WASHINGTON, D.C. – The House of Representatives today approved, by voice vote, legislation to address the “brain drain” at NASA.  Within five years, a quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire.  S. 610, the NASA Flexibility Act of 2003, would give NASA more flexibility to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce. 

The House version of the legislation, H.R. 1085, was sponsored by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).  S. 610 was approved in the Senate by voice vote on November 24, 2003 and will now head to the President to be signed into law.

“The need for this bill, it seems to me, is beyond dispute.  Events of the past year have highlighted NASA’s need to attract and retain the best workforce imaginable.  And yet NASA is on the brink of losing the talent that it already has,” said Chairman Boehlert.  “S. 610 is a targeted, carefully crafted, moderate approach to giving NASA additional tools to meet that challenge.  The bill doesn’t make any radical departures from current law.  Rather, it modifies and expands existing workforce authorities so that NASA can compete with the private sector in the labor market.  That’s just common sense.”

Boehlert continued, “Will changes in civil service law solve all of NASA’s workforce problems?  Of course not.  But NASA won’t be better prepared to recruit and retain the workforce it needs if it’s competing with ‘one hand tied behind its back’ as it is with current law.” 

“I am very grateful to Chairman Boehlert for his efforts in making this bill a reality – he has been a true statesman,” said NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.  “People are NASA’s most valuable asset, and we’re very appreciative to finally have the necessary tools to enhance our ability to recruit and retain the nation’s top scientists and engineers. In addition, this bill will help enable us to fulfill the President’s bold vision for our agency, which was announced on January 13. I look forward to the President signing the NASA Flexibility Act of 2003 into law.”

Within NASA’s Science and Engineering (S&E) workforce, the over-60 population outnumbers its under-30 population by nearly 3 to 1. The General Accounting Office has ranked “strengthening human capital” as one of NASA’s top management challenges since 2001.

S. 610 builds on existing law.  Among other reforms, it allows NASA to offer larger recruitment and retention bonuses than are permitted currently, and to offer bonuses to employees shifting between federal jobs without relocating.  The bill language parallels existing law and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) regulations.  In addition, S. 610 requires the NASA Administrator to submit to Congress, all NASA employees, and employee representatives (unions) a detailed Workforce Plan approved by the Office of Personnel Management before exercising any of the authorities provided under the Act. 

“S. 610 is an improvement over earlier versions of the workforce legislation.  At the same time, we should not fool ourselves into believing that this bill will solve all of NASA’s workforce problems.  I will be watching over the coming years to make sure that NASA’s performance on workforce issues matches its stated intentions,” said Science Committee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN).

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who contributed important scholarship provisions to the bill, said, “As we begin a new chapter in America’s space experience, S. 610 will help ensure that talented and creative people continue to commit their time and services to and America’s space effort.” 

Last year, the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE), NASA’s largest union, endorsed Boehlert’s bill, H.R. 1085.  IFPTE President Greg Junemann issued the following comments in response to today’s House action. “[I]t certainly is refreshing to see that the NASA human resources bill includes concrete protections for the agency’s workers.  These protections, by the way, are due in no small part to the work of House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert,” said Junemann.

“As a scientist, educator and legislator, I have been working for many years to improve math and science education programs in this nation. Engineering enrollments in our nation’s universities have been declining for many years because we have not been getting kids excited about becoming engineers. I applaud and support this bill because it will allow NASA to recruit and retain new scientists and engineers and the scholarship-for-service program will attract new students to the science and engineering fields,” said Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI).

“While S. 610 deals primarily with financial incentives, I don’t believe that NASA’s ‘best and brightest’ are motivated primarily by money anyway.  Rather, I think it’s the chance to work on cutting-edge R&D and to attempt the near-impossible that attracts them to NASA, and what will keep them there,” said Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Nick Lampson (D-TX).  “I intend to take a close look at NASA’s plans for the Space Station and the Space Shuttle as we review the FY 2005 budget request over the coming months.  We owe it to the NASA workforce to ask the tough questions.”

“I commend Science Committee Chairman Boehlert and Space Subcommittee Chairman Rohrabacher for resolutely focusing on this issue,” stated Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL).  “This bill’s flexibility allows a reshaping of NASA’s workforce to meet today’s challenges and implement the President’s Space Vision.”