Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 22, 2015

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


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.


February 16, 2015

Podcast Episode 126: The Facts and Misconceptions Behind Funding in Science, with Dr. Pamela Gay @starstryder

The sordid subject
Of the coin: How scientists
Are – and are not – paid.

This is another episode where I don’t focus on debunking a specific topic of astronomy, geology, or physics pseudoscience, but rather I focus on a topic of misconceptions related to science in general: How scientists are funded. This is done via an interview and bit of discussion with Dr. Pamela Gay, who cohosts the very famous “AstronomyCast” podcast and is the director of CosmoQuest.

The topics are varied, but it remains focused on some of the misconceptions of how research is funded and the real process behind it. It’s also a bit depressing, but I can’t always have light-hearted topics like Planet X isn’t coming to kill you.

Since this is an interview, it is a somewhat longer episode (54 minutes), there is no transcript, and there are no other segments.

The episodes for the next two months should be focused on Comet Hale-Bopp and have a brief interlude of another interview with the chair of the program committee for a major planetary science conference, and what they do when they get submissions that seem like pseudoscience.

April 18, 2013

The State of NASA Funding for Research


I debated for awhile about whether I should write this kind of post or not. It’s not really related to the topic of “pseudoastronomy,” though when I thought about it more, a popular claim amongst the “alternative” people is that scientists have practically unlimited funding and they are paid such to uphold the status quo.

I had my link, I write this post. 🙂

How Scientists Get Funding

First, I recommend you read this post, “Where Do Scientists Get Funded” (though hopefully the grammar in the post is better than the title — not sure how I came up with that title).

The jist of the post is that we live in a time that only started maybe 100 or so years ago where governments realized that for a healthy society, a progressive society, and one that can keep ahead in the world, the government needs to support basic research and development. And by “support,” I mean “fund with money.”

There are numerous science and science-related fields that do NOT rely significantly on government support. Engineering is perhaps an obvious one. Medical research pulls from both. Geology pulls from both but probably dollar-wise, industries such as oil, gas, and coal fund the most geological research (I’m guessing here, so don’t yell at me if my numbers are wrong).

Then there are fields where the majority of the funding comes from government research. In broad brush strokes, I would say that the “basic science” fields such as physics, astronomy, most of chemistry, and similar disciplines get most of their funding through government grants. Why? Probably because the benefit to industry isn’t as obvious. Why should a company like Boeing care about how many extrasolar planets are out there?

I can say pretty much without fear of being wrong that the vast majority of professional astronomers in the USA are funded through NASA and/or NSF grants.

Let’s talk about how you get a NASA grant.

Getting a NASA Grant

In February each year, NASA releases the call for proposals to their massive “ROSES” program (Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences). ROSES has dozens of sub-programs that distribute awards ranging from $50k/yr for light research to several $million/yr for instrument and/or missions. Separately, there are also calls for institutes (like NASA Astrobiology Institute, or the NASA Lunar Science Institute) which are generally around $1-2 million/yr, and there are calls for mission proposals (which as we learned with Curiosity can cost several $billion over a decade or so).

That overview aside, most basic research is funded through ROSES. ROSES has 102 separate programs you can apply to, though not all of them are available every year.

The basic research ones, such as those that I apply to like LASER (lunar stuff), MDAP (Mars Data Analysis Program), or PGG (Planetary Geology and Geophysics), tell you that they expect to give X number of new awards this funding cycle that will average $100,000 per year. So if I’m writing a 3-year proposal to PGG, I should try to get my total budget to be about $300,000 regardless of what I’m doing or how many people I’m supporting or what my institution charges in overhead (usually 2-3x what I would get in salary) or how many trips I need to go on or what equipment I need.

Then you write the proposal, submit it, and cross your fingers. A panel reviews the proposal and decides what they think its scientific merit is, how cost effective it is, and whether it’s relevant to that program (for example, if >20% of your proposal is to analyze existing Mars data, then you can’t apply to MFRP because it’s not relevant to MFRP (Mars Fundamental Research PRogram); or, if you don’t include some of the required material like a CV, we vote non-compliance which goes in relevance). Each panel is actually broken into several sub-panels, like within LASER you may have a geology sub-panel, exosphere sub-panel, materials sub-panel, and geophysics sub-panel. (I have never been on a LASER panel so I’m guessing here based on other ones I’ve been on, but due to confidentiality I can’t say what those are.)

