NASA Becomes Marginally Less Stupid
Posted on February 8, 2006 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
Looks like NASA won’t have George Deutsch to kick around anymore after all:
George C. Deutsch, the young presidential appointee at NASA who told public affairs workers to limit reporters’ access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word “theory” at every mention of the Big Bang, resigned yesterday, agency officials said.
Mr. Deutsch’s resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his résumé on file at the agency asserted.
That last little bit of information, incidentally, uncovered by a blogger (go team blog!). I read about his not graduating yesterday and wondered about whether to append the information on the earlier piece I wrote about the fellow, but eventually decided against it on the grounds that mocking someone for not having a college degree was just a cheap shot (particularly since I can think of at least one extremely smart person I know who if memory served never bothered to even finish high school). However, now that I discover that not only did Mr. Deutsch not graduate, he lied about graduating on his NASA resume, I feel ever so much better about it. Lack of a degree is not an issue; lying about it is. In any event, he’s now out on his ass. This would be a lovely time for the fellow to go back to J-School and take that ethics class I suspect he might have skipped.
However, as I noted in the comment thread to the previous discussion, Mr. Deutsch isn’t the problem, he’s a symptom of the problem. Here’s a relevant quote from the article:
Yesterday, Dr. Hansen said that the questions about Mr. Deutsch’s credentials were important, but were a distraction from the broader issue of political control of scientific information.
“He’s only a bit player,” Dr. Hansen said of Mr. Deutsch. ” The problem is much broader and much deeper and it goes across agencies. That’s what I’m really concerned about.”
Oddly enough, that’s what I’m concerned about as well. For every fumbling apparatchik like Deutsch who gets hauled up for ridicule, I suspect there are a couple of others who are less stupid, whose resumes are in order, and who toil away fiddling with truthful information meant to benefit the public — scientific and otherwise — because it runs counter of an administration’s political goals. Deutsch is a case of one down, uncountable others to go.
And of course now that Deutsch has resigned, there’s another presidential appointee position open. Here’s a hint, Mr. President: have someone fact-check the resume first. It’s a small detail. But it’s an important one.
You’re asking the Bush administration to check facts? Isn’t that like. . .
Damn, I can’t think of a good metaphor. In fact, I would probably _use_ “that’s like asking the Bush administration to check facts” as a metaphor for other examples of blind optimism.
One of the goals of this administration seems to be to spread their ‘truthiness’ until nobody has a clue what the real truth is anymore.
That and robbing the treasury blind while we’re busy countering their truthiness campaign…
“have someone fact-check the resume first. It’s a small detail. But it’s an important one.”
Just ask Oprah.
Unfortunately, I fear this won’t do anything towards rooting out the political hacks, except in cases where there are obvious reasons to fire someone such as them lying on their resume or letting New Orleans drown while asking plaintively if they can go home yet. Truth is in for a long, hard winter.
Fortunately, it was reported yesterday that the portion of scientific research funded by the federal government has fallen to 33% (as opposed to the 60% level following WWII).
It is a fundamentally bad thing when scientific research is bent by any kind of ideological bias. The greatest potential for that type of abuse is when the purse strings that control the course of research are controlled by any group which has political ties. If the trend continues we may hope for greater and greater advances as the remainder of the resources devoted to research are less and less tied to a political sponsor.
The chief disadvantage to this “privatising” of research is that the bulk of it is funded by corporations with a profit motive. As much as I revere Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, I must acknowledge that that “hand” has a predominate attention to the “bottom line” and the next fiscal reporting period. As intelligent and active citizens in a democratic country it is our duty to see to it that our tax dollars, as much as it is in our power to influence, are devoted to those areas of research which a short sighted and profit oriented private sector will obviously neglect.
Falling fed research money isn’t a good thing, in my mind. It’s easy to see where the government is spending research dollars, while private corporation research monies are often hidden from view. In addition, corporations are by their nature married to short-term results, while more pure research is a long-term enterprise readily chopped into tiny sellable pieces the next time the company’s stock tumbles.
Sorry, but I can’t see firing one PR flack, no matter how operatic the scope of his dimness may be, as even beginning to even marginally diminish the stupidity of NASA. Forty years of building the wrong technologies to solve the wrong problems at oh-so-very-wrong costs have done more to damage the cause of science in America than any number of Bible-thumpers could ever hope to do.
Falling fed research money isn’t a good thing, in my mind. It’s easy to see where the government is spending research dollars, while private corporation research monies are often hidden from view.
Federal (or state/local government) money is dispursed by political priorities which are usually anything but wise. Although their expenditure may be transparent (if not buried or classified), wasted funding is not logically re-animated as a virtue of its transparency. Wasted money is simply wasted. Anyone who has worked along side government functionaries can tell you that the government (at any level) wastes lots and lots and lots of money. The old saying, “an elephant is a mouse built to government specifications” is in reality overly praiseful of the mouse and insulting to the elephant.
