A year after launching an extensive Equity Action Plan that gave around $2 billion to “small disadvantaged businesses,” the nation’s space agency wants to do more to advance racial equity and support underserved communities with the billions of dollars in grants and contracts it distributes annually. To complete this important mission the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is seeking input from the public on the barriers and challenges that prevent members of underserved communities from receiving funds. The agency is explicitly “seeking for the public to provide specific feedback on the procurement, grant and cooperative agreement regulations, policies, practices, and processes that deter entities from pursuing opportunities for NASA procurements, grants, and cooperative agreements,” according to a recently published Federal Register announcement.
NASA will review the input and use the information to evaluate, implement, modify, expand, and streamline how it doles out money to “remove systemic inequitable barriers and challenges facing members of underserved communities,” the new Request for Information (RFI) document states. NASA’s fiscal year 2023 budget is $32.35 billion and it plans to spend a big chunk, about one-third or $10.42 billion, on the type of awards it wants to give more minorities via thousands of grants and contracts. It is not enough that under its Equity Action Plan NASA already requires contractors to submit diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility plans for contracts and that at least one quote be from a minority-owned business. When the agency published the plan about a year ago it promised to assess programs, identify systemic barriers, and engage in outreach to ensure fair and impartial access and representation for all those who seek to contribute to work in space. The areas of focus include increasing contractors from underserved communities, expanding equity in the procurement process, mitigating environmental challenges in underserved communities, and expanding access to Limited English Proficient (LEP) populations within underserved communities.
As for the new public input venture, NASA provides a list of questions as guidance. The agency asks for additional Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) suggestions (besides its minority contract quota) to ensure grants include members of underserved communities. It also wants ideas to investigate and ensure contractors are “diligently working to include members of underserved communities” and specifics on regulations, policies and practices that have prevented minorities from receiving awards. NASA also wants to know what resources it could provide to better assist underserved communities in identifying new opportunities and suggestions to better collaborate with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSI) to advance outreach and increase the number of contracts and grants awarded to the “underserved communities.”
To clarify certain terms, the space agency offers definitions in the new announcement. It describes equity as the consistent and systematic treatment of all individuals in a fair, just, and impartial manner, including individuals who belong to communities that often have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, Indigenous, Native American, other persons of color and LGBTQI+ persons. Underserved communities are defined as populations and geographic communities that have been systematically denied the opportunity to participate fully in aspects of economic, social, and civic life. Under NASA’s “journey towards equity” a key agency goal is to overcome visible and invisible systemic barriers that hinder equitable, inclusive access to government programs, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The former astronaut and Democratic Florida senator claims his agency’s new objective “seeks to further identify and remove the barriers that limit opportunity in historically underserved and underrepresented communities and anchor equity as a core component in every NASA mission to inspire a new, more inclusive generation.”