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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) actions are not fully consistent with requirements, agency guidance, and leading practices related to the management of its research and development (R&D) portfolio. GAO assessed FAA's actions to manage its R&D portfolio in three key areas: (1) developing its portfolio of R&D projects, (2) tracking and evaluating these projects, and (3) reporting on the portfolio. We found that FAA could be more strategic in how it develops its R&D portfolio, chiefly in identifying long-term research needs and in improving disclosure of how projects are selected. As a result, FAA management cannot be assured that the highest priority R&D is conducted. GAO also found that while FAA tracks and evaluates its research projects consistent with leading practices, it does not fully address all statutory reporting requirements, such as identifying long-term research resources in the National Aviation Research Plan ( NARP ) or preparing the R&D Annual Review in accordance with government performance-reporting requirements. These reporting deficiencies can limit the usefulness of the reports to internal and outside stakeholders. FAA has begun to examine how it can improve the usefulness and timeliness of its R&D reports, but has not identified specific changes needed.

FAA's and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) aviation R&D coordination generally reflects selected leading practices for interagency collaboration that GAO has previously identified. GAO found that FAA and NASA have: (1) written agreements that define the scope and conditions for collaboration; (2) defined the roles and responsibilities of collaboration leaders and participants; (3) defined desired outcomes and accountability mechanisms; (4) bridged their two organizational cultures through coordinating bodies and joint activities; and (5) identified and leveraged resources through agreements. FAA and NASA officials that GAO interviewed reported that they coordinated on R&D. Such coordination is exemplified by the types of technology that have been transferred from NASA to FAA. For example, NASA developed software that improves air-traffic departure efficiency. NASA Then then tested the software alongside FAA's, before transferring it to FAA for use by air traffic controllers at airports.

FAA and the private sector cooperate on R&D activities through formal and informal mechanisms. Through funding agreements FAA uses private sector expertise and technology-transfer partnerships to share facilities, equipment, and staff. These agreements and partnerships are intended to extend FAA's capabilities and resources and expand the U.S. technology base. FAA also tracks private sector R&D activities through advisory committees and more informal relationships. In developing the R&D portfolio, FAA does not formally consider the impact of its R&D activities on the private sector because the FAA and the private sector have different research goals. According to three large private-sector firms GAO interviewed and to academic literature GAO reviewed, there is little evidence that FAA's activities have crowded out or precluded private firms from undertaking their own R&D.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government conducts aviation R&D to advance U.S. technological leadership, foster a dynamic aerospace industry, and improve the safety of the civil aviation system. GAO was asked to review FAA's management of its R&D portfolio, including the extent to which FAA's R&D is structured and operated to achieve its mission. This report addresses (1) the extent to which FAA's management of its R&D portfolio follows requirements, guidance and leading practices, (2) the extent to which FAA and NASA coordinate on their R&D activities, and (3) how FAA cooperates with the private sector on R&D.

