NASA’s global warming research arm inappropriately spent $1.63 million in the last six years due to poor oversight, according to an Office of Inspector General audit.
The IG report identified “multiple instances of unallowable use of NASA-appropriated funds by [Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)] employees, grant recipients, and contractors for salary expenses, sub-contracting, and computer equipment.”
Auditors found “$1.47 million in unallowable costs identified in NASA’s GISS-related cooperative agreements” with Columbia University, and $147,138 in unallowable costs billed by IT contractor Trinnovim LLC “for unallowable salaries and immigration fees.”
Columbia University, for example, spent “$1,219,491.41 on contract services, financial aid, and salaries for graduate students and short-term employees – all items not included in the cooperative agreement,” including diverting more than $633,000 from research funds to graduate tuition.
GISS supports NASA’s Earth sciences division, and is one of six major climate modeling organizations. GISS scientists contribute to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
GISS’s $19 million budget is almost exclusively funded by NASA, millions of which go towards developing climate models to understand and predict man-made global warming.
NASA asked Congress for $1.7 billion for Earth sciences in the 2019 budget, about $200 million less than the 2017 budget. In total, NASA asked for a more than $300 million increase from 2018 spending to $19.9 billion.
Congress, however, gave NASA $20.7 billion as part of the budget deal struck in March to avert a government shutdown. After an initial veto threat, President Donald Trump signed the $1.3 trillion spending bill.
However, the IG’s audit identified “flaws” in the research institute’s technical review process.
Investigators found 65 percent of new publications “were not approved by GISS or Goddard officials prior to release” and did not undergo required technical reviews “to ensure the accuracy of scientific information released to the public and to prevent inadvertent release of sensitive information.”
Auditors also “analyzed the seven papers written by GISS leadership during this same period and found five instances where subordinates served as initial approvers for their supervisors’ work,” which is not technically against the rules but is “contrary to standard scholarly practice.”
The IG report also found NASA guidance on “independence and qualifications of the initial approver in the technical review process inadequate and not in conformance with best practices.”
“Specifically, while authors are prohibited by NASA guidance from approving their own work, subordinates are permitted to approve their superiors’ work and a technical reviewer can work within the same research team as the author,” the report found. “Other organizations that do similar quality control have stricter review requirements.”
“A subordinate may have an inherent conflict of interest reviewing their supervisor’s draft publication, since failure to approve their superior’s work could delay or prevent publication, negatively impacting their supervisor’s scientific career,” the IG reported.