Keith's note: On Saturday a Cygnus cargo vehicle arrived at the International Space Station (ISS). On board: a variety of experiments. Some of the experiments made it to the ISS via CASIS - a non-profit organization that relies on NASA for 99.9%+ of its income.
Yet if you look at the press release issued to news media by CASIS about Cygnus' arrival, there is no mention whatsoever of "NASA" - even though NASA paid for Cygnus - and all of CASIS' payloads on board.
Last Fall I posted a series of articles that looked into how CASIS operates. I am told that this exercise caused some consternation within CASIS and, to some extent, within NASA as well. I was also told that changes were being made at CASIS - by CASIS staff themselves. So I thought I'd wait a bit and see if anything started to change. It has been 6 months since I started posting this series. I detect no change in CASIS whatsoever. They are as oblivious to their long-standing problems - and equally as clueless as to the need to change - as they were last year.
CASIS is making a presentation at a National Academy of Sciences event on Wednesday and at a NASA Advisory Council meeting on Thursday. Since they're going to be explaining themselves to several influential audiences here in Washington, let's pick up where I left off - starting with a recap.
CASIS (Center for Advancement of Science in Space, Inc.) was created in response to legislation by Congress (NASA Authorization Act of 2010) to manage the U.S. portion of the ISS - which was designated as the ISS National Laboratory. Done in the spirit of other national laboratories around the U.S. the intent was noble - but the implementation was highly flawed. While there were two main competitors for this contract, it was a foregone conclusion that a team assembled by Florida - to operate in Florida - with people already in Florida - would win. Sen. Bill Nelson saw to that. He even jumped the gun in announcing the selection of the winner - in Florida.
CASIS came into existence as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in 2011 and receives $15 million a year from NASA. That money is given to CASIS without any need for CASIS to prove that it is worthy of continued funding. There is no penalty for under-performance by CASIS - or even failed performance. CASIS gets the money no matter what - because Congress says so. Were NASA to try and change their arrangement with CASIS significantly or even re-compete the CASIS contract for cause, Sen. Nelson and Congress would certainly halt such efforts before they began.
So ... NASA is stuck with CASIS for as long as CASIS wants to get $15 million a year from NASA. That will continue until 2020. Truth be known, CASIS is simply a Potemkin village of sorts created so that NASA can launder some money and create some high priced jobs in Florida in the process. The intent is to give the public the impression that NASA has handed the utilization of the ISS off to a solid, science-oriented non-profit that runs a national laboratory - because NASA can't do it. However, in many ways, CASIS simply duplicates functions that NASA already has in place - indeed, functions that NASA runs in parallel with CASIS. CASIS has also adopted a lot of NASA's bad habits as well. Since NASA pays all of CASIS' costs, one has to wonder if such duplication of efforts is worth the added expense. Given that science funding for ISS has always been lacking, one also has to ask whether this is the best use of NASA's limited science funds.
CASIS focuses only on what CASIS does and often ignores what NASA is doing on ISS - even when it offers direct synergies to what CASIS is doing. At the same time CASIS is chasing its own tail it is missing out on a lot of new technologies. With little apparent oversight on the part of NASA - and little interaction with the agency on overall goals and objectives - CASIS misses out on many chances to enhance and expand upon what NASA is doing. Doing a better job than NASA was the whole point of CASIS' existence but that has not been borne out in practice.
To be certain, the initial notion of having some sort of entity that worked with - but yet independent of NASA - and to avail itself of its external status, had clear merit. In many ways, CASIS is situated such that it can do many things that NASA cannot do directly or indirectly - things that many argue that it should be able to do. CASIS can use advertising, public relations, and social media in ways that the Federal government and Congress prevents NASA from doing. CASIS can form relationships with industry and external organizations in ways that NASA simply cannot. CASIS can also hire people, and adapt their workforce in ways that NASA can only dream of doing. CASIS could have been a really great way to enhance the way NASA uses the ISS - if only CASIS would cooperate.
