Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


Introduction

This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

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January 24, 2015

The Titles of Research Grants, Out of Any Context, Makes Taxpayers Angry


Introduction

I originally wrote this post yesterday for my other, much smaller blog, WND Watch. However, I think I did a pretty good job of explaining federal grants and problems with publicizing what the research is. So, I’m copying most of it over here.

The Post

Federal research grants are important. They provide money for a huge range of scientific research that otherwise would not be done. We, as a society, have decided that they are good, though both the left and right and everyone in between may disagree about specific programs.

Because they are public, certain laws and regulations exist whereby the public gets to know what their tax money is going to. And, there exist many websites that will let you search them. Here’s one that I have found useful because it links to the search forms for what looks like all federal research funding agencies.

What information is shown is somewhat variable, but in general, you will find: The funding agency, the PI (principle investigator), the PI’s institution, Co-Is (co-investigators), the date the funding starts, the date the funding ends, the amount of funding, and an abstract that describes the research that was provided within the proposal. You won’t find the actual proposal because it contains proprietary information — not only sometimes classified information, but also the ideas and methodology behind the proposal (so the team doesn’t get “scooped”), and even the layout and style of the proposal itself (trust me, there are many ways to write a proposal, and some of them are very effective, while others are very ineffective).

The problem with this information is that to a non-expert, and without any of the broader context of the many pages explaining what the proposal may do and the implications for it beyond the immediate research, the proposal easily looks like a waste of money to the average person. And, despite a tiny fraction of the federal budget going to research grants, various bloggers, reporters, and even congresspersons will often pull up a random title and claim that it’s an amazing example of government waste.

Such seems to have been the case with a Free Beacon article titled, “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying Gay Hookup Apps” with the subtitle, “NIH project studied ‘arousal’ of gay men when using Grindr.” The image is of two men, ostensibly gay, laying on each other and smiling.

The World Net Daily subtitle is the same, but they slightly modified the title: “Feds Spent $432,000 Studying ‘Gay’-Hookup Apps.” See, they added a hyphen and put “gay” in “quotes” because “gay” is scary and fake and a choice, because it’s WND.

There are three distinct problems here, and I don’t know if there’s a good solution to any of them: (1) There is no context, making it easy to complain; (2) titles of proposals are often whimsical; and (3) people don’t realize that less than half of the money goes to the actual researcher(s).

The first issue is that when we write grant proposals, we write them at a level where someone in our field or closely related field can understand them. When I write a crater-related proposal, I try to generalize the abstract to explain to a general person familiar with planetary geology what I plan to do and why. I then spend several pages within the proposal giving background information so that someone who models the interiors of planets would be able to understand why I want to do an observational study of impact craters.

I don’t write my abstract so that someone who has a 9-5 job working for a law firm, or working retail, or who works in Congress, would understand it. That would simply require “dumbing it down” too much. I don’t mean to imply that those people are dumb; rather, we have a very limited amount of space to explain why we want to do the research, how we’re going to do it, the broader implications, the proposal team, the management structure, and justify the budget. If we also had to write it at a level that anyone could understand it, we’d never be able to get into details.

Therefore, what makes it into the abstract that would be made public should I win the grant will rarely make sense to a general person just picking it up randomly.

Similarly, we often write titles to try to stand out to the review panels. Something fun and whimsical, for example, to make someone smile. For example, one might entitle a proposal, “Studying Martian ‘Holes in One.'”

A congressional staffer or random blogger may pick that up thinking, “Wow, why is NASA funding something about golf on Mars?” In reality, my proposal is about studying meter- and decameter scale craters in a broad statistical study to try to understand where they are most common, how dense they are, and therefore what the likelihood is that a a future spacecraft may inadvertently land in one. This happened with the MER Opportunity when it landed on Mars eleven years ago. It turned out to be good because the crater’s walls let Opportunity see a lot of otherwise buried layers, and it was able to get out of the crater. But if the crater were a little steeper, or a little smaller, then the rover would not have been able to escape or it may have fallen over and not have been able to righten itself.

Now it seems much more important: You send a half-$billion craft to Mars, you’re going to be more willing to fund a $300k study into impact crater hazards for landing, right? But, a layperson may never get past the title and flag it for government waste.

And that leads into the third issue: We don’t get that money. On a proposal I wrote several years ago, just as an example, the total budget for the three-year proposal was $328k. Salary was $127k, a little over one-third of the total amount. That was my salary as a graduate student half-time for 1 year, and postdoc half-time for 2 years, and my then-advsior for 1 month each year. What did the other money go to? The vast majority was institutional overhead, which covers administration staff salary, budget office salary, building rent, lights, computer support, custodial staff, etc. Then there were benefits, like health insurance, life insurance, and retirement. There was also money in there for a new computer and software licenses so I could do the work. About $10k was travel to conferences and another $6k was publication costs: After all, I could do the most ground-breaking study ever, but if I never told anyone about it, then what’s the point?

