NASA needs to change how it talks about science

To understand why I think it is so important that we as scientists spread an accurate message of what we actually are doing, we have to consider the broader themes of what NASA’s role is, how it fits into and represents an overwhelmingly large Federal Government bureaucracy that is largely untrusted by the public today, and how its communication to the public at large and its Congressional masters tends to leave just about everyone unsatisfied. I happen to believe that NASA needs to adapt to this new environment, specifically how it communicates its scientific work—a major motivation for me to speak out here. But NASA still does work that no other organization in the world is capable of doing, and represents perhaps the most visible and important role that the United States plays in advancing the role of science in the minds of people all around the world. It’s complicated, and political, and economic—and to understand where we are today, we have to back to the beginning.

NASA in the glory days of Big Government

And the political environment of the 1960s supported the notion that large programs driven by an activist government could make the world a better place, particularly in the United States. Coming out of the Great Depression and the second World War, America and its citizens had experienced tremendous hardship, but emerged victorious and started rebuilding the country, and the world, through the 1950s. In the 1960s, activist government policies made tremendous changes, and Great Society programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Welfare, and the National Endowment for the Humanities offered the promise of a basic standard of a secure, safe, cultured life for everyone. Civil Rights legislation turned back centuries of discrimination, and was imposed by the Federal government over recalcitrant states. The Clean Air act established the government as the final arbiter over the environment.

It was in this context that NASA came into its own as a worldwide force for the advancement on mankind during the days of Apollo, when we beat the Soviets to land a man on the moon. This was a major historical achievment, arguably the most important in the second half of the 20th century. But while we tend to focus on the sheer awesomeness of the technical aspects, less thought is usually given as to how it was largely a political project. Landing a man on the moon was identified as the top scientific and technical priority by President John F. Kennedy, as opposed to a committee of scientists. And, as a result, NASA was given resources that could be dreamed of, outside the context of a war; at its height, NASA received almost 4.5% of the federal budget. In today’s terms, held at a constant percentage, with a $3.45 trillion budget in 2013, NASA would have received $152 billion.

With those resources, and concomitant pressure from the highest levels of government—the President of the United States, not least—NASA was able to equip the smartest people with the tools they needed to accomplish historically-great feats. The goal was well-defined, and its perception of impossibility could attract the best and brightest, in addition to the essential guarantee of sufficient resources.

Moreover, its technical achievements were coming in an era when developments in technology were changing the way in which people lived and worked, in very obvious and meaningful ways. Integrated circuits, the basis of all modern electronic chips, were invented in the late 1950s, jet propulsion was shrinking the world and allowing businesses to spread their reach globally. Even the microwave oven, developed from WWII radar technology, first came into American homes in the late 1960s.

The paradigm for science was very clear: the federal government would dump an enormous amount of money into one of their organizations, NASA, which could hire the best and the brightest and not worry about funding. These guys (and they were overwhelmingly male, and whitee, but no one seemed to worry about that at the time) would accomplish great things, do what was thought not to be possible, and along the way develop spinoff technologies that would improve the lives of ordinary people in significant, obvious, beneficial ways. So, of course it made sense to support, and revere, NASA: they beat the Soviets in the space race, and made all of our lives better! And all NASA had to do to keep the public, and therefore its representatives in Congress, happy, was to achieve something awesome and talk about all the benefits that were showered down upon everyone else.

Alas, this social contract of sorts pretty much worked until the moon landings became routine, and then things started to unravel…

Today’s reality: political and economic decline

NASA budget

Unfortunately, the landscape today is far cry from the heyday of the 1960s. From a funding perspective, NASA receives merely a tenth of what it did 50 years earlier, relative to the total federal budget: less than half a percent. In fact, this year’s budget is the lowest ever, except for the first two years of NASA’s existence when it was ramping up from nothing—and falling. In a way, the public and Congress still expects great things from NASA, but at the same time they also cut its funding by a factor of 10.

