R&D Funding, Coordination Urged

 - January 28, 2008, 6:07 AM

General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) president Ed Bolen added his voice to a growing chorus that is pushing for more government coordination and funding of aerospace research during his recent testimony on Capitol Hill. He said that aerospace is too important to the future of the U.S. for research to be determined on an ad hoc basis by a patchwork of federal agencies.

Speaking before the Senate subcommittee on science, technology and space, Bolen identified specific NASA research programs that are important to the entire aviation industry, including general aviation. Conversely, he said that the Air Force plans to close its climatic center at Eglin Air Force Base despite the fact that it is a critical research facility for civil airplane manufacturers.

“We can no longer afford to have federal agencies making decisions in a vacuum,” said Bolen. “We have to find a way for us to determine–as a nation–what our research needs are and how we can best meet them.”

According to the GAMA president, more federal research is needed in such areas as software certification, weather sensors, air traffic modeling, vehicle-enabling technologies, supersonic travel and future air traffic management systems. He also called for more federal spending on quiet aircraft research.

“Today, the U.S. spends tens of millions of dollars on aircraft noise research, but hundreds of millions of dollars soundproofing homes around airports,” Bolen told the Senate panel. “This is like spending money buying mops instead of figuring out how to plug a leak.”

Bolen served as a member of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, which released its final report in November. One of the commission’s nine recommendations was that the federal government should “significantly increase” its investment in basic aerospace research.

Federal research and development investment in the aerospace industry drop-ped 75 percent from 1987 to 2001 after adjusting for inflation, while the U.S. share of the global aerospace marketplace has steadily declined by 20 percentage points since 1985.

When it released its report, the 12-member commission vowed to keep working to ensure that its recommendations didn’t languish somewhere in the federal bureaucracy. Already, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress to increase investment in aeronautics R&D.

“The sponsors of the bill recognized a trend of significant decline in federal investment in aerospace technology, particularly as compared with the European Union, which has launched an ambitious program to surpass aerospace development in the U.S. by 2020,” said John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. “The bill reflects the sponsors’ commitment to maintain dominance of the global aerospace market, secure American jobs and strengthen our national security.”

Douglass, who also served on the aerospace commission, said the initiatives proposed in the bill (Aeronautics Research and Development Revitalization Act of 2003) will improve the quality of life for Americans, developing technology to create aircraft with greater fuel efficiency, lower emissions and lower noise effects on communities surrounding airports. It is a five-year authorization bill that would increase funding for NASA’s aeronautics R&D budget to $1.15 billion and to $550 million for the FAA by 2007. Other initiatives in the legislation propose to fund rotorcraft R&D, supersonic transport and an improved ATC system.

The commission began its work in late 2001 by requesting a “sectoral” budget, essentially a method to determine how much money the federal government allocates across the entire aerospace spectrum, for both civil and military purposes.

“We do believe that with more horizontal decision-making, you can really prioritize the use of this money,” said commission chairman Robert Walker, who explained that it could be invested in other “absolutely essential” projects. Without better coordination, these funds could be squandered on projects with lesser priority or expended on duplicative projects.

The commission suggested that increases in research spending by the Defense Department should be emulated by NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the FAA.

As examples of how U.S. aerospace R&D has stagnated, the commission noted that the U.S. walked on the moon 30 years ago but has failed to return; built the SR-71 Blackbird, which 30 years later still holds the speed record; and continues to rely mainly on aerospace infrastructure built decades ago.