Scientific Advice at NASA

August 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The recent resignation of three scientists on the NASA Advisory Panel raises some interesting questions about the nature of advice versus decision making and the interests of those providing the advice in the outcomes of the decisions by those receiving their input. Science magazine makes this all a bit more concrete with some of the details of the brouhaha:

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin yesterday read the riot act to the outside scientists who advise him, accusing them of thinking more of themselves and their research than of the agency’s mission. Griffin’s harsh comments come on the heels of the resignation of three distinguished scientists from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), two of whom have questioned Griffin’s plan to dramatically scale back a host of science projects (Science, 12 May, p. 824). “The scientific community … expects to have far too large a role in prescribing what work NASA should do,” Griffin wrote council members in a blistering 21 August message. “By ‘effectiveness,’ what the scientific community really means is ‘the extent to which we are able to get NASA to do what we want to do. ”

The outside engineers, scientists, and educators on the council traditionally offer advice on the agency’s policies, budget, and projects. Placed in limbo for nearly a year after Griffin took over as NASA chief in spring 2005, the NAC was reorganized this spring under the leadership of geologist Harrison Schmitt, a former U.S. senator and Apollo astronaut who is gung ho about President George W. Bush’s plans to send humans back to the moon and to Mars. Schmitt replaced Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, who resigned last week from his post as chair of the council’s science committee. Two other NAC members–former NASA space science chief Wesley Huntress and Rice University Provost Eugene Levy–resigned last week in response to a direct request from Griffin that they step down.

Schmitt and members of that committee have clashed repeatedly in recent months over the role of science at the space agency. In a pointed 24 July memo to science committee members, Schmitt complained that they lacked “willingness to provide the best advice possible to Mike,” refused to back Griffin’s decision to cut research funds for astrobiology or recommend an alternative cut, and resisted considering the science component of future human missions to the moon. “Some members of the committee,” he concluded, “are not willing to offer positive assistance to Mike.”

Both Levy, a physicist, and Huntress, an astrochemist now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, say they support human space exploration but fear that science is now taking a back seat after years of a careful balance between human and robotic efforts. NASA spokesman Dean Acosta acknowledged that the scientists and Schmitt “weren’t working well together,” and that Griffin telephoned Huntress and Levy last week to ask for their resignations. Griffin’s memo points to what he calls “the inherent and long-standing conflict-of-interest” by scientists giving advice to an agency on which they depend for funding. And he gives them a clear way out. “The most appropriate recourse for NAC members who believe the NASA program should be something other than what it is, is to resign.”

Huntress says Griffin told him that his advice exceeded the council’s charge. “This is a different NAC. Our advice was simply not required nor desired,” Huntress told Science. The current council, he adds, “has no understanding or patience for the science community process.” Kennel, who had been named chair of the NAC’s science committee, was unavailable for comment, but Norine Noonan, a former NAC member and dean of math and science at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, called Griffin’s action “very distressing” for scientists. “If we can’t have a robust debate at the NAC level,” she says, “then where in the heck is it supposed to happen?”

7 Responses to “Scientific Advice at NASA”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Kit Stolz writes the following comment:

    Troubling. Is this simply the usual politics of budgeting, or is it a way to punish individuals and institutions (such as Scripps) that are doing good work on climate change, but in the process are raising big questions that embarrass the White House?

    Not being immersed in the budgeting process, it’s difficult for me to tell. But the fact that Kennel of Scripps is refusing comment, and that the NASA climate change program is being cut substantially is alarming:

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  3. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Kit- Thanks for your comment. However, I disagree with various claims being made that NASA’s focus on prioritizing human space flight over everything else in the agency (including but not limited to climate-related science) reflects anything more than the agency’s decades-old priorities.

    In about 1980 Van Allen complained of a “slaughter of the innocent” as NASA cut a wide range of science programs to feed the Shuttle program. History is simply repeating itself, given NASA’s institutional culture and priorities.

    Climate conspiracy theories are good fun of course, but in this instance incorrect.


