NASA science still under fire

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2006 10:46 am

… and scientists are firing back.

The huge cuts to NASA science were a hot topic at the Lunar and Planetary Science meeting I just attended. Mary Cleave, Associate Administrator for Science at NASA, gave a talk at the meeting. Unfortunately, I had to leave ten minutes in to catch my flight, but others are talking about it:

Basically, the scientists were good and truly ticked off, as well they might be. Two quick quotes:

Europeans are very upset that NASA missions with European partners were canceled without consultation with those partners. From the Astronomy magazine article:

Cleave said NASA would begin a series of talks with international partners, to which [European scientist] Neukum [an American scientist who works with Europeans]* replied, “One would hope there’s going to be some listening in there, too.”

But my favorite is

“I don’t understand why you’re so angry,” said Cleave.

… which I think is a major part of the problem.

I have quite a few thoughts about this as well, as you might imagine. I find myself agreeing for the most part with the scientists quoted in those many articles. I am still gathering my thoughts for the moment, but I’ll be writing them soon. In the meantime, I still have to think that asking NASA to go to the Moon, finish the space station, and still do world class science, all without substantially raising the budget, is a grossly unreasonable request by the Bush Administration.

The solution is obvious: give NASA more money. It is the smallest government agency, with the smallest budget, and even though the missions sound expensive, they are a drop in the bucket of the government’s spending. But things are generally not this simple, and that’s why my thoughts are still being gathered.

* Emily Lakdawalla, who attended the talk, notes in the comments that Astronomy magazine had the quotation attribution wrong. Tip o’ the space helmet to Ms. Lakdawalla for that.


Comments (24)

  1. P. Edward Murray

    Is Cleve a Republican per chance?
    If so, you have your answer.

    I just love this current administration, say anthing & promise everything and then, when no one is the dead of night..when we astronomers are busy at our Telescopes…

    Crush,kill, destroy…

    All monies, all promises, all projects

    That are just not necessary!

  2. writerdd

    Phil, you said: “I still have to think that asking NASA to go to the Moon, finish the space station, and still do world class science, all without substantially raising the budget, is a grossly unreasonable request by the Bush Administration.”

    But that’s exactly how the Bush administration does everything. Either they are really trying to make government fail so they can say, “We told you big government was bad,” or they have a serious mental impairment.


  3. One can only hope that this sort of thing, not to mention the Deutsch affair, will make the various engineers, computer professionals, science-fiction fans, etc., who voted for Bush because they read “Atlas Shrugged” as sophomores and never got over it pause for a moment, and start to realize just what it is that they’ve done.

  4. Irishman

    I think the biggest problem is the perception of the attitude. Scientists are getting their budgets slashed and science cut or deferred. If NASA were to come out and say, “This sucks, but we’re getting hammered so you’re getting hammered. We wish we could do better,” that might alleviate some of the frustration. But instead NASA is conveying the attitude, “Hey, we know you lost some stuff, but there’s so much left you won’t really miss what we cut. Come on, it’s all going to work out in the end, why are you so angry?” That conveys the attitude that nothing is wrong and they don’t care that the programs are getting shortchanged. It makes it seem like the NASA admin is rolling over and taking it and then thanking Congress for the privilege. The scientists would like to at least hear a little yelping from their advocates. “Ow, that hurts! Ow, that hurts!”

    Canceling programs with International Partners without consulting those partners is pretty grim. That’s one of the big justifications used for continuing ISS – the politics of the International Partners. But if NASA is willing and able to blow them off for Dawn or other space science projects, then that shows that argument isn’t a valid justification, it’s just an excuse.

  5. The Galaxy Trio

    Wow. Swamp of the stereotypes in here. Maybe I should start a “Bad Ideology” site, but I guess that would be redundant. King od like a “Bad Cancer” page or a “Bad Terrorism” site.

    I have to admit it’s compelling at times. Hate this Party. Love that one. OK. Done thinking. Ooo! Shiny!

  6. And then there are the hopeless cases.

    “The Bush administration appointed a college dropout to oversee NASA press releases, and he at once proceeded to censor science in favor of fundamentalism. Furthermore, the administration has ordered NASA to take on hugely expensive new projects, without increasing their budget.”

    “You only say that because you’re prejudiced against Republicans.”

    I believe this is what C. S. Lewis called “Bulverism”. The trick is to “assume without discussion that [one’s opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly.”

  7. Anthony

    I think it says a lot when the person who wears the title “Associate Administrator *for Science*” says that she doesn’t understand why scientist are so upset when their funding is cut. I mean, I would think that if anyone in the administration at NASA would be on the same page as the scientist, it would be the “Associate Administrator for Science”.

