Space Missions
Federal agencies collaborating for earth and space science missions become more complex, costly and risky due to divided responsibilities and accountability, according to new research. Reuters

Earth and space science missions developed by federal agencies in collaboration become more complex, costly and risky due to divided responsibilities and accountability, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

A common misperception among policymakers and individual agencies is that collaboration on these missions will save money or somehow boost capabilities, said James Baker, director of the global carbon measurement program at the William J. Clinton Foundation and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

The committee examined case studies from previous domestic and international missions, received briefings from several agencies, and drew upon committee members' own experiences to reach its conclusions.

In general, the research study found that the more interdependent agencies are for mission success, the higher the degree of complexity and risk associated with the project, while there are varying amounts of cooperation among agencies.

However, multi-agency partnerships generally have just the opposite effect and drive up overall mission costs because of schedule delays, added levels of management, and redundant administrative processes, said James Baker.

The committee recommended that when there is a compelling reason to partner and clear criteria are met in advance then only federal agencies should enter into partnerships.

While agencies frequently enter into a deal based on affordability, but the risks involved in meeting schedules and performance objectives are usually undermined, the report stated.

The report also examines long-standing problems associated with deal between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in support of climate research.

The committee agreed with a previous Research Council report that recommends action by an executive branch entity above the agency-level to correct mismatches of authority and responsibility, inconsistent mandates, and budgets that are not well suited for emerging needs.

In many cases, an individual agency would do well to consider alternatives to full partnerships and instead buy specific services or coordinate spaceflight data from other agencies, said Daniel Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and co-chair of the committee.

However, if full collaboration is deemed to be warranted, then the agencies must take special care to ensure that disciplined attention to systems engineering and best practices for project management are followed, said Baker.

The committee noted that if the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, or Congress wants to encourage a particular interagency research collaboration, then it should provide specific incentives and support for these missions such as protecting interagency projects or providing freedom to move necessary funds across appropriation accounts.

There is a need for coordinated oversight of interagency collaboration. However, Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy are not suited to day-to-day oversight. Some alternative governance mechanism may be required to facilitate accountable decision-making across multiple agencies, the report stated.

International collaboration suffers from the same increase in cost and complexity. However, the partnership in an international collaboration can decrease U.S. costs as some of the expenses will be absorbed by foreign government.

The international collaborations typically receive much more planning upfront to define clear roles and responsibilities consistent with each entity's strategic plans.

The committee has recommended criteria that should be met by agencies to jointly pursue earth and space science missions. The report also recommends key elements to incorporate in every interagency collaboration.

Partnerships should add significant scientific value that could not be achieved by a single agency; utilize unique capabilities housed within an agency that are necessary for the success of a mission managed by another agency; help facilitate the transition from research to operations if these functions require a change in responsibility from one agency to another; or meet a compelling need such as building capacity at a cooperating agency, the committee criteria states.

The NASA-sponsored report also noted existing government offices 'are not suited to day-to-day oversight' of interagency collaboration and that implementation of an alternative oversight system may be needed.