Yet instead of becoming NASA's greatest asset - and friend - in the utilization of the International Space Station, CASIS has done nothing but what NASA was already doing. Although they say nice things in public, in private, NASA Headquarters and JSC staff are openly contemptuous of CASIS' unwillingness to coordinate their activities with NASA. Indeed, when press releases (such as the one issued about the Cygnus arrival) and other public statements are issued by CASIS with little or no mention of NASA, there is a clear message being sent to - and received by - NASA. CASIS goes out of its way not to mention the agency that pays 99.9% of its bills - and operates the on-orbit facility where 100% of its activities are performed.
Of course this is not all the fault of CASIS. According to its 2015 report on CASIS the GAO noted (page 20-21): "The one required activity in the cooperative agreement that CASIS has been unable to address is its interaction with the ISS National Laboratory Advisory Committee (INLAC) because the committee has not been staffed by NASA." The report goes on to note that NASA and CASIS point fingers at one another with each saying that they need more interaction - yet what they are doing is better than what Federal law requires them to do. The dysfunction is bidirectional.
As for measuring CASIS' performance, well, show me the metrics - and when you do, show that they actually reflect something that can be measured in the real world. Alas, accountability is something CASIS never seems to have the ability to implement. Again, the money will show up no matter what they do, so who cares? Well, the GAO does.
According to the GAO (page 24/25): "Our analyses indicated that CASIS did not establish measurable targets or goals for either fiscal year 2014 or 2015 metrics, which limits its ability to use these metrics to assess performance. We have previously reported that performance metrics should have quantifiable, numerical targets or other measurable values, which help assess whether overall goals and objectives were achieved. Without defined measurable targets or goals, it is unclear how NASA objectively assesses CASIS's performance. CASIS officials noted that operating as a new entity with no history made it difficult to establish performance targets, but this is beginning to change. CASIS officials initially told us in July 2014 that establishing targets would be arbitrary because CASIS processes and metrics are still evolving. Subsequently, in January 2015, they indicated that since CASIS now has some operating history, they will be able to do so. The Chairman of the CASIS Board of Directors told us that measurable targets should be developed and that this is a priority for the Board. However, CASIS has not established a date by which measurable targets will be developed. Further, CASIS officials indicated that not all metrics will have measurable targets initially because some metrics are subjective, such as those that attempt to measure the quality of research or a new technology generated by CASIS-sponsored research. The Chairman said that the CASIS Board of Directors is also working to develop targets for subjective measures, and they hope to have them in place in the next several years."
OK: its 2016 and CASIS shows no evidence of having a functional strategic plan, goals/objectives, understandable metrics, or quantifiable results. All we see is an annual plan with pretty graphics and numbers - numbers for which no background data is ever available. NASA's response? Yawn. As for how NASA and CASIS formally interact so as to gauge the effectiveness of CASIS - well, they do. But no one really seems to write anything down or follow procedures that all other NASA projects are required to adhere to. Again, why bother? CASIS is immune to the normal forces that drive NASA-funded activities. Or so it thinks.
This lack of meaningful or structured oversight has not escaped the notice of GAO (page 26): "Both CASIS and NASA officials told us that NASA does not document its annual program review of CASIS performance. Federal standards for internal controls call for information to be recorded and communicated to management and others who need it to carry out their responsibilities. This type of documented information is important to support decision making and conduct assessments. CASIS officials have not asked for a formal summary of the results of NASA's annual program review because CASIS receives informal feedback on quarterly reports provided to NASA. CASIS also maintains minutes of regularly scheduled meetings with NASA where any issues that need to be discussed between CASIS and NASA are addressed. While NASA does not document this annual assessment, NASA officials told us that they were generally satisfied with CASIS performance. CASIS officials, however, said that the results of the annual review should be reported in some sort of formal manner to make the information more actionable."
Yes, CASIS gives money to researchers to do interesting and useful things on ISS. The money comes from NASA - but it is burdened with CASIS overhead. So what does NASA get for the funds it runs through CASIS? Metrics should reveal that, right? According to CASIS' Dashboard, in FY 2015 only "noteable" (not a real word, BTW) research is 6 scientific papers (from 5 research teams). That's all folks. According to the dashboard, in FY 2015 CASIS claims a 44% "cooperative agreement funding breakout" which is some sort of tersely defined number they present about internal Vs external expenses. CASIS awarded $5,648,088 in grants in FY 2015. And yet it took an annual budget of $15,000,000 to do that - meaning that the real overhead cost was probably somewhere between 100% and 200% on every grant dollar CASIS spent on research. 44% Vs 100-200%. Pick a number - any number - none of this is ever defined. Regardless of the real overhead number I'm not sure that this is any more efficient than NASA is.
