Comparing the NASA Advisory Council and NASA’s external advisory bodies
by Joseph K. Alexander
|The decadals were so appreciated in Congress that the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 mandated that the Academies prepare decadal surveys in all space science disciplines.
In 1970, NASA Associate Administrator Homer Newell reorganized NASA’s science advisory bodies. In doing so he cited the successful history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) advisory structure before NASA, reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to advisory committees, and noted the need to have a process that was responsive to the increasingly cross-disciplinary character of NASA programs. Thus, when a new Space Program Advisory Council (SPAC) was formally established in 1971, it was charged with looking across all NASA programs, including technology development, engineering, and the human spaceflight program, as well as space science. Consequently, the SPAC became the forerunner of the NASA Advisory Council that was established in 1978.
Before digging into the differences between the NAC and the National Academies, we need to detour briefly to understand the principal kinds of advice produced by the two entities. Throughout much of its history, the Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB) and its committees have prepared three kinds of advisory reports for NASA. Nearly half have been major strategic reports that addressed long-range goals and priorities for space research. Most of the remainder were focused, topical study reports or short reports that concentrated on a relatively narrow question. The SSB has also prepared a few workshop reports, which differ from their more numerous cousins by simply reporting on discussions from an SSB-organized workshop without formal recommendations of the type more often seen in the other reports.
The most notable examples of the strategic reports are the decadal surveys, which began with astronomy in the 1960s and expanded to cover all space research disciplines in the 2000s. Decadal surveys are all developed with broad input from a large segment of the relevant scientific community, and all encompass the following key attributes: (1) a survey of the status of the scientific field at the time of the study, (2) recommended scientific goals for the next decade, (3) a prioritized set of recommended programs to achieve the science goals, and (4) in more recent years, a decision-making process in the event that budget limitations or technical problems arise to create obstacles for the recommended program. The decadals were so appreciated in Congress that the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 mandated that the Academies prepare decadal surveys in all space science disciplines. Congress also required that so-called decadal midterms be conducted halfway through the ten-year period treated by each decadal to evaluate NASA’s progress in responding to the recommendations of each decadal survey.
From the creation of the SSB in 1958 until the early 1990s, the SSB’s short reports were often letters of a few pages that addressed a specific, often relatively pressing, topic. They were prepared either in response to a request from NASA or, occasionally, at the initiative of the SSB. As we will discuss below, these letter reports were especially popular because they could be produced and delivered quickly (often in a few weeks). After the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) was amended in 1997 to apply to the Academies as well as to agency advisory committees, letter reports fell out of favor with the Academies leadership because of concerns that the speed of the process might compromise the Academies standards for vetting report authors and for rigorous report peer review. In the past few years, however, a solution has emerged. Discipline-oriented standing committees of the SSB can be appointed and authorized to prepare short reports that provide tactical advice that relates to implementation of the decadals, and they can prepare other short reports that offer consensus conclusions but that do not proffer formal recommendations.
The NAC and its committees have employed mainly two approaches to advise NASA: (a) near-real-time advice to NASA officials offered during or soon after advisory body meetings, often via a letter from the chair or (b) advisory study reports prepared by ad-hoc committees formed under the auspices of the NAC or one of its standing committees. We will say more about these below.
Now we consider distinctions between the NAC and the Academies advisory entities in four areas: (a) roles and responsibilities, (b) relationships with NASA, (c) operational approaches, and (d) stature and credibility.
One of the earliest and most enduring distinctions relates to where the locus of roles and responsibilities rests for the two advisory entities. Almost from the very beginning, NASA officials made it clear that they would rely on Academy bodies for long-term, strategic advice and would turn to the agency’s own committees for advice on short-term, tactical issues. NASA made this expectation clear in its tasking letter to the Space Science Board in 1960, saying that the Board would be expected to provide “thoughts, ideas, and recommendations… on the broad overall objectives” and that “Guiding principles are needed, rather than a detailed program formulation.” Homer Newell reaffirmed the division of labor in his 1973 memo, where he indicated that the SPAC was expected to “go more in depth than the Space Science Board on matters of programing and NASA in-house planning and studies.”
Forty years later, John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator for science at the time, described the distinction between NAC and National Academies committee advice as being the difference between near-real-time, informal, tactical feedback for the former, but
“for strategic advice I think of longer-term deliberation, of much broader engagement of the community, and some time for fermentation, and that’s what the National [Academies] Space Studies Board does for us…[W]ith the NASA Advisory Council we ask questions that are more time-critical and for which they can use the various analysis groups…[W]e want the subcommittees of the NASA Advisory Council and [its] Science Committee to provide the kind of view that addresses this inside-the-beltway problem… We can talk to them and say ‘Hey, here is what we are doing and here is what we are thinking’ and get the perspective from folks who can just answer off the cuff and observe things that we don’t observe—sort of the principle of executive coach…So they develop observations, findings, in some case recommendations that are actionable immediately in principle.”