GAO compared FAA's R&D management activities from 2012 through 2016 against applicable statutory requirements, agency guidance and leading practices drawn from literature on R&D management and collaboration, including past GAO reports. GAO met with FAA and NASA and aviation stakeholders, including three private companies, to discuss R&D coordination. GAO selected stakeholders based partly on the size and extent of their R&D activities.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Secretary of the DOT require the FAA Administrator to: (1) identify long-term R&D research priorities, (2) disclose how projects are selected, and (3) ensure that the NARP and R&D Annual Reviews meet statutory requirements for content. DOT concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation To help FAA better manage and oversee its portfolio of R&D activities, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA to take a more strategic approach to identifying research priorities across the agency, including developing guidance to identify long-term priorities and emerging issue areas, as part of FAA's portfolio development process.
Closed - Implemented
The development of FAA's commercial aviation Research and Development (R&D) portfolio is critically important to advance U.S. technological leadership, foster a dynamic aerospace industry, and improve the safety of the civil aviation system. To achieve these goals, FAA must carefully manage and oversee its approximately $515 million R&D budget and maximize its results by collaborating with NASA and the private sector. FAA's process for developing its R&D portfolio spans the agency and culminates in the National Aviation Research Plan, which is submitted annually to Congress and provides an inventory of FAA's R&D activities. FAA statutory requirements, guidance and leading practices for R&D portfolio development call for taking a strategic approach to portfolio development, including development of a forward-looking R&D portfolio that can adapt to changes in environment. In 2017, GAO reported that FAA does not fully adhere to requirements, guidance, and leading practices related to its R&D portfolio development process. In particular, GAO found that FAA's actions to develop an R&D portfolio that is forward-looking and can adapt to changes fall short of statutory requirements and key practices. Taking a strategic approach to portfolio development is important to FAA and its stakeholders because it can help ensure that the agency is both performing research that addresses current, future, and emerging research needs and spending its limited resources on its highest priorities. FAA officials told GAO that identifying long-term research is inherently difficult. However, without identifying or assessing long-term research efforts, FAA will not be as well-positioned to communicate how it is prioritizing the long-term R&D that will allow the agency to plan for future research needs. To address these issues, GAO recommended that FAA should take a more strategic approach to identifying research priorities across the agency, including developing guidance to identify long-term priorities and emerging issue areas, as part of FAA's portfolio development process. In June 2021, GAO confirmed that FAA had taken a number of steps to help the agency be more strategic in identifying research priorities. Specifically, FAA issued a redesigned National Aviation Research Plan in 2020 that aligns with DOT's strategic goals of safety, infrastructure, and innovation allowing for a better understanding about the research that FAA is doing in support of those goals. Further, FAA created an R&D "landscape" to identify the long-term priorities and emerging areas for research, including in areas such as unmanned aerial systems and supersonic flight, among others. Finally, FAA developed guidance for FAA's lines of business on the FAA R&D portfolio development process, including steps to identify some long-term priorities and emerging issue areas. For instance, specific guidance provided to FAA lines of business for preparing the R&D portfolio include questions about program priorities and any research that may be missing. Because of these efforts, FAA will be able to develop a long-term strategic approach to formulating and prioritizing its strategic vision across its entire aviation R&D portfolio.
Department of Transportation To help FAA better manage and oversee its portfolio of R&D activities, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA to clarify its portfolio development guidance to call for each Program Planning Teams to disclose the process it used for prioritizing and selecting research projects so that decision-making is more transparent for FAA management.
Closed - Implemented
In April 2017, GAO reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provided some guidance to Program Planning Teams (PPTs) on how they should develop their commercial aviation research and development (R&D) portfolios. FAA's PPTs are responsible for identifying R&D projects for funding in specific research program areas. A leading practice GAO identified for R&D development is to use a transparent process for identifying and selecting projects for funding because it allows management to understand project decisions and priorities. While FAA provided some guidance to PPTs on R&D portfolio development, the guidance only suggested that PPTs consider describing how they identify and prioritize their R&D requirements. As a result, GAO reported that most PPTs did not have a transparent process for selecting R&D projects. To address this problem, GAO recommended that FAA should clarify its portfolio development guidance to call for each PPT to disclose the process it used for project prioritization and selection. In June 2018, GAO confirmed that FAA updated its guidance document for PPTs on the R&D portfolio development process to disclose the prioritization process each PPT uses to develop its R&D portfolio. FAA officials stated that documenting the prioritization of R&D efforts has increased transparency into their processes and allowed for more information-sharing during meetings where the R&D portfolio is discussed. The officials said that the documentation also allowed for a focused understanding of priorities prior to the meetings. By clarifying its guidance to increase transparency over how projects are prioritized and selected, FAA has aligned its approach with leading practices and has provided FAA management clarification to better understand how decisions were made and manage FAA's R&D portfolio.
Department of Transportation To help FAA better manage and oversee its portfolio of R&D activities, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA to develop guidance to ensure that future National Aviation Research Plans (NARP) and R&D Annual Reviews meet statutory requirements to the extent practicable, including (a) The NARP lists activities that are carried under cooperative agreements. (b) The NARP describes the rationale for the prioritized research programs. (c) The NARP identifies how resources were allocated for long-term and near-term research. (d) The NARP identifies REDAC recommendations that are accepted, not accepted, and the reasons for non-acceptance. (e) The NARP provides a detailed description of technology transfer to government, industry, and academia. (f) The Annual Review describes new technologies developed and the dissemination of research results to the private sector. (g) The Annual Review allows a comparison to the NARP. (h) The Annual Review is prepared and presented in accordance with agency performance reporting requirements.
Closed - Implemented
In 2017, GAO reported that FAA's actions were not fully consistent with requirements, agency guidance, and leading practices related to developing its portfolio of R&D projects, tracking and evaluating these projects, and reporting on the portfolio. GAO found that while FAA tracks and evaluates its research projects consistent with leading practices, it did not fully address all statutory reporting requirements, such as identifying long-term research resources in the National Aviation Research Plan or preparing the R&D Annual Review in accordance with government performance-reporting requirements. In addition, FAA did not address the reporting requirement to highlight R&D activities that address recommendations of the research advisory committee, and document the recommendations not accepted, including the reasons for non-acceptance. Another example is to describe new technologies developed and the dissemination of research to the private sector in the R&D Annual Review, but FAA did not fully meet this requirement either. FAA officials told GAO that they were redesigning the National Aviation Research Plan and the R&D Annual Review to comply with the statutory reporting requirements, among other things. However, as FAA was in the early stages of this effort, officials could not identify specific steps the agency planned to take to redesign the reports to meet the requirements. If FAA does not meet the statutory reporting and federal performance requirements in the National Aviation Research Plan and R&D Annual Review, internal and external stakeholders will be without the information they need to make informed decisions or make recommendations about FAA's R&D budget or portfolio. Thus, GAO recommended that FAA develop guidance to ensure that future National Aviation Research Plans and R&D Annual Reviews meet statutory requirements to the extent practicable. In 2021, GAO confirmed that FAA developed guidance and issued redesigned reports that resolved the reporting deficiencies GAO had identified. Specifically, FAA developed guidance for the agency that describes how to meet the statutory reporting requirements for the National Aviation Research Plan and the R&D Annual Review, including roles and responsibilities of research sponsors within FAA. The agency issued a redesigned National Aviation Research Plan in 2020 that fully addressed the reporting deficiencies GAO had identified, such as describing technology transfer efforts, long-term research priorities, and the extent to which the agency addressed recommendations from the research advisory committee. Furthermore, FAA issued a redesigned R&D Annual Review in 2020 that corrected the other deficiencies we had identified, including making a comparison of research accomplishments to R&D goals identified in the National Aviation Research Plan. Because of these efforts, FAA now meets the statutory reporting requirements, and Congress has the information it needs to identify how R&D moneys are spent and how the public has benefited.

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