Just to be clear, I am not questioning the quality of the research selected by CASIS. Rather, I wonder if this is actually the most efficient use of NASA's limited budget. If you look at the research selected, and have a basic knowledge of the sort of research that NASA has historically selected, you will quickly note that there is a significant overlap with NASA's space biology and space medicine programs. Indeed, NASA just released NASA Space Biology Omnibus Research Announcement (ROSBio-2016) last week. Yet there seems to be no coordination between the space biology research that NASA funds and the space biology research that CASIS funds. In some cases, NASA and CASIS are pursuing parallel and potentially duplicative research without bothering to coordinate with one another. And when really cool or important stuff is done on ISS by NASA, CASIS ignores it - and vice versa. How is this enhancing America's utilization of its portion of the ISS?
One of CASIS' chartered tasks is to spread the good word about research onboard the ISS. CASIS spends huge sums of money for advertising and outreach - yet their return on that expense is questionable. In addition, some of the stuff that they put out about their outreach prowess is released without any hint of a sanity check. In their 2015 annual report on page 15/16 CASIS speaks glowingly of projects that reach hundreds or thousands of students - with a total reach of 120,692 (with all sorts of qualifiers as to what that number actually means - not sure how many are 'students'). Yet on page 3/4 they claim that they are "aiming to reach more than 2 million students annually through educational initiatives associated with ISS programs and partnerships." Even if you assume that the 120,692 number is all students, they have barely met 5% of their own goal after 5 years of operations. When you consider that there are over 300 million people in America (50 million+ K-12 students) that is rather anemic. Yet every time some space movie makes the Oscars or a probe takes a stunning image NASA almost breaks the Internet with its social media prowess - and what it inspires others to pass on. Why CASIS is not trying to join in synergistically with NASA (and vice versa) on such efforts is just baffling.
As for CASIS' media prowess, their claims know no bounds and often make no sense. On page 13/14 of their 2015 Annual Report CASIS makes absurd claims with no explanation whatsoever - such as claiming that their 4th annual ISS Research and Development Conference in 2015 (one single meeting) resulted in "3.2 billion total media impressions". Really? Based on what metrics? That's equal to nearly half of Earth's population each making one hit (impression) on something related to this meeting. Yet (at most) only 40% of Earth's inhabitants actually have any Internet access to begin with - and global newspaper readership is only around 2.5 billion. So who is it that these media impressions are being made upon? Given that ISS research is not exactly the most popular thing that people on planet Earth read about on any given day, the only way that these media impressions could be registered upon actual humans is if the small group of people who actually read about CASIS' conference did nothing but endlessly read and re-read the dozen or so articles that emerged from the conference 24/7/365.
The fact that CASIS put something this absurd in their annual report shows that no one at CASIS reviews what CASIS says prior to formal release - and if they do review this stuff before release, they are lacking in the most basic common sense aspects of what it is they are being paid to do. By comparison, their 3.2 billion media impression claim makes their other absurd claim of "80.4 million social media impressions" from this meeting seem plausible by comparison. CASIS wants everyone to believe that a substantial portion of humanity knows about a niche conference attended by 706 people and a few journalists in the middle of the Summer.
But sure, why not. This all certainly sounds impressive - if you discount reality, that is. Not even NASA, with its comparatively vast audience and media capabilities, could accomplish something like this. The fact that NASA just lets CASIS make up fantastical impact claims like this and then use them to promote NASA's space station facilities makes you wonder if NASA gets it either.
