Editor's note: The following email was sent by Mike Griffin to NASA Advisory Council members on 21 August 2006
I am sorry that the community is "concerned", whether about the resignations of several NAC members, or the effectiveness of the NAC structure.
My observation is that by "effectiveness", what the scientific community really means is, "the extent to which we are able to get NASA to do what we want them to do". It is further my opinion that the scientific community, whose work in these areas is largely funded by NASA, expects to have far too large a role in prescribing what work NASA should do, and accordingly what work NASA should fund. The inherent and long-standing conflict-of-interest is obvious.
The new NAC structure exists to collect and channel the advice of the scientific community to NASA, within the bounds and constraints of NASA's presidentially and congressionally approved program. To this point, NAC members serve an Agency which is constrained by the dictates of Presidential policy, the most recent NASA Authorization Act (in this case, in 2005), and current Congressional appropriations legislation. The program that I "administer" is bounded by those constraints. Consequently, NAC advice must respect those boundaries. The NAC advises NASA on the makeup and conduct of Agency programs subject to those boundary conditions.
Therefore, it is neither germane nor useful for NAC members to offer advice (for example) on whether Science ought to have greater priority within NASA as compared to manned spaceflight, or whether the SMD portfolio should be rebalanced to emphasize Earth science over planetary science, or whether the Moon is an appropriate focus (in comparison to Mars) for the next phase of the manned spaceflight program, or other similar issues. As I am sure you know, there are other venues (such as your own NAS/Space Studies Board) for such questions, but the NASA Advisory Council is not one of them.
The most appropriate recourse for NAC members who believe the NASA program should be something other than what it is, is to resign. This is not a pejorative statement; some of those who have resigned are friends, and have assured me that they remain so. The NAC members who have resigned will be replaced by other members of the scientific community, fully as competent and credentialed as those who have left the Council.
More broadly, there has been a view, which in my opinion has been both too widely and too long held, that NASA is somehow responsible to a variety of external constituencies, a list of which is far too long to reproduce here, even if I could remember them all! In fact, the Agency is responsible to the President and to the Congress, in practice through our Congressional oversight committees. It operates within and subject to the dictates of Presidential policy and, most importantly, the appropriations and authorization legislation voted by Congress. We strive very, very hard to meet all of these requirements; this is not an easy task.
There are many, many other groups who enjoy giving, or who believe themselves to be empowered to give, advice to NASA. These various advisors often provide deeply conflicting, or even irreconcilable, input to the Agency. We do listen to such advice, and we try not to miss any good ideas, but it must be recognized that in the end, advice is just that -- advice. NASA managers must take, and accept, all of the actual responsibility for planning and executing NASA's program, subject only the constraints I have noted above.