NASA OIG: Review of NASA-Funded Institutes

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2016


Full report

Since its beginnings in 1958, NASA has been at the forefront of science and space exploration, serving as the engine behind numerous scientific discoveries and technological innovations. The Agency has relied on contributions from NASA's civilian and contractor workforce, and also from academic establishments, research entities, and other organizations referred to collectively in this report as "institutes" to provide expertise in a variety of fields. NASA uses these institutes to conduct research, review and analyze scientific data, develop equipment and technologies to meet mission requirements, and leverage knowledge. For example, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston, Texas, provides space medicine research relevant to NASA's human space flight program while the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, manages instruments on the Agency's Mars Odyssey, Dawn, and Juno spacecraft.

In this report, we reviewed 60 NASA-funded institutes and examined their alignment to Agency missions, their history and funding profile, and examples of their contributions to NASA. See Appendix A for details of the audit's scope and methodology.

In 2008, NASA conducted a study to identify Agency institutes established for general research purposes, evaluate their continued relevance to NASA's mission, and develop performance measures for evaluating and assessing their performance. The study team defined an institute as:

- A distinct entity established to perform research, to develop and/or transfer technology, and to provide services to the scientific community and the public;
- An organization responsible for facilitating scientific and industrial community access to NASA's space and ground-based assets; and/or
- An organization facilitating, developing, or leveraging intellectual capital of the academic community in fulfillment of NASA's mission.

The study team further refined its definition to include only organizations with a period of performance of 5 years or longer that had received at least $5 million from NASA and to exclude groups funded primarily by grants.

The team found NASA obligated approximately $700 million in fiscal year (FY) 2007 to fund 16 "umbrella institutes" composed of approximately 55 "sub-institutes."2 In addition, while almost all the institutes aligned to at least one of NASA's strategic goals, they found limited coordination between institutes and two-thirds without clearly defined performance metrics. The team also noted that NASA had no definition of an institute and no policy guidance for their establishment or use.

The study results were presented to senior NASA managers and initiated a several-years-long effort to develop a standardized definition and update an expired NASA policy. However, ultimately none of the study's results were incorporated into Agency policy. Given the amount of funds expended annually on institutes and the importance of their work, we attempted to identify as many as possible and describe their scientific and financial relationship with NASA.

Review Methodology

For purposes of our review, we began with the 2008 study team's definition of an institute and expanded it to include any establishment, foundation, society, or similar organization that received funding from NASA in FYs 2013 through 2015. NASA was not able to provide us with a comprehensive list of Agency-funded institutes, so we identified our universe through Internet research and collaboration with Agency officials, and in doing so identified 60 organizations that met our criteria (see Appendix B). We sent each institute a standardized questionnaire to solicit information on its history, funding, and science and technical contributions to NASA. We did not independently verify all of the information provided, but afforded each institute the opportunity to review our two-page descriptive summary presented in this report. In accordance with our usual practice, we provided NASA with a draft of the full report for its review and comment.

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