So, while a study may look like it costs a lot, and overhead rates vary considerably across different institutions (and are generally higher at private companies versus public universities), a very very general rule-of-thumb is to divide the total amount by 3, and that’s salary.

That brings us back to the article in question. Now that you have all that in mind, let’s look at it. Using the NIH (National Institutes of Health) search form, here’s the grant, awarded to Dr. Karolynn Siegel, entitled, “Use of Smartphones Applications for Partnering Among MSM.” MSM is “men who have sex with men” (since many men are unwilling to identify as bi or gay but do have sex with other men).

While Free Beacon doesn’t seem to have much of a spin, and it does not allow comments so I can’t quite tell which end of the political spectrum it’s on, WND clearly does have an agenda: This study is a waste because who cares about gays (or “gays”) hooking up? What benefit could there possibly be!?

Well, take a moment and think more broadly about it from both a social and medical standpoint: Smartphones and GPS-enabled devices have drastically changed how we interact, so from a social standpoint we need research to better understand that phenomenon. From a health standpoint, it’s dramatically increased the ease of casual sex, especially among gay men where there is still a stigma of trolling the bars or streets for a partner. Heterosexuals have their own app (Tinder), and so the findings from a study of gay males hooking up could have implications for straight men and women, too. And, casual sex will increase the risk of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). So, from a public health standpoint, understanding a strong new vector for how diseases spread is the first step to trying to determine ways to minimize that risk. Both for straight and gay persons.

If the blogger or WND had bothered to read the abstract on the NIH site, they would have found that (emphasis mine):

The study aims are: 1. Examine how and why smartphone applications are used for sexual partnering, the situations and locations in which they are used, in order to gain insights into how these use patterns might contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 2. Investigate the process by which MSM use smartphone applications to find sexual partners (i.e., who they look for, how they present themselves, how they communicate, extent of safer sex negotiation,and disclosure) to gain insights into how this process may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 3. Investigate the sexual and emotional states (e.g., more/less urgency, arousal, impulsivity) that MSM experience when seeking or meeting sexual partners using smartphone applications and gain insights into how these states may contribute to sexual risk behaviors. 4. Examine the perceived need and acceptability of a smartphone delivered intervention and assess what MSM perceive as needed components for a smartphone-based sexual risk reduction intervention.

It also contains a public health relevance statement (likely unique to the NIH, since I don’t have to do that for NASA).

Meanwhile, the cost – $432k – may seem high. But, divide by three, and we’re down to around $150k salary. For a medical researcher, working for two years, at maybe half or a third of their time on this particular grant, that doesn’t seem very high anymore. Especially if most of it is given to graduate students who will be conducting the actual interviews with the 60 MSM in the study and Dr. Siegel is there for a month a year to supervise and then more at the end to crunch the data. In medical studies, there’s also money that is sometimes paid out to participants as compensation (I have no idea if that’s the case in this study, but I know it happens in others).

And so, we went from a sensationalist headline that clearly is meant to drum up a specific reaction (government waste! who cares about gays!?) but that’s because it leaves out any form of context as to the broader implications of this kind of study and why it’s being done. It also completely ignores that the amount of money in the federal budget for government-funded scientific research is somewhere around 3.4%. (FY2015 budget is around $3.97T, but science is $135B, and just under half of that is defense, leaving 1.8% for non-defense.)

The Obligatory WND Annoyance

And, World Net Daily got that reaction. In the 22 hours the article on their site has been posted, they have gotten 42 comments. They broadly fit into saying that President Obama is gay (which is another odd conspiracy they’ve been floating for years, and remember that being gay on WND is bad), that this is government waste of tax money, and that the study is stupid because it’s about The Gays.

Ignoring the first, some examples of the second are:

    • dan690: “The government says there is no room in the budget for cuts. Here is an excellent example of where to cut and there are thousands more.”
    • Tomas Cruz: “And they wonder why we reject every call for more taxes for this or that because it ends up with this nonsense.”
    • James Frost: “What the hell is going on with our officials? They spend our money on conducting such stupid research. But what`s the use? They`d better spend money on veterans, poor families, security measures. This gays have too much public attention!”

And examples of the third are:

    • Sharknado: “A government of perverts…just great…thanks a lot.”
    • ThoLawn: “What was the purpose to spend (waste indeed) half of million dollars to interview all that gays? What they’re going to do with that “research” results? Would it help to solve any problems? What a stupidity…”
    • HardCorePress: “Talk about in your face government sponsored hommoman wanna pump a guys *** pervertedness. This type of blatant sin has been seen by God and God will send his wrath upon this country. May it be nuclear fire to cleanse the cancerous mass of homosexuality (the pinnacle of debauchery and Obamanibale hedonism).”

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