Moreover, the idea that big government programs work for the good of society, or at even worth paying for, has become exceedingly controversial. The War on Poverty has failed to change significantly the fraction of the population at the poverty line (though the absolute quality of life at that line has vastly improved), and if anything, economic inequality has increased (though whether this is a good or bad thing depends on one’s philosophical predilections). Medicare and Social Security are headed toward insolvency in the absence of reform. And the largest government healthcare program, Obamacare, is perceived by a large majority of the public to need either serious structural reform, or simply be scrapped. The idea that the federal government today can do anything significant on its own, aside from the military, is not held by anything close to a majority of Americans, particularly among the youngest groups surveyed—pointing to a likely future decline in perception of the government’s value and effectiveness, which is hard to believe when Congress is popular only among about a tenth of the population.

Furthermore, political polarization has increased tremendously. Republicans are often blamed for being “anti-science,” and even NASA was dragged into this during climate debates of the George W. Bush administration, accused by global-warming advocates of suppressing data, though this turned out not to be the case. Barack Obama came into office promising to “restore science to its proper place,” yet has presided over continual decline in NASA’s budgets—which were not increased significantly when Democrats held both houses of Congress in 2008-2010. Under Obama, America stopped flying the Space Shuttle, leaving no other option to transport Americans to the Space Station than via Russia; in response to recent sanctions against Russia for annexing the Crimean peninsula, Vladimir Putin threatened to cutoff such access (though in the distant future, suggesting that, per usual, this was political rhetoric).

NASA as a federal government agency is constrained by creeping regulations and policies

Though tossed around like a political football, NASA’s structure as a large federal bureaucracy does not help. As with all government deparments, it is subject to myriad rules, many of which were developed for other purposes and are not particularly relevant. In general, compliance with federal regulations is better suited for departments where the main goal is pushing paper around, not trying to accomplish fundamentally new things where the appropriates have not yet been developed. For example, NASA must adhere to federal government policies on procurement and government civil servants’ permanent jobs. In order to purchase any significant piece of technology, competitive bids must be let out, a complex process originally intended to prevent the government from being defrauded or captured by corporate interests, but is inappropriate in a modern information-based economy where one click gets you an item from Amazon delivered from across the country, with full price transparency available (again after a few clicks) via internet search engines. The bigger problem is this sets back by months to years the kind of technology NASA is able to acquire and deploy, and can significantly limit technological development.

The government civil service labor regulations mirror those in private industry unions, which forced such inflexibility in the hiring and firing process that they have essentially driven the US-originated auto industry into bankruptcy. NASA scientists are also subject to the same travel regulations as all federal employees, again to prevent embezzlement; but when there is a rightful political backlash against flagrant abuse by other government departments, NASA staffers can’t get to conferences where science is communicated—without there ever having been a major history within NASA itself of travel expense abuse. I could go on.

In short, the creeping regulations and compliance requirements add a tremendous cost, and because they have legal force take priority over everything else. Thus, when the budgets are cut, the compliance costs are fixed, putting a disproportionate squeeze on resources to actually get its primary mission accomplished. Unfortunately, if there is ever something that Congress likes to do, it is to make more rules and micromanage other parts of the government. That may have a role for departments whose function is essentially to dispense a certain amount of money each year, that are not held responsible for developing anything new (generalized social welfare, where regulations are meant to prevent fraud and abuse). But in NASA’s case, where it is ultimately supposed to do new things that by definition cannot be predicted by regulation, the current rules-based approach is holding it back.

Non-partisan arguments for fundamental research sponsored by the federal government

The Democrats pay lip service to funding science, but when it comes down to passing a budget, during the Obama administration they certainly did nothing to increase NASA funding to any level it reached under George W. Bush. Now, like all government departments, NASA may be under philosophical threat from conservative Republicans who want to pare back the Federal Government in general, though most Republican budgets propose small increases.
What is very clear is that no one is proposing to give NASA any significant funding increase of more than a few percent, let alone the 10x that would get it back to its funding levels in the golden era of the 1960s. Nonetheless, there is a very good argument that should appeal to both sides of the aisle as to why NASA, and fundamental science research, should be funded by the government and freed from some unnecessary regulation:

Scientific and technical developments are the only thing that ultimately lead to real economic growth

In general, economists agree that significant economic growth only comes from new technologies. Perhaps the most recent example is the internet, and the economic growth it has allowed, centered in the US. Qualitatively new technologies come as a result of fundamental scientific research, in a whole host of fields. The trillions of dollars that internet-based companies have created in new wealth in the USA could only have occurred after decades of improvements in electronics, materials, mathematical algorithms, optics, etc. etc. The countries that have not been able to take advantage of this, e.g. sub-saharan Africa, remain comparatively poor.