Certainly, NASA’s committees also have offered long-term, strategic advice, especially early in the agency’s history, and Academies bodies have delved into more tactical issues. The NASA Astronomy Missions Board’s 1969 Long-Range Program in Space Astronomy report is a prime example of the former. However, decadal surveys have become the mainstay of the SSB and its committees as a source of long-range scientific priorities. But there are also plenty of Academy reports that provide specific advice on more tactical or operational issues—for example, on the downsizing of spaceflight mission science instrument payloads, or on specific standards and protocols for planetary protection, or on Space Shuttle vs. robotic servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. When NASA has turned to SSB committees for more tactical advice there usually has been a clear need for either deep expertise, or an extra degree of independence, or a connection of the tactical perspective to particular strategic advice embodied in prior SSB studies.
|Almost from the very beginning, NASA officials made it clear that they would rely on Academy bodies for long-term, strategic advice and would turn to the agency’s own committees for advice on short-term, tactical issues.
One could make an argument that NASA’s committees serve managers—officials who are dealing with the alligators at their ankles rather than planning how to drain the swamp—while the Academies’ strategic advice serves policy makers—officials who are thinking about the long view. And it’s the former advice that often demands the most attention inside NASA on a day-to-day basis, because the managers cannot avoid pressing, near-term issues and survive. Former NAC Chair and decadal survey chair Steven Squyres described the distinction by saying that Academies committees are “the voice of science for the nation” and, therefore, speak to the White House and Congress as well as NASA, but that NASA is the NAC’s sole customer.
NASA’s relationships with its own committees and Academies committees have always been different, and the differences have affected both the way that advice has been developed and how it has been viewed by the outside world.
The SSB had considerable freedom to define the tasks of its self-initiated studies until those kinds of activities went away in the 2000s. More generally however, the tasking for Academies studies has reflected mutual agreement between NASA and the Academies, after which the Academies have had complete independence to select and appoint study committee members. On the other hand, NASA officials select the members of internal advisory bodies and define their tasks.
Once an advisory activity is under way, the degree of independence is also different for NASA committees and Academies committees. FACA regulations require that a NASA official sit in on all its FACA committee meetings and deliberations. That official has authority to “call, attend, and adjourn committee meetings [and] approve agendas.” Thus, NASA officials remain continuously informed about the committee’s progress. In contrast, Academies committees expect to operate entirely independently of NASA once a formal advisory study has begun, and the agency has no control of or insight into the committee’s deliberations outside of what the general public sees during FACA-mandated, open committee meetings until the study is completed. To be clear, the firewall applies to access by NASA and the public to internal Academies committee discussions as a committee debates conclusions in a formal advisory study. General information-gathering meetings and informal discussions by standing boards and committees are always open.
|Three scientist-members of the NAC were abruptly retired in 2006 when they ran crossways with Griffin and NAC Chair Jack Schmitt. The scientists had been vocal about the deleterious impacts of cuts to NASA’s science program budgets, and that line of advice was not welcome at the highest levels of NASA.
While the extent of NASA’s control over its own committees vis-à-vis Academies committees affects their relative independence, the difference in how FACA regulations dictate the openness of committee deliberations can impact the directness and candor of the advice that the advisory bodies deliver. When Academies committees deliberate to reach consensus, they are permitted to conduct their discussions in closed sessions. However, all NASA FACA committee discussions and deliberations must be conducted in sessions that are open to the public. For the NASA committees, including the NAC, this can lead to the watering down of a committee’s advice. NASA officials’ occasional misunderstandings of this difference in operating independence have led to some interesting experiences. For example, senior NASA officials have sometimes sought—unsuccessfully—to influence Academies choices of committee chairs or its study conclusions.
Another instructive example of the relative independence of NASA and Academies committees comes from the operation of the NASA Advisory Council when Michael Griffin was Administrator. Three scientist-members of the NAC were abruptly retired in 2006 when they ran crossways with Griffin and NAC Chair Jack Schmitt. The scientists had been vocal about the deleterious impacts of cuts to NASA’s science program budgets, and that line of advice was not welcome at the highest levels of NASA. The members of the NAC serve at the pleasure of the Administrator, and so Griffin was within his rights to remove the unwelcome members. However, the episode exacerbated strains between NASA and the scientific community and undermined the credibility of the NAC process.