Private industry conceals its expenditures for the same reason you don’t publish your expenditures (i.e. it’s only your business and nobody elses’). The comforting thing to keep in mind is that business is ruled by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (a hand which miserably bitch slaps those who choose to ignore it). So that a business is constantly constrained to expend its resources toward ends which the consumers desire. If it fails to do that consumers don’t buy its products and the business ceases to exist. In short business are slaves to our desires. You see where they are expending their resources every time you crack open your wallet to buy something.
In a poor comparison, John has frequently blogged about his writing ability (which astounds me), but he’s only occasionally given us an insight as to how much of his life is ruled by his muse. John wrote TGB in a month. How many months and thousands of hours did he spend thinking about it, the plot, the characters, the killer line. Yes, he was motivated by his sense of purpose, desire for success, ego, but he also knew that he could only achieve those things if what he produced had appeal. Government has no comparative disciplining influence. Its funding is certain. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, ‘A government program is the closest humans have come to a perpetual motion machine’.
Having done research for universities, government programs, and private programs, I can tell you that all large organizations waste money on grand scales. You just get to see the government’s doing so much more clearly.
You glided past the critical issue in my comment: Adam Smith’s invisible hand has a two-inch reach. Much pure research has little to no immediate payoff. Show me a consumer who greatly desired a laser, or a semiconductor, or wanted to know how carbon could be linked into 60-atom structures. If you limit the US’s research to what has a strong business case, you doom the US to bottom-of-the-heat status.
If anyone glided past anything, it appears to be you.
My original statement:
As intelligent and active citizens in a democratic country it is our duty to see to it that our tax dollars, as much as it is in our power to influence, are devoted to those areas of research which a short sighted and profit oriented private sector will obviously neglect.
essentially agrees with your main point. However, your subsequent statement:
Show me a consumer who greatly desired a laser, or a semiconductor, or wanted to know how carbon could be linked into 60-atom structures.
characterizes how difficult the decision process will be for government directed research. Because government action is politically motivated, it will always be directed to some purpose, some politically desired result (ultimately the reason for the failure to fund to completion of the Superconducting Super Collider). The reason so many involved in research prefer government funding is because of government’s inefficiency. Its unaccountability. Its ability to continuously ignore failure. Not bad! (from a employment security point of view)
In short my original statement was to say that all government funded research should be for pure research or research for which any reasonable profitable return are too hypothetical or risky for any profit based enterprise to touch.
As an example, on John’s earlier post regarding the State of the Union Address, I posted that I found it disappointing that the President did not announce anything more grand than he did. Especially in view of the fact that only the previous week Russia announced that they would be establishing a base on the Moon by 2015 and would be mining Helium(3) by 2020. Nuclear fusion using Helium(3) has the possibility of replacing almost all the world’s energy needs, but the initial capital costs are inconcievably huge for any private, profit based, organization to tackle. That is the proper role for government funded research.
Tim: I don’t think this is true (in it’s most obvious and meaningful way):
Because government action is politically motivated, it will always be directed to some purpose, some politically desired result (ultimately the reason for the failure to fund to completion of the Superconducting Super Collider).
The NSA, NIH, etc are mostly run by scientists… hired by other scientists. They distribute grants in an inefficient, bureaucratic, paper-worked, lethargic way to science projects without checking in with professional politicians. Those professional politicians are allowed to set guidelines (The Stem-Cell research blockage, etc) but it’s not like congressmen are sifting through grant proposals.
Not all of them, but a great number of scientists are actually genuinely interested in advancement of their field, and when they see a grant proposal for a project which has a reasonable chance of promoting their field will hand it up-chain with a bunch of gold-star-stickers across the top that say A++ or whatever.
The DoD (probably DoE research money too?) funds applied research that they want to use asap. (I once interviewed for a job with a company who had a decent mathmatical model for ocean surfaces, paid for by the DoD so they could make a visual processor that could render clear images underwater that were taken abovewater. The company that developed the tech went on to use their models to generate CGI water effects for the movie Titanic… but that’s just an amusing aside) Not all of the government funded research is tied to specific political goals.
Broad ones? Sure, like, “We want the U.S.A. to have a high quality University System, and have a lot of the world’s greatest scientists.”
In addition to Scott’s comment’s, I’d add the following:
The reason so many involved in research prefer government funding is because of government’s inefficiency. Its unaccountability. Its ability to continuously ignore failure.
The vast majority of scientists don’t take that approach, if for no other reason than pragmatic ones. If you fail enough, after a while you’ll be marginalized at your university or FFRDC or small company and you’ll have trouble getting papers published in the better journals.