Government-sponsored research is sensible when payback takes more than several years

If the federal government operates on a two-year election cycle, companies today are driven by quarterly earnings. Fundamental research, that may pay back only many years in the future, is therefore largely unsustainable in the corporate environment. Most of the great industrial labs devoted to fundamental research—notably Bell Labs at AT&T, IBM and Exxon—abandoned most fundamental research decades ago, focusing much more on product development applications.

So why should the government fund this research into fundamental science and technology that might not materialize for decades? Simply because, whenever these developments do create economic growth, the US treasury benefits directly from the windfall by capturing the tax revenues. The internet economy has led to billions and billions of dollars in new tax revenue (offshore accounting tricks by the largest companies notwithstanding), orders of magnitude more than the original investment by the Defense Department in ARPAnet, the predecessor of the modern internet.

Even if one believes in cutting unnecessary government spending, fundamental research is an investment in the future that actually improves the long-term fiscal picture through growth, something that all parties agree is a good thing. The problem is that it is not predictable: one particular, specific program can not with any accuracy be predicted to lead to a certain amount of economic growth. And therein lies the problem, for most politicians of all stripes generally believe that they can control the future via policy. NASA, the NSF, and the NIH doing fundamental scientific research will create jobs, wealth and a better tomorrow, but not in a way that we can predict today. Cutting funding, micromanagement and inappropriate regulation will help NASA and our country’s future.

So what can be done? In an ideal world, rational bipartisan policy could be made, even if the absence of significant budgetary increases: release NASA from compliance with a whole host of federal regulations that have nothing to do with advancing science, technology or exploration; guarantee funding at fixed levels on a five-year or longer timescale, so that proper long-term planning can be done for larger-scale projects; remove specific Congressional directives about intra-agency priorities, and leave it up to either internal experts or non-partisan review committees of external scientists, of which many would be glad to help. But the chance that this happens in the current political environment, where Congress can agree with the president on basically nothing? Practically zero.

We as scientists occasionally get emails to “call your senator” and tell them how much funding cuts, for instance via the recent sequester or shutdown, will hurt research. No doubt this is true, but it’s delusional to think that this actually matters in today’s Congress, where 95+% of incumbents will be re-elected, due to increased urbanization and gerrymandering on the part of both parties. In short: your Congressman just doesn’t care about what more than a handful of people of any sort will say; if this doesn’t lead to significant sums of money or blocs of votes, your opinion just isn’t going to count for much. Instead, with Congress and the president in a stalemate for what is likely to be a few more years, NASA and other scientific government organizations can only hope to have a fighting chance by persuading the public directly, and even this will admittedly lead to only small progress in the short term.

Communicating science to the public

Although things may seem dire, NASA has a number of unique advantages in speaking to the public:

  1. NASA controls perhaps the most exciting, inspiring aspect of any science- or technology-based effort in society: human space travel. Nothing else comes close in inspiring kids, or is generally regarded as inherently cool by adults.

  2. NASA still has a voice of authority, a leftover legacy of the Apollo era, and is generally regarded highly in public opinion, far more so than most other parts of the federal government.

  3. NASA is generally regarded as non-partisan, and has centers spread over large portions of the country with different voting preferences; it was cleverly spread out to maximize Congressional districts and has champions in both political parties.

  4. The amount of money NASA is asking for is comparatively small; when the total budget is half a percent of the federal budget, measurable increases for NASA will not impact significantly the overall federal budget.

