NASA's safety program is still not as independent as it ought to be, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office, the watchdog arm of Congress.

While the investigators found no evidence that the safety program has been compromised, the GAO said, "the potential for reduced effectiveness exists."

It expressed concern that safety organizations at NASA centers around the country get most of their funding from the programs they are supposed to monitor. For example, more than 90 percent of the safety organizations' fiscal 1990 budgets -- about $124 million -- came from center offices and headquarters supervisors whose projects they were overseeing.

The presidential commission set up to investigate the 1986 Challenger accident recommended four years ago that NASA establish an independent safety program whose officials could voice concerns directly to top NASA officials without fear of reprisals from program managers.

The GAO also found variations in the funding process from one center to another, and quoted safety managers as saying that the space station project office has "significantly underfunded" safety activities. It found that safety programs must compete with research and development activities for funding.

"We do not believe that this method of funding enables NASA's safety organizations to maintain the complete independence envisioned by the presidential commission," the report said.

NASA officials responded to the report by acknowledging that "a vigorous debate has ensued" on the merits of centralizing safety funding. But the prevailing view has been that the program managers must take responsibility for the safety of their projects, and should retain flexibility in funding priorities, the officials said.

The GAO maintains that "tradeoffs between project requirements and {safety} oversight ought to be made at the highest levels . . . rather than at project office levels."