By way of contrast, there is a formal process for incorporating minority positions in Academies advisory reports. Study committee chairs and staff members work hard to help a committee reach consensus—maybe occasionally at the cost of watering down some conclusions—but when agreement becomes impossible, the contrary views are included in their reports.
The flip side of independence is accessibility. NASA committees are generally more accessible to NASA officials, and they offer more options for interactions. Grunsfeld’s comments quoted above illustrate the close, informal relationships that NASA expects with its internal committees.
Al Diaz, a former NASA associate administrator for science, offered an important alternative way of looking at the differences between NASA’s committees and Academies committees, and this is a key point. He described the relationships not in terms of how NASA viewed them but from the perspective of how the two sets of advisory bodies appear to view the relationships. Diaz recalled that the two different perspectives also led to different levels of stress or cohesion when he was leading the program:
“This goes back to this question about whose resources are they that NASA is using to do science missions. I think there was a very clear belief in the [Academies] that these are resources that are being entrusted to NASA to benefit the scientific community… [The NASA] advisory committees were involved in advising NASA on how to conduct what were clearly NASA missions. And as a consequence, I think there was a much better working relationship between the internal advisory committees and NASA itself.”
Finally, it’s fair to ask whether any advisory relationships have been truly independent or whether there is always an element of allegiance or dependence that influences advisory conclusions. Certainly, advisors’ recommendations often have aligned with NASA’s preferences. For example, the SSB’s 1975 endorsement of the Large Space Telescope and the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey endorsements of an X-ray observatory in 1982 and an infrared observatory in 1991 all coincided with NASA managers’ hopes.
On the other hand, the history of advisory relationships provides ample examples of when advisors have taken contrary views and challenged the agency. Consider the frequent SSB criticism of draft NASA space science strategic plans in the late 1990s through the early 2010s, the 2005 Earth science decadal survey statement that the US Earth observations program “is at risk of collapse,” or the 2006 “Balance Report” that concluded that
“[t]he program proposed for space and Earth science is not robust; it is not properly balanced to support a healthy mix of small, medium, and large missions and an underlying foundation of scientific research and advanced technology projects; and it is neither sustainable nor capable of making adequate progress toward the goals that were recommended in the National [Academies] decadal surveys.” 
Usually, the contrary findings do reflect the positions of the scientific community even when they are not what NASA might prefer, and that’s the proper task of advisors.
The important point is that advice that agrees with the agency does not necessarily mean that advisors are not independent. Neither NASA nor advisors make up their ideas ab initio. They all stem from ideas born in the scientific community, polished and developed via community and agency discussions, and then tested to see what rises to the top. NASA listens and advisors listen. While no doubt there have been exceptions, outside advisors have largely sorted out priorities independent of what NASA has requested, even when the resulting viewpoints agree. The advisors’ job has usually been to review, assess, and recommend. History shows that when done well, that process has added value because the job was conducted by people who were objective and not directly under NASA control. When they agreed with NASA, it was often because NASA already had been doing its job well.
Practical differences in the way that internal and external advisory bodies conduct their work can have a significant impact on the overall advisory process. And perhaps the two most important factors translate into time and money.
The issue of turnaround time has popped up time and time again because the utility of advice often depends on timely delivery. Grunsfeld’s comments above illustrate how NASA prefers to go to its own committees when a prompt answer is needed. NASA can turn to its internal standing committees essentially immediately or at least put an issue before them at their next regularly scheduled meeting. Then the committee can respond at once, so long as the agency’s provisions for vetting advice through the NAC can be handled. With the recent institution of a version of short, SSB standing-committee reports that present findings but not formal recommendations, the Academies now have an approach that can also respond to NASA’s needs for advice on shorter time scales.
One disadvantage of the NAC Science Committee’s near-real-time approach to advisory activities is that it rarely has time to dig into topics in depth and to substantively assimilate and integrate what it hears from its disciplinary subcommittees. This was evident, for example, in an extended discussion at a Science Committee meeting in July 2012. Members of the committee were debating how to handle recommendations from some of its subcommittees about a perennial issue—i.e., relative priorities and balance between small and large spaceflight missions in an overall science program. After considerable give and take that led to tabling the question, committee members expressed frustration that the meetings lacked time for adequate investigation and deliberation.
|Thanks to the rigor with which that advice is developed and peer reviewed and its association with the reputation of the Academies, those reports are often viewed as being more credible compared to advice from NASA committees, which must overcome a burden of skepticism about their independence from NASA.
