NASA snippet

NASA may be rolling back their “full cost accounting” scheme

A couple of years ago, NASA switched to “full cost accounting.
Previously a fair fraction of NASA permanent staff were paid out of center budgets directly, but, with some reason, to be fair, they moved to the aforemention full cost accounting, where each persons time had to be accounted for and charged to the appropriate line.
This can be a serious pain when you have someone supporting or supervising multiple projects, or when someone wants to do something new that hasn’t been through a budget cycle. On the other hand, there was a serious issue that some projects were receiving hidden “subsidies” because staff were supporting those projects but their time was not being charged to the project.
Some of the more spectacular surge in mission costs recently was because of this switch.
Theoretically this should have zero net cost – the NASA staff have to compete for grants (what line, I wonder, do they charge for the time they spend writing grants to get money to pay for their time…), so there is harder competition for any given pool of money, but the pool should increase because the direct grants to centers are smaller since more of the staff cost goes to grants.
Except of course that didn’t happen, so there wasn’t enough money to go round.
So people were put to tasks where money was available, not necessarily where their skills were appropriate or where they were needed.
My impression, as an outsider who did not have to actually do any of this, is that the system was a mess and degenerating as funding lagged and mismatched needs.

The problem came because this was finegrained, and the grants were too small and the actual effort needed not always as described by a proposal written 2-3 years earlier. Or a lab with critical equipment or skills got nominally shut down because a pissy reviewer knocked their proposal that year for being “phoned in”, or something. Y’know, like happens in university research…

So something gave – and “I hear” that starting ’09 probably, the center will have partial general budgets for staff costs and only need to account for part of their staff time on line-by-line basis. The danger is if the grants pool gets cut because “there is less competition for it” and there is less money in the system at the end of it, but overall it sounds like a decent compromise. Unless we end up with the worst of both worlds.
We’ll see soon enough.

In other news, sounds like there is light at then end of the tunnel for Science Mission Directorate, with some loosening of R&A funding and more small missions.
This also will come at a cost, namely fewer big missions.
In fact it sounds like NASA will become like the old ESA!
“Have an idea for a instrument of mission package?”
“Find an ESA mission which will give it a free ride and ask NASA for instrument development money, but keep it small!”

Comments

  1. #1 Scott H.
    October 3, 2007

    Some of the more spectacular surge in mission costs recently was because of this switch.

    I’ve heard some stories about people who estimated what the costs of past high profile missions would have been if full-cost accounting were active at that time (Chandra and COBE in particular). Wasn’t pretty! So many NASA center people get pulled in when a mission is getting down to the wire that a full-cost accounting version of the costs can be astounding.

  2. #2 Brad Holden
    October 3, 2007

    (what line, I wonder, do they charge for the time they spend writing grants to get money to pay for their time

    Whatever grant was most appropriate.

    This lead to many PIs letting people go because all of their grant money was sucked up into paying their own salaries, which they used to write more grant applications….

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurdsson
    October 3, 2007

    Yup, the European Union famously demonstrated that there is a point where competitiveness is so high (and success rate so low) that, given some assumptions about how long it takes to write a grant, the net effect of a grants program is to decrease science being done. More man hours are spent writing unsuccessful grants than are awarded to do science.

    Conceptually true, but flawed in detail, since PI hours don’t have the same scientific productivity as minions… and as I recall they overestimated the time it takes to write a grant (self-reported of course). In particular it ignored proposal recycling.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    October 3, 2007

    Some of the more spectacular surge in mission costs recently was because of this switch

    Especially coupled with the efforts of Sen. Mikulski (D-GSFC) to keep as much of the spacecraft building business at Goddard as possible even as Goddard personnel became prohibitively expensive.

    In other news, sounds like there is light at then end of the tunnel for Science Mission Directorate, with some loosening of R&A funding and more small missions. This also will come at a cost, namely fewer big missions.

    I can’t speak for astrophysics, but judging from the recent track record in heliophysics, I would call this a definite net positive. We have had several recent missions of both types. Missions that are PI-driven, as small missions usually are, generally get almost as much science return as big missions as big missions do, at a fraction of the cost.

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