    Yeah, it’s easy to blame the current Administration, but the truth is that NASA’s buget, when inflation is taken into account, has been on the decline since 1990. Politics may be part of it, but I think that what we are seeing is a reflection on the fact that a large number of Americans today just don’t seem to care about science. Maybe I’m wrong – I certainly hope so. Changing an Administration is much easier then changing an entire nation’s attitude.

  8. Bill_Thompson

    Let’s hope the next election offers the greater of two goods to choose from rather than the lesser of two evils. To me it looks like this will be the way the election will be, without naming names.

  9. Although that “one would hope there is listening…” remark was indeed made at NASA night, Astronomy is incorrect in reporting that it was Neukum who made it. It was an American scientist whose name I didn’t catch, who said he works with Europeans.

  10. Ah, thanks for that Emily. I am very unhappy I missed the talk, as then I could post the misquotes directly. :)

  11. Hey, I thought I’d throw this out. With all the budget cuts, how is NASA supposed to do good science on subjects that we know ID’ers will abuse? Such as this?

  12. P. Edward Murray

    With all the budget cuts…
    Everything else is being cut too and the
    “State of The Nation” is going “everyday” from bad to worse & more worse

  13. This subject is of interest to me because of my line of work. I am looking forward to reading more of what you have to say once your thoughts have “gathered”.

  14. Kaptain K

    “Cleave said that a new set of advisory subcommittees is being established at NASA.”

    Typical bureaucratic response! Let me paraphrase:

    “Hmm, we don’t seem have enough money to actually do the science we’re supposed to be doing. We’ll hire a bunch of (Ivy League) MBAs and pay them big bucks to study the problem

  15. PK


    that’s a killer! I really love (well.. hate) the way the journalist tries to tie in the significance to life by talking about DNA.

  16. Gary Ansorge

    It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Republicans have found the Way to remove Science from any future discussions in politics/global warming/etc, by merely gutting research. No research equals no rebuttal to stupid political decisions.

  17. KJ

    There is another solution: cancel the shuttle program and space station now, instead of flying ~12 more flights for at least half a billion $ each to retire the space station (where no science of significance has been done or ever will be done) when the last piece gets there.

    The shuttle (and by extension the space station) is not about science. It is about keeping a stream of billions of dollars going to contractors. Get unmanned space science out of NASA so its budget can’t be cannibalized [as easily] by this money pit.

  18. As I recall, the number one top news story before 9-11-2001 was The Intenational Space station. Since that date one has to make an effort to read any updates or information on this subject. I am not justifyinng the cuts in funding for science. But maybe there is another side to this coin.

  19. I wasn’t at LPSC, but some of my colleagues were. Of course I noticed all of the references to Dawn in those links to NASA Night you posted. Dawn is not dead yet (surely some of those scientists quoted in the press knew that). The high level hearing at NASA HQ to address a number of Dawn technical and budget issues is currently scheduled for March 23.

  20. Here is a solution: NASA provides facts that a comet or asteroid may some day strike land in the United States. Then, make a urgent request to become a part of The Department of Homeland Security.

    Do you think that would open up more congressional funding pockets?

  21. NASA is already almost part of DHS I guess you have not been a visitor at JPL lately? Or seen the manager in the corner of the science team meeting room feverishly deleting sections of technical documents to make them ‘ITAR-safe’ ? The complaints are loud, even from the other side of the Atlantic.

  22. I think I might have a better solution. It is something I am currently working on. If the participants on both side this war (I mean the real shooting war overseas that is not mentioned directly here) are made aware that the war is leading to funding cuts that is hurting science, and that science is something that helps all of mankind for countless generations to come, this might expedite an end to the global conflict. Am I being too optimistic? It is worth a try. And, as I said, it is something I am working on. Although I am just one person, thanks to the internet and my linguistic connections there might be hope.

  23. Irishman

    Sadly, Bill, I don’t think it will have much effect. The people driving the shooting war you mention are too buried in their own concerns and judgments about what is critical for the future to think much of “some random space science”. Heck, it’s Bush’s big plan for space exploration and his lack of properly funding that plan that is the biggest cause of the problems. If he won’t see the light, do you really think folks fighting over the formation of the government of their country will care?

  24. Folks, this is the classic way that administrations run NASA. They give the agency more jobs than money, select their high priority missions (the new crew exploration vehicle, space shuttle and ISA) and then let the agency cut programs (which by elimination are the ones that the administration does not like). There are, of course, innocent bystanders who get killed. Before you go on too much about the space science cuts, let us wait for the earth science ones.


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