Each sub-panel then ranks the proposals based on their scores (scores are 1-5) and also gives them a word grade based on the score, from Excellent (5) to Poor (1). You can also get split scores like Very Good / Good (3.5). Anything below Good (3) is considered unfundable no matter how much money is available.

Alright, I’m making this longer than it needs to be … so we rank the proposals and set a “water line” of “MUST FUND” and “Please Fund If There’s Money!” Then we send that to the program director who makes their recommendation to some other people at NASA.

What this all means is you propose, it’s reviewed, ranked, and then decided on. The problem these days is where that water line is, and why it keeps raising.

Falling Funding

NASA, as a federal agency, is beholden both to Congress for setting its budget, and the President for setting its direction and priorities (though sometimes Congress mandates some priorities in the bills it passes). NASA’s budget has been effectively stagnant relative to or decreasing relative to inflation for the past few years. And yet, it has been mandated each funding cycle to change direction and fund something new.

For example, the latest is some asteroid mission that made the news a week or three ago. That money has to come from somewhere. Each year that NASA gets more money, though, a large portion of that is already earmarked for stuff that it has already committed to. And yet with each new mandate, new funding for it is not provided. So, like someone who just got a flat tire but is on a fixed income and already has other bills, the money for that unforeseen expense has to come from something else. Usually, that’s SMD (Science Mission Directorate). Which funds the basic research. Which funds a lot of astronomers.

See where I’m going?

For the last several years, the fraction of successful proposals has been falling at NASA. To the programs that I apply, this past year, the success rate was roughly 17%. This is down from around 25-30%. That may still seem like a lot. Let’s put it a different way.

When I was on some grant review panels, our sub-panel had around 17-19 proposals. We were told that out of our sub-panel, we may get to fund up to 4 or 5 in one program I was on, and 3 in another I was on. Those were lucky – that was a 25% one where the program director had somehow managed to earmark more funds for their program. That means that about 15 of those others, despite some getting Very Good or Very Good / Good scores, were rejected.

New Lows

I work in a lab with on the order of 100 other research scientists. We were recently sent an e-mail asking us to come talk with the director of research if we were having funding issues. After I went to talk with him, he told me that this is the worst he’s seen it in over 30 years. As of that time, 1 RA (Research Associate) was below 100% funding. But, within the next 6 months, >10% of people are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, NASA’s had travel freezes, pretty much all state institutes have had hiring freezes (so if someone quits or retires, that person cannot be replaced), and now the President’s budget recommendation calls for all education and public outreach to be removed from individual agencies that actually do that kind of research (like NASA, or the Department of Agriculture or Energy), and moved to either the Department of Education (formal education), National Science Foundation (education research), and the Smithsonian (outreach).

The way it currently works is that the researchers actually doing the research partner with people and pay people from the same grants to do education and outreach about that research. For example, every single space mission has a mandatory Education and Public Outreach (EPO) component that funds basic things like their website, and free educational material for teachers. If this proposal were taken and implemented as-is, the likely scenario is that all that money would be zero’ed out (or maybe just all future missions, and the current ones would be grandfathered in), and then all new EPO would have to be proposed through the DOE, NSF, or Smithsonian.

I can see trimming the fat of bureaucracy, but this seems like instead of trimming the fat off a cut of beef to get to the meat, they’re just throwing the steak away and going with chicken. An entirely different animal that will take a long time to get used to and, regardless, can’t fit the same needs as the old one, no matter how hard it tries.

Final Thoughts

I understand that as a somewhat political post, people are going to say that there’s no problem here, that scientists should “get real jobs” and/or not rely on someone else’s tax dollars to pay their salary. Fine. This post is not for you.

For other people who do think that funding basic science research is important, I’m writing this post to give you more of an insight into the process and insight into current problems that we face now. Obviously, this post has been written with specifics that are near and dear to me in mind. With that said, funding rates from the National Institutes of Health are roughly 5%. And somehow homeopathists can get NIH funds.

I also write this with a nod towards Pamela Gay’s blog post from last night, “Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration,” though I think the original title (based on the URL) also had an, “And Fighting for Our Lives” at the end. Her post is a direct request for funding support for her various projects. I want to be clear that I am not asking for donations in my post, nor am I begging you to make a donation to her. I will say that I am involved with one of her projects, “CosmoQuest,” which is generating data that we’re using for research and, in fact, right now writing a paper on that should be submitted to a journal late next month (11 coauthors … it takes awhile to get everyone to sign off on a paper).

