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Panel Says NASA Should Reopen Innovation Institute

In a rare rebuke to NASA, today the National Academy of Sciences told the space agency it should reopen an organization designed to come up with innovative technologies.

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) was set up in 1998 to provide the agency with creative aeronautics and space ideas that could lower the cost of air and space travel. But the institute—which cost about $4 million a year in operations and grant costs--was shut down two years ago because of budget constraints. That closure prompted Congress to order the academy to study the institute’s record. “NIAC inspired an atmosphere for innovation that stretched the imagination and encouraged creativity,” the report released today concluded.

The panel, chaired by aerospace engineer Robert Braun of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, determined that NIAC’s program was effective, that NASA has nothing comparable, and that the agency needs an organization to provide “visionary, far-reaching concepts.” As a result, the panel urged NASA to create a next-generation NIAC that reports directly to the agency’s chief. No comment yet from NASA. But the agency’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, is likely to be sympathetic to the recommendation. He said at his confirmation hearing in the Senate last month that he would push to reinvigorate an ambitious technology program at the agency.