WASHINGTON -- A private organization capable of representing the broad interests of the science and engineering research community should be established to manage U.S. research activities on the International Space Station, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. The proposed organization would focus on supporting the research agenda of the space station, including planning and scheduling experiments, while NASA would continue to manage the station's construction, basic operations, and maintenance.
"NASA must act quickly to ensure that the proposed organization is in place and actively involved in coordinating research plans well before the scheduled completion of the space station in 2004," said Cornelius J. Pings of Pasadena, Calif., chair of the committee that wrote the report and president emeritus of the Association of American Universities. "The organization itself must have clear authority and adequate funding to fulfill its responsibilities for managing high-quality research."
The committee cited areas where a private organization could be more effective than NASA in managing a diverse research portfolio. Chief among these is the ability to better understand and integrate the needs of a broad array of researchers and to foster new directions for research in additional scientific fields. An independent entity outside NASA also would provide the scientific and engineering research community with a single point of contact.
NASA should use a competitive process to select an organization or consortium capable of managing space station research, the report says. The chosen institution should have an independent board of directors and a scientific director with extensive experience in managing a complex range of research activities, and be guided by an advisory process that is broadly representative of the research community. The staff should include scientists and engineers who will serve as contacts for investigators who are developing research activities, as well as for scientist astronauts who will reside on the station.
One option that the committee evaluated was to keep managerial responsibility for the station's research activities within NASA. The committee did not recommend a continuation of current arrangements, however, because it concluded that the agency should not have to diffuse its traditional roles with the added responsibility of managing long-term research on the station. NASA most likely would not have the work force needed to manage the research and development function as well as the operational responsibilities of the station. In addition, NASA has an excellent track record of successfully handing off established, long-term projects, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, for which a nongovernment consortium manages all scientific activities.
The proposed organization should take over from NASA the coordination of any space station research activities that the government is planning to manage for other international partners, the committee recommended. The new entity also should establish and maintain close working relationships with all non-U.S. organizations conducting research on the station.
While engaging academic scientists and engineers, the new organization also should be responsible for stimulating commercial research uses of the space station. It should establish clear policies and procedures for protecting proprietary information and serve as an intermediary between NASA and other private sources to fund commercial research, the report says.
Since the new organization must focus on start-up activities such as hiring staff and beginning to plan for the first series of research projects after station assembly is complete, there are certain roles that should still be performed by NASA. For instance, NASA should continue to manage the process of soliciting research proposals, conducting peer reviews, and selecting projects to include on the station, the committee said. Other activities that should remain indefinitely under NASA management include coordinating plans with other federal agencies and international partners. Once the station is complete and the proposed organization is in place, NASA would continue to set policy and develop strategy to keep the station operating safely.
It is urgent for NASA to move quickly and establish the new organization by 2001, the committee said. Once the entity is in place, implementation of its responsibilities should begin immediately. This would include a period in which the new organization takes the lead in planning research activities for when the station is completed, and a later phase for taking on additional responsibilities and authority.
The study was funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter.
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