Science  18 May 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5520, pp. 1277

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  1. Go Slow

    NASA has suddenly applied the brakes to an effort to create an outside group to run space station research (Science, 17 December 1999, p. 2251). NASA Administrator Dan Goldin surprised his own staffers recently when he told a congressional panel he prefers to “ease into the whole thing.”

    The “thing” is an independent nonprofit organization that would oversee station science and commercial efforts. The idea won approval last year from the National Research Council and has been backed by other studies. But instead of choosing a single winner in a competition, as expected, NASA intends to pick two semifinalists—perhaps in 2002—and let them compete for an additional year.


    The shift has little to do with research, say NASA officials and congressional aides. Instead, it reflects concerns over the new entity's location and how it will handle commercial projects. The delay isn't expected to worry researchers, as the station will have little room for science until after 2005.

  2. Accounting Problem

    The debate over the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has ignited again. At a Washington, D.C., press conference last week, former federal budget examiner Robert Civiak said the Department of Energy (DOE) has vastly understated the cost of NIF, a laser megaproject under construction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

    Last year, some members of Congress tried to kill NIF after DOE admitted that construction costs had spiraled from $1.2 billion to $3.4 billion (Science, 5 May 2000, p. 782). But consultant Civiak, a researcher who once tracked NIF for the White House budget office, says the real total is closer to $5 billion. In a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Tri-Valley CAREs, two groups that oppose the project, Civiak concludes that the DOE estimate ignores some costly items, including more than half a billion dollars for fabricating and positioning the laser's targets. Overall, he estimates that operating NIF for 30 years will cost $34.5 billion, compared to DOE's estimate of $6.7 billion.

    Livermore's Susan Houghton says Civiak's analysis is “silly.” NIF's budget shouldn't be saddled with the full cost of targets, for instance, she argues, because other projects will use them, too. Congress is expected to take another look at NIF's costs later this year.

  3. Measuring Up

    What good is a painfully detailed review of a research agency's activities if it's ignored by the politicians who draw up the agency's budget? That's what a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel asks in a new report on a 1993 law aimed at making the federal government more efficient.

    The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) requires each agency to set annual goals, define how it plans to achieve them, and then measure the outcome. For years, researchers have worried that the act would trivialize federally funded research by forcing agencies to show a short-term payoff from basic research. Now they have a new fear—that agency officials are wasting time preparing reports that lawmakers don't read.

    The annual GPRA reports “have not been used for a political purpose, which is the ultimate goal,” says Enriqueta Bond. Bond co-chairs the NAS panel that looked at how five leading research agencies deal with the act, which kicked in a few years ago. A White House budget official agrees, adding that “the measures used by most agencies aren't particularly helpful” in setting funding levels.

    The annual exercise does help the agency evaluate research quality and relevance, according to the academy panel, but falls short in deciding if the work is world-class. Still, the burden of preparing the reports may soon outweigh the benefit, Bond warns, unless policy-makers start paying more attention.

  4. Quake-Proof

    LIGO has been shaken and rattled, but it is nearly ready to roll again. On 28 February, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck Washington state and took a toll on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Hanford (below), a sensitive detector designed to detect the warping of space-time by gravitational waves (Science, 21 April 2000, p. 420). The shaking knocked equipment out of alignment and damaged some mirror attachments, says site chief Fred Raab, derailing a scheduled joint observation session with a twin facility in Louisiana. But repairs should be completed by the end of the month, and the project is still on track to begin its gravitational-wave search next year.