aggregations of numerous investigations by individuals or consortia at universities, NASA centers and industry covering a broad range of topics and kinds of activity. Each one is generally modest but the total is a significant fraction of NASA's science expenditures. The projects include work in theory and computation, ground-based or sub-orbital research, technology and instrument development, analytical tools, analysis of mission data, and education including training the next generations of space scientists and engineers. This diffusion and multiplicity is both a strength of R&DA and one reason for its diminished visibility. But R&DA also includes some large infrastructures like the Data & Information System for the Earth Observing System, EOSDIS. In FY97, the last year of accurate funding data in the report, the aggregate expenditures in R&DA were $1.5 B, representing 40% of NASA's science budget.
Let me cite just a few examples of discoveries that emerged directly from the R&DA programs:
-- The R&DA programs supported flights of a high altitude aircraft over the Antarctic to make observations that were key to explaining the so-called "ozone hole" as due to the destruction of ozone through the action of chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's released into the atmosphere.
-- The galvanizing, though still controversial, announcement of possible circumstantial evidence for life on Mars came from R&DA-supported analyses of meteorites found on Earth.
-- R&DA-supported studies on laboratory rats in microgravity on Spacelab gave new insights into the molecular changes that take place in the vestibular maculae, which are the gravity sensors of the inner ear, findings which should be clinically relevant to treatments for vestibular disease.
-- Two of the four scientific instruments on NASA's upcoming Chandra X-ray Observatory were built in my center at MIT using unique, advanced technologies first developed with R&DA support.
Despite these contributions and many more like them, for many years the science community has been concerned that the quality of NASA science was being compromised by what appeared to be a growing imbalance between flight projects and R&DA investments. At the same time NASA's laudable move toward smaller, faster, and cheaper missions places new demands upon R&DA. The task group points out that much of the science and some of the technologies previously developed and funded under more lengthy flight projects will now be funded out of the research base. For example, those who submitted proposals to the Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP) program were directed to request only the funds necessary to collect and validate flight data; more general analyses of the data were to be provided through projects funded by R&DA programs. (1) The task group was not able to determine with the data it had available whether or not funds for the new data analysis demands on the R&DA program were transferred with the tasks. (2)
The task group went to some effort to evaluate budget trends for R&DA. The resulting picture is mixed and somewhat confusing. Adjusting for inflation, the aggregate expenditures in all categories grew significantly from FY91-98, but most of that is due to the growth of EOSDIS and to changes in the accounting for technology development. However, the traditional Research & Analysis, or R&A, account which represents a key element of NASA's grants program fell by 22% over the same period. Moreover, R&A, as a fraction of NASA science-related funding fell by 35% over the 8 year period from FY91-98. (3)
These trends were consistent with the perception that the several components of NASA's research are in general not optimally balanced.
In terms of recommendations, the task group did not presume to say what the right levels should be, especially given the changes in the way NASA's program is being conducted and in budget reporting. Rather, it did recommend that NASA's science offices should themselves make increased efforts to establish an overview of their R&DA activities in the context of their well-formulated strategic plans.
In particular, it recommended that the NASA science offices improve the link between the R&DA programs and the enterprise strategic plans and that they periodically evaluate the balance among the various elements of the R&DA program, making suitable use of independent scientific peer review panels in this review. Similar kinds of assessments should be made concerning the state of infrastructure in universities and NASA centers necessary to support the planned programs.
Other recommendations addressed the possibility of achieving greater efficiency in R&DA expenditures. For example, the task group found that the median size of NASA's grants differs significantly across the science
offices and furthermore found that the most frequent grant size declined in real terms from $67,000 per year in 1986 to $50,000 in 1995. This award level is low compared to other agencies that fund basic research and generally cannot support the work of a single researcher and graduate student. As a result many scientists often spend too much of their time preparing multiple proposals and competing for awards rather than conducting research and mentoring students. The task group recommended that NASA routinely examine the size and number of grants to individual investigators to ensure that they efficiently meet the objectives of the research.
More generally, both the management and the understanding of R&DA activities would be enhanced if NASA established better procedures for tracking R&DA budgets and expenditures by the class of activities and the type of organizations conducting the work (e.g. intramural and extramural laboratories, industry and non-profit entities), as the task group recommended.
The full set of recommendations is summarized in the report's executive summary appended to this testimony.
The thrust of these recommendations also addresses the spirit of your second question regarding ways NASA might improve its management to ensure that each individual mission's potential is fully utilized.
As a general and overarching principle relevant to both questions, the Space Studies Board has consistently held that the appropriate use of the
peer review process is the best way to assure high quality research, (4) and it is my perception that the science offices at NASA generally share that view. The so-called "senior reviews" held in the Office of Space Science to allocate mission operations and data analysis funds are, I believe, an exemplary practice. Furthermore, several SSB reports note the
importance of having primary science allocation decisions occur at NASA Headquarters, in the responsible science office. (5) For example, we recently published an extensive Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century, which reiterates this point in the context of life sciences research on the International Space Station. I have appended the executive summary of this report, and of another recent SSB assessment of NASA's technology development for the space sciences which addresses related issues.
In closing, let me note that the very first objective of Title I of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 is "the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth, and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space."
Meeting that objective over the past 40 years has been a major triumph for NASA and the space science community at large. I am confident that with proper stewardship, the current plans of the agency can deliver to the nation and the world even more remarkable discoveries that expand our understanding, excite and inform the public, inspire and educate our children, and contribute to the well-being of the planet.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you and for your attention.
1. National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA’s Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C, 1998, pp. 44-45.
2. Ibid., p. 59.
3. NASA science-related funding, in this context, includes the total budgets of the three science program offices plus the academic programs. The proportions for R&A as a share of total NASA science-related funding declines more than 6 percentage points, from 16.5 percent for FY 1991 to
10 percent projected for FY 1998—about a 35 percent share reduction in 8 years. See National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 49.
4. National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Managing the Space Sciences, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1995, pp. 56-59, 72-74; National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA’s Science Programs: Engines for Innovation and Synthesis, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 3-5; National Research Council and European Science Foundation, U.S.-European Collaboration in Space Science, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 3-4, 102-104; National Research Council, Space Studies Board, A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 17.
5. National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Managing the Space Sciences, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1995, p 72; National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Assessment of Technology Development in NASA’s Office of Space Science, Space Studies Board,
Washington, D.C., 1998, pp. 33; A Strategy for Research in Space Biology and Medicine in the New Century, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 17; National Research Council, Space Studies Board, Science Management in the Human Exploration of Space, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 3.