There are, however, several unique challenges:

  • The public is in general totally in the dark about scientific matters; frighteningly, some recent surveys suggest that a third of Americans (of all political persuasions) believe that the sun goes around the earth (one would have thought “heliocentric deniers” would have gone out of fashion a long time ago).

  • The public has no idea what actually happens inside NASA: after the Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, more than 50% of the American public thought NASA was shut down permanently; for this reason alone, Russia notwithstanding, we should have kept flying the Shuttle until commercial replacements were available.

But blaming the public, while a popular grumble among elites, is neither accurate nor helpful, and will only lead to further resource cuts in our democratic society. This attitude of looking down from on high inside the academy, a popular attitude among the elites is part of what has gotten us into this mess. Unfortunately, actually engaging the public on the platforms they actually use is disincentivized among academic scientists, and those who do so are deemed second-class citizens, the “popularizers” like Carl Sagan who probably did more to get the public engaged with certain kinds of science (e.g. astronomy) and therefore willing to pay for it through their tax dollars, than the majority of academics who spent the money and did nothing to help spread the message.

The problem when scientists don’t speak out, is that the message then gets spread by the media, among the least trusted institutions in modern society. Not only are ostensibly non-partisan matters co-opted by political agendas, but even worse, the media almost always gets the science of the stories they cover wrong. Typical reporters have no specific training in what they are writing about, and have to meet very short deadlines; primary scientific documents, on the other hand, are (ideally) pored over and revised through the course of months or years, and deliberate in their language, since they form part of a modern scientific literature that expects to be correct and relevant for decades.

Moreover, the media itself has changed, specifically in regard to how NASA and other government organizations interact with it. In 1969, 125 million Americans watched a singler person, Walter Cronkite, narrate the moon landing coverage on television, an astonishing 93% of the television market. Because the technology to create and distribute video content was catastrophically expensive, only a few large networks could broadcast television, giving outsized importance to their news divisions and personalities. Today, by contrast, the cost for the same information transfer is nearly zero, resulting in a huge fragmentation of audiences and hundreds of ways to get the same news. I don’t know anyone my age whose primary source of information is the television evening news; I haven’t even seen a broadcast in many years, and have no idea who is anchoring the programs—but am sure it doesn’t matter. Contrast this with Walter Cronkite’s moniker, “the most trusted man in America.”

Finally, the public is largely comfortable with technology, and few qualitatively new technologies have made their lives better in the past few years. Sure, mobile phones, wireless networking and social media have had significant societal impact in the last decade, but the foundational technologies have been in place for decades. Fundamental research is not effectively justified by new spinoff technologies that make peoples’ lives better, because there are so few of these technologies that people will notice. When one has enough computing power in a smart phone to have actually run the entire Apollo program, what does at 10x speed increase ultimately mean? No doubt there will be important spinoff technologies from today’s research, but we are not at the point in the development curve when these are likely to have impact on a timescale short enough to matter. Furthermore, when the government can’t put together a website for the President’s signature healthcare program, and the winners it picks to subsidize for technology development go bankrupt (e.g. Solyndra), it is easy for everyone to conclude that consumer-facing product development is best left to industry.

NASA’s present communications strategy for science needs a facelift

In this context, the problem with much of the ethos behind NASA’s communication strategy is more clearly seen: in many ways NASA still interacts with the public as if it is in the Apollo era. Occasionally, it gets great coverage of a major event, like the Mars landing, that is in the style of Apollo: touching down and exploring another part of our solar system, with some awesome video and a party-like atmosphere where everyone gets well-deserved congratulations. NASA still knows how to get saturation coverage for those kinds of stories, and even I stay up all night to catch them when I can. They fit its heritage, and provide a spike of a few days in the media, bring out the sense of exploration and adventure, and often have nice human interest elements of persistence, overcoming adversity, and teamwork, that the media is very good at describing. Even if the details are fuzzy, everyone can relate to a team of Americans doing something hard that no one else has managed to do.

