AAS: Bolden speaks

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden addressed a packed room filled with anxious astronomers at lunch today.
It was interesting, both in what he said and in what was omitted.

I’ll get to actual science at the AAS Real Soon Now , so more politics in the meantime.

Bolden’s talk was primarily a scripted speech, and he acknowledged as much.
There were no announcements of new initiatives, mission commitments or statements on funding – evidently the White House has not yet settled on a plan for NASA, in particular how to handle “Exploration” – ie human spaceflight.
The preamble anecdote on HST deployment was good fun.

There were some interesting points:
1) a pledge, and I think it can be taken seriously to not take money out of Science to support Exploration – this is critical, for science, though it leaves the possibility of constant nominal science budget, or a de facto net cut.
2) a serious assertion that NASA needed to take on international partners, on equal terms, including willingness to put non-US agencies into mission critical paths
3) a mention that it would not be possible to do many (any?) “flagship missions”, and that the partnerships were needed for smaller class missions, not new big ones, and that lots of smaller missions would be good – that got applause.

It was when Bolden went off-script that it got interesting:

first, he mentioned that the human spaceflight crisis had been coming for 10-15 years as inadequate resources had been put into developing new capabilities;

secondly, he said, a couple of times, that he wasn’t saying things jus because they were nice things to say, but because he meant them – I think that may have been the most important thing he did say, and that he meant it – not sure much of the audience appreciated the point, but it was refreshing;

thirdly, he said, and I paraphrase, that elementary teachers went into elementary education because they didn’t want teach math or science – which was really actually not meant in a derogatory way, and is a blunt way of overstating something with far too much truth in it. He also said that scientists, us, need to “get out there and interface with snotty-nosed little kids”, whether you like it or not.
He is right.
He also told those who would not to take a pat on the back and leave.
Which is overreaching – a number of scientists are good at doing science, but, I fear, should not be allowed anywhere near kids – they might do damage.
Trick, of course, is knowing which is which.
Bolden, however, is serious about K-12 education and need for better STEM education, with cause.

fourthly, he said, and I paraphrase, that since Challenger the US had become afraid of failure and too risk averse. He also made the point that science invites, to some extent, risk and failure (or at least unexpected outcomes), while engineering has become too process oriented and risk averse.
He is right.

Anyway, it was interesting to see what Bolden got intense about, we might see some good changes, if the White House can ever make its mind up.

The argument about lack of funds for new missions grated: ignoring the tens of billions of $ casually tossed around about the financial system at the drop of a hat, we are also in a system where the NIH got $10 billion because a single Senator wanted a nice round number to boost their budget, and push some applied disease research – the money can clearly be clawed loose if the right people think it is actually important.
Too much risk aversion is also bad, but then the funding and oversight system must allow for that and not gratuitously penalize actual risk taking which then sometimes leads to failure.

The K-12 education issue is also right, but it is a bigger problem than just to get a few thousand astronomers out into the system interfacing with the snot.
There are, apparently, 68,890 elementary schools in the US.
Typically each school has maybe 6 grade levels and several classes per grade…
The AAS has about 10,000 members, of which maybe half would be available in principle to interface, and maybe half would be any good at it. That does not add up.

Further, if it is important to get scientists out into the K-12 interface, then there must be some incentive to do so, or at least lack of penalty for doing so – at all levels: department, university/labs and agency. Volunteering is good, but science education in the US will not be cured by a few thousand professional scientists spending an evening per semester showing 8 year olds the Moons of Jupiter.
Don’t get me wrong: to get kids doing science is good, one kid at a time, and any convert or retention is a good – it is just that this works primarily in college towns and at that mostly for kids already equipped to take advantage – but it will miss most kids.
Doing something is better than nothing, but this is local and retail solutions, not a ntional cure. There just aren’t enough scientists with enough time on their hands to cover.

I don’t know the solution, if I did I’d be writing the DoE/NSF proposal now…

Interesting talk, I expect we’ll discover our and NASA’s fate soon, the hard way.


  1. #1 Therese
    January 5, 2010

    The incentivizing question is one that was brought up at the Women in Astronomy conference in the fall; three or four people asked the NSF senior advisor in the office of information and research management about this, and she dodged the question every time. It seems our government hasn’t thought about this either…

    More easily accessible websites/animations/lesson plans would be nice, especially ones catered to individual states’ science curricula. If we can’t invade K-12 classrooms individually, we might as well try it virtually.

  2. #2 Arunav
    January 5, 2010

    I am sure he is most sincere about taking on international partners and I hope he succeeds. Whether the bureaucrats who control the strings can be convinced remains to be seen.

    Interesting back story on a NASA detector that was flown (for free mind you) on the Indian moon mission.


    Bush reportedly had to intervene for what was a pretty innocuous, relatively small, science project. Imagine the roadblocks if some possibility of collaboration with China came up. And if anyone has the extra cash for some ambitious projects these days …

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.