-- For an analysis of CASIS outreach metrics see "Trying To Understand CASIS Press and Social Media Impact"
The only new thing that CASIS has done that deserves merit is Nanoracks. But the arrangement between Nanoracks and the ISS pre-dates the existence of CASIS and was only brought into CASIS' responsibilities well after CASIS' creation. In other words, the one novel thing that works within CASIS' sphere of operations is the one thing that CASIS had nothing to do with creating. Whatever success Nanoracks has had is totally due to the ever-expanding ingenuity of Nanoracks - not CASIS. Again, NASA noticed this long before CASIS appeared on the scene. CASIS was told by NASA to incorporate it.
CASIS has had a chronic inability to focus on the tasks assigned to it. Instead of trying to pursue meaningful commercial collaborations, CASIS began by setting up a goofy relationship with a golf club manufacturer. This charade went on for several years. CASIS later admitted that none of the technology employed in making these space-themed golf clubs had anything whatsoever to do with research done in space aboard the ISS. Instead there was some sort of undefined "inspiration" involved. So, one might ask, why did CASIS get involved in this misadventure? The only connection I can find is that their Marketing and Communications Manager used to work for a firm that had the same golf club company as a client. One more reason to have space station research business meetings at the local golf course, I suppose.
-- For an ongoing report on CASIS' fascination with golf see "Important Golf in Space Announcement from CASIS".
In January 2016 I had a chance to sit down with some of CASIS staff in Washington, DC. In a nutshell they admitted that their external fundraising, as called for in their strategic plan, was not going the way that they had planned. The GAO agreed, noting "According to CASIS officials, it has been challenging to raise additional funding from external sources to supplement the amount of funding provided by NASA to support and sustain its operations because CASIS is a new non-profit entity. Although CASIS's business development team is actively identifying partnerships and funding opportunities with commercial and non-profit granting organizations, CASIS officials said that it takes time to identify, develop, and mature these partnerships." Although the CASIS strategic plan calls for a heavy emphasis on external fundraising virtually no income into CASIS' coffers shows up on their tax returns after 5 years of trying.
One way to gauge CASIS' progress in raising external funds is to look at their annual statements to the IRS and see how much money went into their bank account. On the 990 forms CASIS filed with the IRS, CASIS states that financial statements are posted on their website. As I noted last year, these financial statements and returns are not posted on CASIS' website. If you go to Schedule O on the 2013 Form 900 sent to the IRS CASIS says "The organization makes its governing documents and financial statements available to the public on its website and upon request." These financial statements are still not posted online. I asked CASIS about that and they mumbled something akin to "we're working on that". In other words CASIS has been making false claims to the IRS on an annual basis with regard to the availability of their financial statements. Glossy Annual reports with a one page balance sheet are not financial statements.
When I asked CASIS for a copy of the 2015 financial audit in January 2016 it took CASIS a month to send it to me. The financial statement that CASIS provided states: "CASIS received the majority of its support for the years ended September 30, 2015 and 2014 from one source, a total of 94%, and 99%, respectively from a NASA grant. Additionally, 100% of the deferred grant revenue as of September 30, 2014, and the grant receivable as of September 30, 2015 is from the NASA grant. If NASA reduced or terminated funding, CASIS would have a significant decrease in revenues. Additionally, NASA provides financial support for the cost of all phases of flight to ensure the safety and effective flight readiness and vehicle integration for all payloads."
If you look at their IRS 990 forms, CASIS' non-NASA income is measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, without NASA funding, CASIS would be in a serious world of hurt. That said, CASIS still loves to brag about all of the funding commitments they get from the private sector in a sort of venture capitalist way - and the numbers they toss around are in the millions. But the IRS forms tell another story. But that does not stop CASIS from doing the hype so as to make you think that they are on some sort of cutting edge of VC cool.
CASIS loves to brag about all of the external funding it gets for ISS research. Alas, only a fraction of the numbers CASIS touts actually end up as real money - and where it goes is a bit o fa mystery. As I noted in 2015 "if you go to the CASIS Metrics Dashboard and a box "Funding Commitments Received" says "$12,106,425 as of Q3 2015". If you click on that box a new thing comes up that says "Each quarter CASIS will report all funding commitments received. Such commitments include all cash gifts, pledges, in-kind gifts, and other types of support that have a monetary value in support of the CASIS mission." Yet if you go to the CASIS Dashboard now - they no longer talk about "Funding Commitments Received". One might assume that the obvious has dawned on CASIS - or that the numbers they were waiving around were mostly somewhat bogus and that they have been advised to stop waving those numbers around in public.
