Explained | What is NASA’s space equity action plan?

In 2021, NASA spent $19.6 billion on goods and services, but only 10% of total expenditure was obligated to small disadvantaged businesses.

April 23, 2022 08:44 pm | Updated 08:44 pm IST

A NASA image from 2019 shows red dots indicating fires, including those due to stubble burning, in areas surrounding Delhi and rest of north India. NASA is set to make its 50 most-requested environmental data sets of last year available on the internet

A NASA image from 2019 shows red dots indicating fires, including those due to stubble burning, in areas surrounding Delhi and rest of north India. NASA is set to make its 50 most-requested environmental data sets of last year available on the internet | Photo Credit: NASA Worldview/PTI

The story so far: Earlier in April 2022, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released an equity action plan to “make space more accessible”. The plan supports the U.S. government’s effort to improve racial equity in the federal government.

“The Equity Action plan deepens our commitment to further identify and remove the barriers that limit opportunity in underserved and underrepresented communities. This framework anchors fairness as a core component in every NASA mission to make the work we do in space and beyond more accessible to all,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

What is the space equity action plan?

NASA’s equity action plan is a response to the U.S. government’s 2021 executive order aimed at “advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities”. The presidential order inspired NASA to develop the equity action plan under which the space agency plans to identify and eliminate systemic barriers and ensure representation.

The space equity action plan lists four focus areas for underserved communities.

Equity in procurements and contracts: In 2021, NASA spent $19.6 billion on goods and services. Around 10% of total expenditure – $2 billion – was obligated to small disadvantaged businesses.

According to the space agency, focussing on businesses categorised as disadvantaged, service-disabled veteran, women-owned, and historically underutilised business zones (HUBZone) can promote equitable economic development.

NASA’s three-step approach to engaging with contractors in underserved communities includes studying barriers in procurement programmes, increasing engagement events, and using dedicated product service lines.

By the fiscal year 2029, NASA aims to increase the number of outreach events for underserved communities by 50%. The organisation will also attempt to improve the number of participants in these events by 5-10% annually.

Using earth science and other data to help mitigate environmental challenges: To make information on earth science easily available to all, NASA will make its 50 most-requested environmental data sets of last year available on the internet, and the full transfer of NASA Earth science data to the cloud will be complete by 2025. The space agency will host data sets that have significant value for environmental justice on the Amazon Web Services Open Data platform.

NASA will also train around 2,700 users on how to use the agency’s data effectively to address environmental parameters like air quality and water resource management. The introductory training will be offered in English and Spanish.

Increase in grants and cooperative agreements: Underserved communities and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) are usually not adequately represented among the 3,000 grants and cooperative agreements awarded annually by NASA. There are more than 700 federally-designated MSIs, representing about 14% of all degree-granting institutions of higher education in the U.S. However, only 6% of the $1.3 billion that NASA spends on its grants and cooperative agreements each year is awarded to MSIs and small/minority-owned businesses.

Barriers that prevent underserved communities from accessing grants may include hindrances that block access to information, inadequate resources, and a lack of understanding of NASA’s processes.

To overcome these barriers, NASA is working on identifying Historically Black Colleges and Universities, MSIs, and small/minority-owned businesses that are eligible for grants but not submitting applications, and also analysing barriers for those who did not receive awards, irrespective of their application status. This will allow NASA to identify and address the recurring barriers.

NASA also plans to conduct a series of six training sessions and four outreach workshops and events per year. The space agency will evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts by measuring metrics like the number of applications submitted by first-time participants, and the funding received by those applications.

Increased external civil rights compliance and access for Limited English Proficient population groups: The Civil Rights Compliance Review Programme has limited capability to conduct review audits – a possible reason why participation of underserved communities in NASA programmes could have been limited.

NASA plans to increase its civil rights compliance reviews to ten per year by the financial year 2024. The final goal is to conduct reviews of all grant institutions, then move to a sustainment audit schedule.

In the U.S., around 8.2% of all the people over age five speak English “less than very well”, and over 25 million people are not proficient in English. The language barrier is a potential reason why non-English speakers have limited access to NASA resources.

By January 2023, NASA will publish an updated language access plan. This includes multilingual communication pieces at NASA centres, and also multilingual education and awareness opportunities with the overarching goal of establishing an equitable communications strategy.

Who will look after NASA’s efforts to achieve its equity goals?

An executive team, led by NASA’s deputy administrator, will lead the organisation’s efforts towards equity. The space agency has also established a leadership council that will be led by the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity and will provide quarterly reports to the executive team. The leadership council will consist of employee resource groups, centre directors, associate administrators, and senior leadership.

To ensure external accountability, NASA plans on conducting regular public town hall meetings and targeting outreach to underserved communities, among other measures.

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