The SSB always has had to first ensure that adequate funding for a study was available and to secure formal go-ahead approval from the Academies Governing Board, and those steps could take weeks or months. Then, once an Academies study committee completes a draft consensus report, there is a period, which can require a few weeks or a few months, for independent peer review of the report conducted under the auspices of the Academies Report Review Committee. With the recent use of standing committee short reports to accelerate the study process, having a budget already in place for continuing work by standing committees has eased the former problem of having to wait for new Academies committee funding before beginning work on a study.
NASA committees, on the other hand, have rarely added the independent review stage for advice developed by the committee. The upshot is that Academies studies, which are very probably more rigorous than NASA committees’ quick-response advice, come at a cost of turnaround time that is often measured in months.
The other significant operational factor is monetary cost. Academies advisory activities are conducted under a contract that covers the costs of travel and logistics for in-person committee meetings, salaries and benefits for the Academies staff members who organize and support all aspects of the studies, and production of the study reports. On the other hand, the operations of NASA’s internal committees require a smaller staff load; the time span per piece of advice is shorter; there is no report review phase for the staff to coordinate; advisory report production is often, but not always, a smaller aspect of the activity; and some internal administrative costs are invisible. Budgeting for internal NASA committee activities is probably easier to plan and control, because a NASA committee can be constrained to a prescribed budget while demands for a new Academies study may pop up at any time during a budget year. Consequently, there is a net cost advantage for NASA committees compared to Academies committees.
The extent to which audiences are inclined to respect and accept outside advice often depends on perceptions of the stature of the advisors and the credibility of the advice. Stature depends on both tangible factors, such as advisors’ seniority, experience, and recognition, and on intangibles such as institutional reputation. Both NASA and the Academies strive to select members of advisory groups who bring the relevant tangible credentials to the enterprise. NASA probably engages more relatively junior scientists on its lower-level committees and analysis groups. Former science Associate Administrator Len Fisk often joked that NASA’s internal committee structure offered a career path for advisors starting with membership in analysis groups and progressing upward to division-level subcommittees, then to the committee to advise the associate administrator, and ultimately to the NAC.
Academies committees and reports have an edge in the intangibles because of their association with the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The same edge goes to Academies advice when it comes to credibility. Thanks to the rigor with which that advice is developed and peer reviewed and its association with the reputation of the Academies, those reports are often viewed as being more credible compared to advice from NASA committees, which must overcome a burden of skepticism about their independence from NASA.
Views of independence can depend, of course, on whether one is on the receiving end or out of the line of fire. Ed Weiler recalled that during his time as associate administrator for space science in the late 1990s his NASA committee chairs didn’t pull their punches:
“When I was AA I had some pretty independent SSAC chairs. I had Steve Squyres and Anneila Sargent. Anneila sent me some letters that I didn’t necessarily want to get; she was probably one of the most independent of the people I had. Steve was a close second. I didn’t always agree with SSAC, and I didn’t always like the advice I got.”
Nevertheless, Weiler was quite direct, and possibly overly generous, in describing his confidence in the power of the National Academies’ reputation:
“[T]he way I look at it is as a person experienced with congressional testimony. Knowing the self-interest of any particular congressman or congresswoman, if I go up there and some congressman from some state says, ‘Dr. Weiler, why did NASA choose to do this mission from Texas or this mission from California; why didn’t they do it in Arkansas or whatever?’… [T]here are two ways to answer that. I could say, ‘Well, because I decided to do it’ or ‘I personally like that mission.’ Or I could say, ‘I got the most respected scientific body on Earth to give me priorities, and that’s why, sir.’ Which one do you think would shut them up better? … I can’t tell you how many times I gave that answer on the Hill … I like having the full weight and authority of the most respected body of scientists on Earth behind the decisions I make.”
Former NASA Chief Scientist and former Academies committee member Ellen Stofan saw a similar situation some years after Weiler’s time as a NASA science leader:
“OMB [and] Congress…pay more attention to what the community thinks—via the [Academies]—than they do to what NASA thinks…The NAC can say whatever the NAC’s going to say. ... But our stakeholders view it as, ‘That’s your internal committee; you appointed them.’ Whereas the [Academies are] an outside voice, and to some extent they disagree with that at their own peril… [The] internal committees, I think, in general are not taken as seriously.”
American Astronomical Society executive and Washington science policy expert Kevin Marvel described the contrast in terms of relative independence of the two families of advisors:
“But with the internal advisory committees, it was never clear to me if they were, quote, allowed to have a contrary view compared to NASA Headquarters perspectives. They sometimes did, but from my remembrance of all the documents and advisory group reports and what not, they never went too far astray from what I would call NASA internal dogma at some level. Whereas the external advisory committees had much more freedom to speak broadly and give contrarian advice to what was going on internally.”
One long-time staff member of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology had a similar perspective:
“I would say that the kind of perception of the NASA Advisory Council has kind of waxed and waned over time. It has varied in terms of [whether it is] seen as captive of the Administrator, and you’re not going to expect them to break new ground. Whereas we see the Academies as where you’re going to get a more independent examination of the issues.”
A case in point that reinforces those impressions comes from the March 2012 meeting of the NAC Science Committee. In opening the meeting, committee Chair Wes Huntress commented that a major concern at that meeting would be how NASA could cope with cuts in the agency’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget that would wreak havoc on the planetary science program. Huntress noted that the cuts would include an overall 21% reduction in planetary science funding, curbs on planning for future missions to the outer planets, and NASA’s withdrawal from a Mars program partnership with the European Space Agency. When NASA’s John Grunsfeld spoke to the committee, he reminded the members that they serve as Special Government Employees, and he urged them to
“measure their public statements in order to send the message intended. Messages can be misunderstood by the public and used as a headline out of context to damage the science program.”
One of the most significant aspects of the evolution of the advisory ecosystem relates to changes in institutional perceptions and responses to conflicts of interest. The most effective advisors are most often individuals who are well informed and experienced in the topics at hand, and when it comes to space research that means that the best advisors are usually active researchers. But if active space scientists are going to be advising NASA about space science, how can the advisory process maintain its credibility with respect to the potential for conflicts of interest when the practitioners are advising the agency that supports their practice? NASA has always been aware of the need to mitigate potential conflicts, just as NACA was in the more distant past. A standard approach has always been to ensure that committee members understand their colleagues’ interests and potential for conflicts so that nothing is hidden and to ensure that the composition of an advisory committee is sufficiently broad and balanced that potential individual conflicts are balanced by the perspectives of other members. That system of checks and balances has been largely effective throughout NASA’s history.
|“His common reaction was that his program was too important to trust to people who did not have a conflict, meaning who did not understand his program.”
The enactment of the Federal Advisory Committee Act in the early 1970s made the process of mitigating conflicts of interest more formal and systematic that it had been in NASA’s early years. Nevertheless, even then senior managers would not let a new formal process handicap their efforts to obtain the best advice that they felt they could get. For example, in recalling the era when Noel Hinners led the space science program in the 1970s, Tom Young noted Hinners’ approach to advisors’ competence:
“But Noel’s advisory group was a group that he appointed. One of the anecdotal things I remember about it was there were some comments [from] the Chief Counsel or someone…that Noel had too many people on his advisory group that had a conflict. And I remember Noel’s reaction, which was characteristic of his strength as a leader. His common reaction was that his program was too important to trust to people who did not have a conflict, meaning who did not understand his program.”
There is a form of advice that straddles the line between informal and formal and that depends almost entirely on personal relationships. An advisory committee chair plays a particularly important role in ensuring that advice has an impact. A chair’s or key committee member’s relationship with a senior official on the receiving end of the advice has often been pivotal in this sense, and in some notable cases, that relationship has helped make the advisory process uniquely effective. History is full of stories of how intense debates between NASA officials and their most outspoken committee member enhanced the advisory process. Perhaps the most important characteristic of these examples of close relationships between advisors and advisees is that they rested on a solid balance of respect, cooperation, and independence.
This article has examined the advisory process to compare two different systems or approaches: formally chartered bodies established by NASA and formally chartered bodies established by the National Academies. While there are some relatively clear distinctions between the two formal systems, the distinctions are not absolute or universal. Furthermore, both approaches have their own relative advantages and handicaps, and so when an agency official has a choice of which alternative approach to use, the choice is often a matter of a customer’s needs.
Academies advisory committees, including those of the Space Studies Board, have often proven preferable when the advice depends on in-depth analysis, strategic or long-term perspectives, a nearly impeccable pedigree, and the highest degree of independence. NASA’s own committees have been well-suited to tasks that depend on a quick response, direct interaction, and guidance on more tactical or operational topics. In recent years both systems have appeared to grow more rigid in their handling of conflicts of interest, all in the name of FACA. There are of course, informal advisory contacts in which an agency official consults with or hears from individuals who have no formal standing. These contacts offer the greatest flexibility and freedom from procedural constraints, but they lack the power of advice developed in public view by multiple experts who integrate a balanced range of perspectives to reach consensus.
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