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NASA OIG: Audit of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Thursday, February 1, 2018

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Full report

WHY WE PERFORMED THIS REVIEW

The National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) was formed in 1997 to partner with NASA, academia, and industry to advance biomedical research focused on long-term human presence in space. Headquartered at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and funded through a cooperative agreement with NASA, NSBRI seeks to bridge the gap between the technological and clinical expertise of the biomedical community and the scientific, engineering, and operational expertise of NASA. NSBRI research seeks to develop technologies to enable safe and productive human space flight, including medical monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment in the extreme environments experienced during space exploration missions.

In a June 2016 report, we examined 60 NASA-funded Institutes – including NSBRI – to assess their alignment to NASA's missions, their contributions, and their history and funding profile. Collectively, the 60 institutes received about $800 million from NASA between 2013 and 2015, with 18 of the 60 receiving 95 percent or more of their total funding from the Agency.

In this audit, we examined NASA's management of its 20-year, $484 million cooperative agreement with NSBRI and assess how the group's work contributed to the Agency's approach to conducting biomedical research. Specifically, we examined (1) the extent to which NSBRI met NASA's goals to increase the Agency's knowledge of human physiological responses to space travel; (2) whether NSBRI used NASA cooperative agreement funds for their intended purpose and whether costs paid under the agreement were allowable, reasonable, and in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and guidelines; and (3) whether alternatives exist for NASA to obtain high quality but less expensive space biomedical research. In meeting these objectives, we reviewed applicable Federal laws, regulations, and guidelines; evaluated Agency and Institute policies and agreements; interviewed officials from NASA, NSBRI, and the Baylor College of Medicine; analyzed the Institute's spending; and obtained relevant documentation.

WHAT WE FOUND

We found that NSBRI delivered research products that helped NASA make progress toward the goal of mitigating human health and performance risks associated with space travel. However, while most NSBRI charges complied with applicable laws and the award's terms, NASA improperly permitted NSBRI to use $7.8 million of research funds to renovate and pay rent for laboratory space in a private building during the final 7 years of its agreement. Over the years, NSBRI initiatives have enabled the Agency to make progress toward mitigating human health and performance risks associated with space travel. For example, NSBRI-funded science and technology projects in 2016 included a study involving sleep risk that resulted in installation of solid-state lights in the ISS crew sleeping quarters to improve crew sleep patterns and enhance alertness and performance. In addition, NSBRI analyzed astronaut health data regarding spaceflight-induced intracranial pressure vision alterations to help mitigate visual impairment experienced by astronauts during space flight. Other NSBRI-funded research including a new method to use diagnostic ultrasound for early detection of kidney stones has been used to improve life on Earth by applying findings from space-based research to detect health risks.

When the cooperative agreement began in April 1997, NSBRI staff occupied approximately 5,000 square feet of office space in a building owned by the Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital. In late 2009, NSBRI asked NASA for permission to use cooperative agreement funds to renovate the ninth floor of a separate building owned by Rice University and in June 2010, with 7 years remaining on its 20-year agreement, a NASA contracting officer approved use of $2.9 million for the capital improvement. After the renovation, NSBRI's annual lease expenses rose from about $7,000 to an average of $800,000.

In our judgment, NASA improperly approved NSBRI's request to use cooperative agreement funds to renovate the NSBRI work space. Lacking specific legislative authority, Federal appropriations may not be used for such capital improvements unless the expenditures meet specific Government Accountability Office (GAO) criteria. Moreover, the improvements to the facility primarily benefitted Rice University rather than NASA or the Federal Government. Indeed, at the conclusion of NSBRI's cooperative agreement with NASA in September 2017 possession of the facility renovated at NASA's expense reverted to Rice.

Beginning in September 2016, NASA entered into a $245 million, 12-year cooperative agreement for biomedical research with the Translational Research Institute (TRI) – the successor to NSBRI, a consortium also run by Baylor. NASA decided to continue using the institute model for biomedical research because it believes an external institute is better positioned to identify and attract cutting edge research and technology given the consortium members' extensive expertise and professional networks. We question this rationale, given NASA's increased capabilities in this area since creation of the Agency's Human Research Program (HRP) in 2005 to spearhead the Agency's space biomedical research. In our judgment, NASA should consider leveraging more of HRP's capabilities rather than relying on outside institutes like NSBRI and TRI to identify and manage external researchers for future biomedical research.

WHAT WE RECOMMENDED

We recommended the Johnson Center Director: (1) remedy $2.9 million in cooperative agreement funds improperly authorized to renovate the NSBRI facility; (2) remedy $4.9 million in cooperative agreement funds spent on unreasonable rental costs for the facility post-renovation; and (3) remedy the $41,788 in cooperative agreement funds spent on unreasonable meeting and travel costs. To ensure efficient operations and prevent unnecessary duplication of research and administrative costs, we recommended the Center Director (4) monitor the new cooperative agreement with TRI closely to ensure it leverages existing NASA capabilities and functions in order to efficiently and effectively achieve the Agency's biomedical research goals.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management for review and comment. Management partially concurred with recommendation 3 and concurred with recommendation 4. For these two recommendations, we considered management's comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.

Agency managers partially concurred with recommendations 1 and 2 but did not agree with our conclusion that NASA should remedy $7.8 million in cooperative agreement research funds spent on what we determined were unreasonable renovation and rental costs.

NASA contends that its Contracting Officer thoroughly evaluated Baylor's renovation proposal and exercised appropriate discretion in authorizing an exception to use of agreement funds for the renovation, but merely failed to adequately document this analysis. However, we believe management's response is an after-the-fact rationalization for an improper decision that, among its shortcomings, fails to address whether the Contracting Officer considered the finding of another NASA Contracting Officer who reviewed a similar NSBRI renovation proposal 3 years earlier and concluded the request was "unallowable."

Consequently, recommendations 1 and 2 are unresolved pending further discussion with the Agency.

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