A task force of distinguished scientists, asked to review and prioritize
the research objectives of NASA's Office of Biological and Physical
Research (OBPR), concluded that the U.S. Core Complete configuration
of the International Space Station (ISS) is not worthy of being considered
a science program. NASA is currently focusing its resources on finishing
construction of the scaled- back three-person core station; if the assembly
is successful and cost and management problems overcome, NASA and the
Administration will consider whether to expand the station's capabilities
beyond this configuration. In a report that is likely to be used by
station critics, the task force warned that if NASA does not enhance
facilities, available crew time, and shuttle capacity for ISS research,
OBPR will be unlikely to achieve much of its highest priority research.
The Research Maximization and Prioritization (REMAP) Task Force was
charged by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe in March with evaluating
research priorities and productivity for the OBPR portfolio, which includes
space station research, and providing advice on "how to achieve
the greatest progress in high-priority research." Due to time constraints,
the task force examined only the existing OBPR research programs, and
relied on prior assessments of specific research areas. Task Force chair
Rae Silver of Columbia University presented the group's report to the
NASA Advisory Council (NAC) on July 10. The Advisory Council will review
the findings and recommendations of the REMAP report, and prepare its
recommendations for O'Keefe later in the summer.
The task force, comprising 20 scientists from relevant disciplines,
found that the current OBPR organization is not optimal for identifying
and focusing on the highest priority research areas or multidisciplinary
questions that span research areas. It recommends that OBPR's research
portfolio "be built around the most important scientific problems
relevant to the NASA mission on the ISS, rather than covering representative
sub- fields of science." The task force reviewed OBPR research
without regard to platform (shuttle, free flyer, ground-based or ISS)
and determined that the highest priority OBPR research falls into one
or both of two broad categories: enabling research for human exploration
of space, and research with intrinsic scientific value. Then, in each
of the broad fields of medical, biological and physical sciences, it
ranked each specific research area as either first, second, third or
fourth priority, or "consider termination." The report acknowledges
that strategic planning within OBPR has historically been difficult
because of budget instability and unpredictability of flight access.
The issues that appeared to place the greatest constraints on achieving
top priority OBPR research were available crew time on the Core Complete
ISS configuration, and the capacity of the shuttle to deliver the necessary
equipment and resources to the station. How much these factors will
impact station research is unknown at this time; discussion at the July
10 meeting indicated a need for further analysis on which research priorities
can be conducted on other platforms, how ISS research can be phased
over time, and the actual availability of crew and shuttle capacity.
However, based on its concerns, the task force states that the U.S.
Core Complete version of the station should not be characterized "as
a science driven program." It does not make a similar recommendation
with respect to the "U.S. plus I.P. [International Partners] Core
Complete" configuration, although it expresses similar concerns
regarding crew and shuttle availability. The task force recommends that
NASA "ensure appropriate funding for implementation of high priority
facilities," such as a centrifuge and plant and animal habitats.
The report urges that, as ISS construction nears completion, NASA designate
one crew member as "science officer" and dedicate at least
one-third of the crew time to research operations.
Among the report's additional recommendations are several addressing
the science community for OBPR and its selection of research projects.
It suggests that OBPR "consider alternative methods for research
solicitation" beyond strictly peer-review, to better support "goal-oriented,
need-driven" research. It warns that there are too few graduate
students and top quality scientists participating in OBPR research due
to "the lack of predictable, frequent, and timely access to flight
opportunities" and the lack of "a stable funding base."
It notes that "research funds have been diverted a total of four
times to cover engineering overruns," and calls on NASA to "assure
science as a priority commitment with regard to flight schedule and
At the July 10 presentation, there seemed to be some confusion over
the role and purview of the REMAP Task Force. While an earlier task
force on ISS cost and management, led by NAC member Thomas Young (FYI
had called for prioritization of space station research to help determine
the desired final configuration, REMAP was asked to review the entire
OBPR program. REMAP was charged with evaluating OBPR science "to
maximize the research return within the available resources in the President's
FY 2003 Budget...with an emphasis on establishing the research content
for the ISS US Core Complete configuration (FYI #48,
2002)." However, Silver reported that O'Keefe had instructed
the panel not to consider "facility constraints" in its prioritization.
Young and fellow Advisory Committee member John Glenn voiced concerns
that the task force report could provide ammunition to critics of the
ISS program; Glenn called its implications for political support "dynamite."
Noting that his task force considered the ISS Core Complete configuration
a viable - if not optimal - end state, Young questioned whether the
REMAP findings and preliminary estimates of crew and shuttle availability
implied that, if the station were not to be enhanced beyond U.S. Core
Complete, the project should be terminated. In the discussion that followed,
it was pointed out that not all top priority research needed to be conducted
on the station, that research goals could be spread out over time, and
that NASA was working to improve crew time and shuttle capacity to support
ISS research. When pressed, Silver acknowledged that, if the station
was not going to be enhanced beyond the U.S. core configuration and
insufficient shuttle space would be available for scientific experiments
and supplies, perhaps termination should be considered as one option.
She did not advocate this course of action, however.
In a press release, O'Keefe responded to the REMAP panel's report:
"[T]his is a challenge. It is the first time NASA has attempted
to prioritize its research objectives across multiple disciplines
a comprehensive and fully integrated research strategy.... I look forward
to the final recommendations of the NASA Advisory Council and working
with the entire science community to reap the full benefits of this
Agency's space-based research portfolio." An Executive Summary
of the REMAP report is available at http://spaceresearch.nasa.gov/general_info/remap.html
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics