New administrator seeks to reclaim its research mission.
NASA's new administrator, Mike Griffin, has told employees at Ames Research Center that he plans to cut back on the outsourcing of research projects to help NASA employees refocus on basic research.
Griffin, who started his job in April, said scientific projects with uncertain outcomes or research with long-term payoffs need federal funding and should not be outsourced to companies, which must please their shareholders. He said people must not lose sight of the value of federal research centers such as Ames.
He also indicated a willingness to reverse his predecessor's emphasis on outsourcing.
When asked about his strategy by Ames employees, who have been hit by recent buyout offers, Griffin said he wants to offer fewer opportunities for businesses to get a piece of NASA research.
"There will be fewer of those opportunities rather than more, and they will largely be directed by NASA rather than merely be put up for grabs by industry," he said. "I don't have a percentage, but there is a change."
Griffin did not present any numbers to reflect how he planned to change the direction of NASA's research. But he said federally funded research and development should be preserved. "It has served us well for decades, and I don't plan to dismantle it and turn every federal center into a company," he said.
Griffin said he would support changes in competition within NASA. "Expect to see less competed research from me rather than more," he said. "And expect to see some bolstering of core competencies at federal centers, with competition among individual researchers rather than between centers."
NASA officials say the agency will make changes gradually. "We will work with a scalpel, not an ax," NASA spokesman Doc Mirelson said, adding that plans will be in place by the end of 2005. It is too early to talk about canceling contracts or redirecting money, he said.
Mirelson cited NASA's new Shared Services Center at the Stennis Space Center as an example of the agency refocusing on core competencies. At Stennis, Computer Sciences Corp. contractors will perform human resources, procurement and other administrative functions that have been handled at NASA headquarters and NASA research centers. Meanwhile, NASA employees will focus on science and engineering, agency officials said.
As further evidence of NASA's new direction, officials canceled plans to outsource systems engineering and integration work for NASA's exploration program. In an April 27 policy statement, officials said NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate will not release a request for proposals for systems engineering and integration services.
"As needs grow in the future, the possibility of an RFP for a systems engineering and integration contractor will be examined," the announcement states. "In the near term, however, the majority of the systems engineering and integration workforce will be government personnel."
Chris Knight, a vice president of the Ames Federal Employees Union, said the decision to cancel the RFP is reassuring, but he wants more information. "We have not seen particular action in regard to research and development in computer science- related research," he said. "We're still holding our breath."
Some industry officials are skeptical about Griffin's ability to change NASA. His plan for the agency, while understandable, might deflate under market forces, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry association.
"It's not entirely surprising or inappropriate," Soloway said. "It's akin to a new general manager of a sports team wanting to do his own coaching of the team."
"There is some concern within NASA about the degree to which it may or may have not lost its scientific competencies," he added.
But the results of Griffin's new policies will depend on a much broader workforce challenge, Soloway said. Griffin's predecessors largely looked to industry, he said, because they needed to augment NASA's expertise with private-sector talent.