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NASA OIG Audit: NASA's Education Program

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Monday, October 19, 2015

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Full report

WHY WE PERFORMED THIS AUDIT

Producing sufficient numbers of graduates prepared for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations is a national priority for the United States. In accordance with this goal, NASA makes available more than 1,000 internships, fellowships, and scholarships annually to students seeking hands-on experience in STEM research, aerospace education, and space exploration. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, NASA received about $127 million in STEM education funding, which represents approximately 5 percent of the annual Federal STEM education budget.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 directed NASA to develop educational programs, improve public STEM literacy, and support research-based programs and activities that increase student interest and participation in STEM. NASA’s Headquarters-based Office of Education works with Offices of Education at each of the NASA Centers and with the Agency’s four Mission Directorates to coordinate Agency efforts to meet these goals. The Office of Education is also responsible for implementing Objective 2.4 of NASA’s Strategic Plan, which states: “Advance the Nation’s STEM education and workforce pipeline by working collaboratively with other agencies to engage students, teachers, and faculty in NASA’s missions and unique assets.”

We initiated this audit to examine NASA’s education activities and determine whether the Agency was effectively implementing its education objective and Federal STEM education priorities. As part of this review, we interviewed NASA personnel and former Associate and Deputy Associate Administrators for the Office of Education. We also reviewed NASA education policy and management oversight, budgets for the Office of Education, processes to collect and evaluate information on education activities, and relevant progress reports, strategic plans, and program and project documentation.

WHAT WE FOUND

NASA’s Office of Education has taken steps to improve its management of the Agency’s diverse education portfolio by restructuring several programs and projects to better align with Federal guidance; consolidating web applications for internship, fellowship, and scholarship opportunities; and increasing collaboration with other Federal agencies. However, the Office’s efforts have been hampered by an outdated strategic framework and a lack of long-term goals upon which to evaluate the success of NASA’s education activities. Specifically, the Office of Education did not update a 2006 framework document to align with the priorities outlined in the Agency’s 2014 Strategic Plan until July 2015. Furthermore, the updated framework did not include measurable long-term goals that address the Nation’s need to increase the number of students who earn advanced degrees in preparation for STEM careers.

In addition, a lack of timely and comprehensive management information has adversely impacted the Office of Education’s ability to effectively monitor program accomplishments and accurately report NASA contributions to the Administration’s STEM education goals. The Office uses the Education Performance Measurement (OEPM) system to collect data related to annual and near-term performance measures, objectives, and outcomes and reports that data to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). We found the OEPM system was unavailable numerous times during a fiscal year, and consequently some NASA data was incomplete, rendering the information in the Agency’s Annual Performance Report inaccurate. For example, approximately 4,000 students who had participated in STEM activities were omitted from NASA’s Annual Performance Report because of technical and access issues relating to OEPM.

Finally, although the Office of Education has developed a competitive process for identifying effective STEM education activities that deserve funding, NASA can further improve its processes and procedures to collaborate and consolidate education activities. In response to an OMB requirement that NASA’s internal projects and activities compete with one another for education funding, in FY 2015 the Office of Education initiated an internal, criteria-based competition as the basis for its funding prioritization process. We reviewed all 50 abstracts submitted to the competition and found no significant evidence of inter-Center collaboration to identify areas for joint efforts. Consequently, in contrast to Federal guidance, NASA risks funding a fragmented portfolio of activities. We believe the Office of Education could reduce this risk by emphasizing coordination and consolidation as a priority in the initial stages of the competition and subsequently engaging the Centers to identify common themes.

WHAT WE RECOMMENDED

In order to improve the effectiveness of the Office of Education’s management of its education portfolio, we recommended that NASA’s Associate Administrator for Education (1) issue an Implementation Plan that aligns and remains current with NASA’s Strategic Plan, accurately reflects the Office of Education’s strategic direction, and includes measures to meet long-term goals and methodologies to gauge success; (2) improve accessibility to the OEPM system to ensure project managers have an adequate and timely opportunity for data entry at the start of each fiscal year; (3) establish internal control procedures to ensure all required education activity data is collected, entered, verified, and validated in the OEPM system for accurate and reliable reporting in the Annual Performance Report; (4) establish a reasonable timeframe for project managers’ data entry after completion of individual education activities and ensure it is documented in the internal control procedures; and (5) assist Center Education Offices in developing coordinated activities for future competitions prior to the Office of Education reviewing all submissions and making selections.

In response to a draft of our report, management concurred with our recommendations and described planned corrective actions. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.

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