But with scientific research, it is not nearly the same thing. There is almost never a single “moment” of triumph. Critical data, even if promising in a preliminary sense, needs to be analyzed, vetted, checked. Then it needs to be presented in context, reviewed, and finally makes it into a publication or presentation—which almost invariably is impossible for someone outside the field to even read, let alone a reporter never trained as a scientist, not to mention the general tax-paying public who can’t even read two sentences into the abstract.

And the insistence of talking about applications is a holdover that not only NASA is guilty of, but most forms of traditional scientific communication. But the problem is, given how materially and technologically comfortable the average American is, there isn’t a whole lot that we as scientists doing fundamental research that will lead to short-term lifestyle improvement.

In a way, a focus on applicability takes what is ethereal and exciting (space travel) and brings it into the realm of the mundane (better smartphone in two years). NASA typically skips over everything—the motivation for the science that was done, the inherent difficulties of conducting on-orbit experiments, the long timescales needed to do this work—in a rush to promise benefits that probably won’t be materialized on any relevant timescale. And then they wonder why the public shrugs, and tunes out.

Communicating science: inspiration, not application

NASA needs to get back to inspiring the public to think about the great things that we can do together, in the big picture, not just technological conveniences. The Apollo program’s primary value to the United States was neither scientific (though of course we learned some important things about the moon), nor technical (we built rockets to get to the moon so large they were only good for… going to the moon), nor even political (the Soviet Union would in the event collapse for other reasons). No, ultimately, the most important legacy of Apollo was the entire generation of people in the United States, and around the world, that it inspired to study science, engineering and math, what we would term STEM fields today.

It is generally agreed that there is a shortage of home-grown talent in STEM fields today in the US (though whether that is actually true is a matter of debate). NASA still has the power to inspire, and to demonstrate the power and excitement that comes from doing something fundamentally new, and difficult, overcoming challenges with a team of talented and smart individuals. This site is therefore constructed as a small part of what I think should be a much expanded effort, both for NASA and for the better future of the USA.

Our experiment is by no means the most exciting, or significant, that either NASA or myself is working on at the moment. But it is timely, and a good test run for some new ideas in communication, because the team is willing to be open and to share, something that a lot of more traditionally-minded scientists may not be willing to do. We are making all of our data and code open before we publish, to give a sense of how this unfolds in near real-time. Could we be scooped? Possibly, but if someone actually wants to process our data for us and write up a good paper, that would save me a lot of work! And we are also looking for your feedback, in real-time. More eyes on a problem almost always help, and maybe you will spot something in our data before we do. Scientists typically work in a somewhat secluded environment, like the priesthood, passing down little finished nuggets at the very end of a long process; but in our case, there isn’t an obvious fundamental reason to sequester ourselves and our results, even if that is the traditional paradigm.

But I also do not want to hide the complexity, and the blind alleys, and problems that come up. This has more-or-less been suppressed not only by NASA, but by both scientists in telling their story, and the media in covering it. It is as if a brilliant idea was thought up at lunch, an order was sent off to a company to build a miracle device, data was collected and it was all great, then some existing algorithms got downloaded from the internet to solve the problem, and then a paper naturally just got written up. This is not at all how science is done, yet for the most part represents the kind of common misconceptions that the public has—in the absence of hearing the real story from those who have lived it.

Over the next few months, we intend for you all will get a sense of what we are doing, how many things don’t work, how sometimes (often?) circumstances beyond our control go wrong in unexpected ways; yet how we will systematically troubleshoot and solve the problems, how a team of clever people often figures things out far better than a single, lone “genius” (the stereotypical scientist) would, and on more than a social level, how we design experiments to figure out the unknown, then assess its accuracy and significance. Hopefully, we will get to the point where we have new data and analysis, and assemble them into a story to tell other scientists in our field (through publications and conference presentations) and the development of materials to explain this to a more general audience. If this works, it might serve as an example to other investigations, inside and outside the NASA environment, and perhaps might inpire some change in how we all relate to the public. But we are experimentalists, and trust the data more than pre-conceived notions or theories, so the only way to find it is to try it ourselves!