If, after reading this, you think this is an okay situation, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t, then I recommend that you contact your congressperson and/or senator and tell them that. And feel free to mention the fact that if young scientists today can’t get research funding, they only have two options: Find work in their field in another country, or choose a different career. In either case, that means that in 2-3 decades, the US will be faced with a serious deficit of those people, the very ones we need to stay ahead. In their stead, we’ll have people who think that pink beams of energy were photographed coming out of pyramids, that there’s a ziggurat on the moon, that clouds from space appear brighter than land because light from them takes less time to reach the camera, or that comets prove the universe is 6000 years old.

August 23, 2012

Where Do Scientists Get Funded

Filed under: astronomy,conspiracy theories,misconceptions — Stuart Robbins @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , ,


As Mike Bara suspected, I am listening to his interview right now on American Freedom Radio, and yes Mike, I appreciate the minor plug, but I find it fascinating that you think I’m obsessed with you. I have nearly 300 posts on this blog and a whopping half-dozen have to do with you, and all but one are just related to this ziggurat thing. Unless you were talking about Expat, for whom I can’t speak and don’t pretend to.

Anyway, I expect to get a small handful of folks coming here due to Mike’s radio appearance tonight, and I wanted to put up a quick post that I will respond to his 5-part post within a day or three. But in the meantime, Mike spent several minutes saying that I could not be objective about this because I’m funded by NASA.

I’ll respond to that momentarily. Meanwhile, Mike, where does your money come from? You’re getting paid for your books about this stuff, going to and speaking at conferences about this stuff, getting out there through radio appearances, getting paid to talk about your ideas on the History channel … do you honestly think that makes YOU an objective person with regards to your ideas? This thing works both ways if you really want to play the “follow the money” conspiracy game.

Where Astronomers Get Funding

For hundreds of years, science in the western world was made possible by rich folks (usually white men) who could afford to not have to earn a living based on their academic endeavors. Sometimes they were lucky in another way and were able to carry out research on the side of a teaching job at a university or other center of learning.

Later on, some got lucky in a different way and had rich patrons — noblemen, dukes, kings, etc. — who would indulge them and pay for their research and equipment because it increased their own status (“Oh yeah, Harry, well you may have 50 servants but I have my own astronomer!”). Kepler and Brahe are two examples of this case.

It’s really only in the last hundred years or so that governments themselves decided that it was for the collective good of society that they fund research. Thus, they set up institutions and grants and ways of giving public funds to those who presented the most likely chances of both success and adding something significant to our understanding of the universe we live in. And I’m not just talking astronomy here: Health, biology, environment, geology, physics, chemistry, all those other fields fit within our understanding of the universe, some just a little closer to home and of more immediate benefit.

Fast-forward to today in this incredibly abridged history and most governments have a fairly heavy bureaucracy in place to do this. In the United States, the vast majority of research astronomers have one main funding source: U.S. government grants that are mostly awarded through the Science Mission Directorate section of NASA in one of four main areas: Human exploration, astrophysics, Earth science, and solar system / planetary.

Yes, there are some other funding sources such as NSF (National Science Foundation) or individual companies – or universities if you’re teaching faculty – but the vast majority comes from NASA, an official government agency, which of course gives conspiracists all the ammo they need to argue their case fallaciously (see the section below).

Now, I realize this might come as a shock to those who are conspiracy-minded or anti-government, and you probably won’t believe me, but no where do we have to sign some sort of loyalty oath to uphold “NASA’s views” of [insert whatever]. In fact, as an organization, NASA has very few views on, really, anything; NASA is a government agency charged with space flight and funding research, not charged with being a Gateway through which Knowledge Must Pass®. As in, whenever I hear James McCanney’s bio read on Coast to Coast, I cringe whenever I hear the part of, “He’s openly opposed NASA’s view that comets are hunks of ice and rock …” Seriously folks — NASA has “no views” on that sort of thing.

I suppose there are some official positions that have come out of the PR department like global warming, though. And sometimes certain political appointees decide to insert their own censorship (such as the Bush administration did).

