Letter: Study Divorce in Multiagency Programs

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The op-ed by Daniel N. Baker and D. James Baker [“Interagency Collaboration: Beware!” Dec. 6, page 19] is a good summary of and companion to the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) report on “Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Collaboration in Space and Earth Science Missions.” Both are valuable beyond just Earth science and space missions. But both are incomplete.

In spite of all good intentions, sometimes divorce is called for. For completeness and to increase its usefulness, the NRC report should also include analysis of and recommendations for how to deal with an existing multiagency program that needs a divorce.

Important is analysis and discussion of programs that ended in divorce and whether the divorce made a bad situation better or worse. Good options going forward are unlikely, so one must look at the whole picture to see the realistic options, and not just the desired ones. If one is realistic, the decision may — probably will — be from among bad options. The goal must be to find the least bad of the options with consideration of the consequences (including costs) of those choices. It may be that staying with the collaborative program is a better — still lousy but better — option than the others.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) may be a good case study: In President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request, submitted to Congress in February, NPOESS was canceled and to be replaced by a civilian program and a separate defense program of spacecraft. It appears that the decision was made for an ideal and not a realistic scenario. Part of the concern with NPOESS — beyond the management and oversight shortcomings — was a data gap between existing capabilities and the first NPOESS launch. The continuing resolutions for 2011 are probably having a significant impact on the replacement program schedules since, for example, the budget request had hundreds of millions of dollars more for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System than had been planned for NOAA’s contribution to NPOESS. To be realistic, a continuing resolution instead of an appropriation should have been planned for; to quote a Government Accountability Office report in September 2009: “In all but 3 of the last 30 years, Congress enacted a continuing resolution…”

Without a well-thought-out plan for the NPOESS divorce, the replacements (NOAA’s JPSS and the Defense Department’s Defense Weather Satellite System) probably will cost billions of dollars more than NPOESS, create bigger data gaps, leave instruments unlaunched (Advanced Data Collection System, Search and Rescue Repeater/Search and Rescue Processor), degrade data latency and more.

A follow-on study to the NRC report is needed to address the issues raised here before more agency divorces go astray.

 

Carl Wales

Bowie , Md.