Saturday, February 13, 2010

Science Policy Follies

“Simply put, we're putting the science back into the rocket science at NASA,” White House science adviser John Holdren said at a budget briefing Monday.
So, Obama has decided to cut NASA's plans to return to the moon, redirecting that money to vague research plans for rockets.

The point of politicians in science policy is not, or should not be, to direct every step of the research that is going on. A leader/manager should however set clear goals and expectations and monitor the progress that is going on without poking their nose in too deeply. Redirecting money to a project without establishing clear goals as to what you want them to achieve is not sound policy, regardless of the field.

To give a simplistic analogy, if you are building a house, you may help design the house layout, but it is unlikely that you would actually assist in building the house unless you had some training. You would probably establish an expectation on cost and the time required and follow up on their progress in order to make sure that they are on track. You would also establish expectations as to the size of the house, the style the house is going to be, sizes of different rooms and so on, in advance of the beginning of construction.

If you simply told a builder, 'build me a home!' and left him to his own devices without any clear goals, time frame or price limitations, you probably would not elicit much sympathy if they built you a home that you do not like at a price that you can't afford.

Science policy is not much more complicated. Political leaders should establish a goal, a time frame and set a reasonable budget to complete these goals after consultation with the people who will be accomplishing it.

Mr. Crawley said the Bush moon plan was well thought out, but based on existing technologies and underfunded.

Bush's plan may have been well thought out, but probably could not be accomplished with the money that they were willing to pay and seems to have lacked appropriate monitoring. But at least he had a goal, a time frame and a budget that people could work towards, Obama hasn't seemed to offered any of this, but plenty of criticisms of his predecessor on this file.

Allocating money to vague 'research' without a goal or a time frame is a recipe for disaster. Not because of the inability of researchers to perform research, but because without a clear goal they may waste time pursuing one goal only to be told later that the rockets are actually to be used for a different purpose.

I'm sure everyone has had a personal experience where they were told to work on a project without clear direction, only to wind up being told halfway through that you will have to restart because you were not performing the job the way your supervisor wanted it done. Right?

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