Anyway, my point here is that if Mike Bara would like to find some private funding for my research, I’d be more than happy to take it. I have never tried to make it a secret that I’m funded in part by a NASA grant I wrote in 2010 as a graduate student, and before that by a fellowship I wrote in 2007. In fact, I’m quite proud of the fact that I won two very competitive grants (one admittedly FOR graduate students) before I even had my doctorate. I also have some funding directly through NASA’s Lunar Science Institute to fund my lunar crater research through CosmoQuest’s “MoonMappers” project. The only stuff I had to sign was that I had no foreign nationals who would get the money.

Again, not something I’ve ever tried to hide. Yet Mike’s argument against my analysis of his ziggurat seems to be: “His education was funded by NASA, and all his grant $$$$$ comes from NASA. Fact.”

Mike, please find an example of a professional astronomer today whose education and/or current research was/is not funded by a research grant from NASA. They’re as rare as a two-leaf clover. They exist, but they are very rare.

And then of course, again, your money these days sure seems to come from your lunar anomalies and so-called consciousness stuff. That’s supposed to make you more objective than I on this kind of issue?

Reminder: Ad Hominems, Non Sequiturs, Argument from Persecution

A non sequitur literally means “doesn’t follow.” I’ve mentioned this briefly before, I’m sure, but discovery of life off-world would be a huge boon to NASA or any other space organization or company that found it. P.R. is written for the next few hundred years, and money would flow. If I were “a NASA shill,” I would be arguing FOR there being life out there. I actually, personally, have written before that I think astrobiology is a bit of a pseudoscience because it is never falsifiable (“oh, we just couldn’t detect it WITH THAT TEST, but it’s still probably there!”). Of course, the conspiracists would dismiss this as me just lying to serve my overlords, but facts never stood in conspiracists’ way.

To those who do not know, an ad hominem attack is when someone attacks the person rather than the claims. The claims may be valid, they may be invalid, but the other person is only attacking the person and not actually addressing the root questions being asked. Mike is doing this.

Finally, the argument from persecution is where someone says, effectively, “If I’m wrong, then these people wouldn’t be arguing against me and hate me, therefore, because they are arguing against me, I must be right!” Like the ad hominem, this particular non sequitur fallacy does not address the claim on its merits but instead tries to bolster the person’s claim based on the perceived reaction of someone else. Sometimes this manifests as the “Galileo complex.”

Addendum Added 3 Hrs Later

I was just skimming Mike’s Part 1 before bed and he makes a few accusations which I think need to be addressed here. Mainly (1) that I’m charging time I spend writing these posts to work time, and (2) that I’m using work equipment to do so.

The exact quotes:

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to respond so quickly and extensively to my posts because he was writing on his personal blog using taxpayer or university funded equipment and internet access while he was supposed to be working!

(Note: 8/16/2012; this suspicion was confirmed when Dr. Robbins posted his latest update today at 3:45PM, the middle of the work day. It obviously must have taken him at least a couple of hours to write this up. I’m wondering which government funded project you charged these hours of work on your personal blog to, Stuart)?

Since these are actually very specific things that we must certify we will NOT do with NASA-funded equipment, I think it’s important and it be addressed.

As I’ve written when interviewed before, I’m a postdoc and set my own hours. I can work 8PM-10PM and then 1AM-5AM one “day,” then 10AM-11PM another. I can take a break from what I do and address this stuff if someone sends me an e-mail about it and I want to take a break and address it. And, I work primarily from home, going into the university maybe once a month during the summer and a few times a week during the school year for meetings, seminars, etc.

The fact that I may choose to wake up at 10AM one day, work from 10:30-2:00, take a break for 3 hours to address the latest pseudoscience, and then go back to work from 5PM to 11:30PM is a far cry from “confirmation” that I’m doing anything illegal with NASA funds. In fact, I keep ridiculously thorough records of all time spent working on each grant as well as time spent doing education and public outreach (EPO) stuff (this blog and podcast). As a postdoc, EPO factors in up to 5% of my annual review, which is available via public records request, and so I like to be able to say I spent a fair amount of time working on it. If I get promoted to Research Scientist II or ever get a faculty position, EPO (on our own time) is a significantly larger fraction of our evaluations (up to 40% here at LASP for a level IV).

A retraction from Mike should be in order, but the likelihood of it coming is miniscule.

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