On paper, collaborations seem like a good idea because the costs for one agency or country are lower.  In reality, says a new analysis by the National Research Council, federal agencies should not partner in conducting space and earth science missions unless there is a truly compelling reason to do so and clear criteria are met in advance.

While an agency will often enter into a partnership because its individual share of the mission is made more affordable, the risks involved in meeting schedules and performance objectives are typically underestimated. International collaboration suffers from the same increase in cost and complexity, though it looks like the partnership can decrease U.S. costs because a foreign government absorbs some of the expenses. The report also notes that international collaborations typically require much more planning upfront to define clear roles and responsibilities consistent with each entity's strategic plans.
One glaring example the report notes in the US is the long-standing problems with partnership between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on climate research.   A previous Research Council report recommended creation of yet another government bureaucracy, an executive branch entity above those agencies to mediate mismatches of authority and responsibility, inconsistent mandates, and budget competition.    The obvious solution instead is to have the NOAA do it because it is their mandate and get NASA out of global warming studies and instead provide support, not build more government agencies to settle their infighting.

"In many cases, an individual agency would do well to consider alternatives to full partnerships and instead buy specific services or coordinate spaceflight data from other agencies," said Daniel N. Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and co-chair of the committee. 

If the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, or Congress wants to encourage a particular interagency research collaboration, then it should provide specific incentives and support for these missions such as protecting interagency projects or providing freedom to move necessary funds across appropriation accounts, the report says. There is a need for coordinated oversight of interagency collaboration; however, OMB and OSTP are not suited to day-to-day oversight. Some alternative governance mechanism may be required to facilitate accountable decision-making across multiple agencies.

The report recommends criteria that should be met by agencies to jointly pursue earth and space science missions. Partnerships should add significant scientific value that could not be achieved by a single agency; utilize unique capabilities housed within an agency that are necessary for the success of a mission managed by another agency; help facilitate the transition from research to operations if these functions require a change in responsibility from one agency to another; or meet a compelling need such as building capacity at a cooperating agency. The report also recommends key elements to incorporate in every interagency collaboration.

Paper: Committee on Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Cooperation on Space and Earth Science Missions; National Research Council, 'Assessment of Impediments to Interagency Collaboration on Space and Earth Science Missions'