-- For more information on CASIS grants and awards see "Are CASIS Funding "Commitments" Just Smoke and Mirrors?".
-- For more information on CASIS finances see "CASIS Has No Idea How To Raise Money - Only How To Spend It"
Despite the paucity of non-NASA funding and the near total reliance on NASA funding, CASIS still has caviar tastes and pays its top staff and its board of directors very well - far more than you'd expect for a recently established non-profit of is size and minimal track record. According to their 2013 Form 990 Six CASIS employees made over $200,000 a year and 4 others were making over $170,000 a year. By comparison the NASA Administrator made $179,700 in 2014. Six of the CASIS board members were paid $49,750 in 2013 - for 6 hours of work per week - that's equivalent to what someone earning $332,000 per year would earn on an hourly basis.
When I posted my story on CASIS salaries last year I am told that senior CASIS staff were angered - and then quickly astonished - that their salaries were online - and that they had been online for years. Apparently, no one ever explained to CASIS that IRS 990 returns are a matter of public record and that they have been posted online since the dawn of the Internet. This demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge of what a non-profit is on the part of CASIS. In addition to being annoyed that these salaries were publicly available, non-management employees of CASIS were angered to see that their bosses and board members were making these huge salaries - especially since a number of their bosses work out of home-based offices.
Five CASIS employees have been let go in just the past six weeks including the employee who had been working an potentially useful interactive ISS program. That's rather significant for a 32-person organization. More significantly CASIS Chief Economist Charles Resnick left CASIS last year. CASIS employees were told that this departure was in connection with an ongoing investigation into travel accounting and that there would be additional questions submitted to CASIS employees about this issue.
-- For more information on CASIS salaries see "Examining Staff and Board Member Salaries at CASIS"
I could go on. What is really annoying to me as a taxpayer, and as a former NASA employee who helped design the ISS and its research capabilities is how an organization with an assured steady income, an exciting and broad mandate, and an unparalleled off-world research venue, can drop the ball in every possible way. Moreover, CASIS refuses to listen to anyone and seems to feel that it is not accountable to anyone - starting with the agency that pays their bills.
NASA has made explicit reference to the need to encourage the development of a robust Low Earth Orbit (LEO) commercial infrastructure to evolve so as to allow the agency to redirect its efforts (budget) toward cis-lunar space. When asked what happens if that LEO commercial activity does not appear in a significant fashion to reduce NASA's LEO costs, NASA says that it will have to reassess its cis-lunar plans. CASIS is poised as the cusp of that nascent LEO commercial infrastructure. Indeed, one might argue, that's a big part of their assigned task - their prime reason for existing. NASA is talking about doing stuff in cis-lunar space in a few years. If CASIS is the spark for the whole LEO commerce thing then someone needs to replace their spark plug - now.
The utilization of the International Space Station is too vital of an asset to trust to an organization that is unresponsive to the owners of that facility. I know it is simplistic to suggest that NASA just sever the CASIS relationship and start over. If they started to do that tomorrow it would take years to get some other organization up to speed - assuming that NASA bothers to tighten up the rules of engagement. And while that is happening ISS has less than 8 years of NASA support left. Tick tock. But that does not mean that NASA cannot take this matter much more seriously and demand more of CASIS - starting with a clear plan, real metrics that yield real numbers, a two-way commitment for interaction and leveraging, and both exercising penalties non-performance and offering incentives for real demonstrable excellence. So long as NASA just accepts this substandard performance from CASIS that is exactly what they will continue to get - substandard performance.
CASIS staff will be part of an event at the National Academy of Sciences on Wednesday 28 March focusing on Low Earth Orbit commerce. CASIS is also an agenda item up for discussion at the NASA Advisory Council meeting on 31 March - 1 April in Washington, DC. Perhaps we'll hear the concerns of others about CASIS' lackluster performance - and NASA's inattentive management thereof - at these two events.
This is no way to run a space station.