The Applied Sciences Program: NASA’s (almost) hidden treasure.

(The last few posts have focused on technology transfer, by various names; this present piece continues that line of thought.)

Artist's rendition of NASA's SMAP spacecraft

Artist’s rendition of NASA’s SMAP spacecraft

It’s been a privilege to serve on several advisory groups over my career, but none has proved more interesting than NASA’s Applied Sciences Advisory Committee (ASAC), which has provided periodic looks at NASA’s Applied Sciences Program (ASP)[1]. Embedded within NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, ASP is unique across the agency.

There’s history behind this. Look back to the 1958 language establishing NASA, which charged the new Agency with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:”

  • Expansion of human knowledge of the Earth, the atmosphere and space
  • Improvement of aeronautical and space vehicles
  • Development and operation of vehicles for space flight
  • Establishment of long-range studies of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes
  • Preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science technology
  • The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance
  • Cooperation by the United States with other nations in the peaceful application of space research
  • Effective utilization of scientific and engineering resources of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment…”

With the exception of the bullet referring directly to national defense, the stated objectives only hint at applying NASA science for societal benefit outside the aeronautical and space activities per se. That was the way things were done back then. NASA was established as a so-called science agency, and it was accepted as a given at the time that as science and technology advanced, applications – and with them, societal benefits – would necessarily follow. There was no need to take special measures to foster such innovation. Much the same philosophy guided the formation in those years of the National Science Foundation, the DoE national laboratories, the Office of Naval Research, and so on.

As policies, go, it hasn’t proved half-bad. Results for the past half-century have surpassed expectations. Public support and funding for science (not just for NASA but for all these agencies) have remained strong and remarkably consistent. Scientists and engineers in turn have delivered an enormous payback – in all branches of science and technology: IT, healthcare, energy technologies, earth sciences, and much more. But over time, both sides have developed a sense that it might be possible to do better. Start with scientists: ICSU noted early in this century that the biggest challenge facing science and technology is the widening gap between the advance of science and society’s ability to benefit. For its part, society has found itself financially strapped even as confronted with resource-, environmental-, and hazard- challenges of greater complexity, scale, and urgency. Requests for help from scientists and engineers have gotten more pointed. In recent years, language in the enabling legislation for NASA and other science agencies has made more explicit mention of societal benefit as an overarching goal.

Enter the Applied Sciences Program, specifically established in NASA to accelerate and increase societal return on investments in space science and technology. ASP is both relatively young (dating back in its present form only about 14 years) and relatively small (its budget is just less than $40M/year, compared with a budget of $1.5-$2B for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division as a whole). But throughout its history, ASP has been punching above its weight. The Program can already point to numerous successes: fostering the application of space technology to air quality monitoring, public health, agriculture, resilience to natural hazards, and much more.

The societal benefits aren’t confined to the United States. They’ve been shared abroad as well. Just one example: SERVIR, a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helps developing nations in Asia, East Africa and Central America improve their environmental decision making through access to observations from space.

Over its short lifetime, ASP has quickly grown more disciplined and proactive in its work, across a broad front. ASP is increasingly able to entrain applied scientists and users in the early mission-planning stages, instead of waiting until near-launch. In this way they’ve reduced the time lag separating the initial collection of data for science from its ultimate practical use. Consultation with users has led ASP and NASA’s ESD to develop new big-data archive formats such as so-called data rods to facilitate data access and applications. And by explicitly characterizing the rate at which projects advance through nine-level Applied Readiness Levels (ALR)[2], ASP has helped its investigators and users evaluate their progress.

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) mission exemplifies the progress being made. Encouraged by a call in the 2007 Decadal Survey[3], the SMAP mission and science team included applications in their pre-launch sciences while remaining within a pre-determined funding envelope. Scientists found that such inclusion strengthened the science itself as well as the direct societal benefit. Their experience is encouraging scientists working on other missions to follow suit.

This spirit is captured in the SMAP Handbook:

“A rare characteristic of the SMAP Project is its emphasis on serving both basic Earth System science as well as applications in operational and practice-oriented communities. The NRC Decadal Survey identified a number of possible domains of applications with SMAP science data products. These include weather and climate prediction, agricultural and food production decision support systems, floods and drought monitoring, environmental human health assessments, and national security applications. The SMAP Project and the SMAP Science Definition Team developed formal plans to engage application users from a diversity of settings and institutions. A SMAP Early Adopter program was launched to facilitate two-way exchanges of needs and capabilities between the community and the Project. The approach to applied science is described in a dedicated section in the SMAP Handbook.”

The successes of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program hold two lessons: (1) first, there’s no dearth of low-hanging fruit in applications. Societal benefits are instead limited more by existing funding levels for such work. (2) We would likely greatly reduce the cost and accelerate the progress of harnessing science for practical use by recognizing and treating science application as an object of research and study in and of itself.

Want an analogy? Consider the Human Genome Project. Mapping the human genome was pursued along two distinct lines. The first was a brute-force method, using technologies available early in the project, at a cost of about $10/gene. The second explored ways and means to accelerate and reduce the cost of the sequencing process itself (reaching a goal of something like $1/gene) and only then turning to the mapping. The first approach more than repaid its investment. But the second approach has made it possible to economically map individual human genetic differences, as well as the genomes of countless other species, unlocking even more riches. Mapping the human genome for the first time cost about $3B; today the cost is less than $1000. This is transforming the prospects for healthcare much as the Global Positioning System has expanded the possibilities for and applications of geolocation.)

Such attention to the discipline of science application more broadly will add to the store of human riches – what the economist Joel Mokyr has described as “our free lunch.”


[1] An important disclaimer: the views expressed here are just that – views (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW homepage). Moreover, they’re solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the conclusions of the ASAC or other ASAC members.

[2]In general, ARLs 1-3 encompass discovery and feasibility; ARLs 4-6 address development, testing, and validation; and, ARLs 7-9 focus on integration of the “application” into an end-user’s decision-making activity.

[3]The 2007 National Research Council report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (referred to in this report as the “2007 decadal survey” or “2007 survey”)

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