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  5. Mark Bahner Says:

    Hi Roger,

    You write, “However, I disagree with various claims being made that NASA’s focus on prioritizing human space flight over everything else in the agency (including but not limited to climate-related science) reflects anything more than the agency’s decades-old priorities. In about 1980 Van Allen complained of a ’slaughter of the innocent’ as NASA cut a wide range of science programs to feed the Shuttle program.”

    And we know how well that worked out! ;-)

    I hope NASA (or better yet, president Bush ;-) ) reads my previous suggestions on what NASA’s priorities should be, but in case they can’t find them:

    1) Develop fusion drives…since chemical rockets will never get us very far (and since terraforming Mars will require fusion power).

    2) Send robotic probes (since they are getting much more capable, and humans aren’t).

    3) *If* money is left over after #1 and #2, build cool space telescopes.


    P.S. If you do see Dubya, tell him I’ve got a lot more ideas, that will save him plenty of grief. ;-)

    P.P.S. For example, if he’d had my hurricane wall system for New Orleans, his good friend Brownie would still be doing his super job at FEMA. ;-)

    P.P.P.S. The more I look at this idea, the better it looks. (Very unusual, for an engineering concept!) I’m pretty confident I could have *deployed* the thing–that’s fabricated, installed, and removed–for under $2 billion. And it would have stopped not only the flooding of New Orleans, but all of the storm surge damage in Western Mississippi (e.g. Slidell, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, etc.).

    That would have saved over $60 BILLION…not to mention probably more than 1000 lives. Pretty %^&* good investment!

    Plus, it would have provided a proof of concept demonstration for a system that could protect all of BOTH coasts (Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard) from storm surge for up to Category 5 hurricanes…and probably for less than a Net Present Value cost of $40 billion. That’s less than half the cost of storm surge (plus related flooding) of Katrina alone. Such a system would guarantee that there is no future greater disaster–at least from storm surge…it would do nothing for wind or inland flooding–from a major hurricane hitting Miami Beach or New York City.

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  7. Jim Clarke Says:


    You could of saved New Orleans by damning the entrance to Lake Ponchartrain.

    Now you have your next challenge! Calculate where your tubes are currently and how long it will take for you to put them in place. In 5 days we will likely have a hurricane in the Southeast or South Central Gulf. From there it well either hit Florida or Mexico or somewhere inbetween. Or it may meander in the Gulf for 5 days without ever making landfall!

    What do you do?

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  9. Jim Clarke Says:

    Concerning the notion that recent events with the NAC are punishment for a climate change issue:

    I decided to google ‘climate change budget’. The top two results were most interesting. The first was the FY 2006 Bush Administration Budget for climate change. It starts with a measured, reasonable statement from the President, then outlines a 5.5 billion dollar climate change budget! The second link was the Clinton Administrations FY 2001 budget for climate change. It starts off with the following quote from President Clinton:

    “The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming . . . If we fail to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will flood, and economies will be disrupted. That is going to happen, unless we act.”

    The website goes on to discuss a 2.4 billion dollar budget for climate change; less than half of the Bush budget!

    If you are part of the climate change industry, which would you rather have, a President who gives you more money to do your job or one that says the things you want to hear, but doesn’t fund you nearly as well?

    Judging from the never ending criticism of Bush and all the ‘love-memories’ of Clinton, it seems that climate change scientists prefer to be told what they want to hear over actual funding!

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your comments. On the budget, be careful. The Bush Administration lumps in technology spending with science spending, hence the much larger number than what the Clinton Administration reported, which was only science.

    I do believe however that overall spending by Bush for climate change (S&T) is at least as much as under Clinton, though the emphasis is more on the T than the S.


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  13. Jim Clarke Says:


    Upon further review, you are correct on both counts. It looks like the total budget for science in Clinton’s last year was 1.7 billion and nearly 2 billion in Bush’s fifth budget. Figuring for inflation would make the budgets almost equal. Total spending for all aspects of climate change appears to be 4.4 billion for Clinton’s last budget and 5.5 billion for Bush in ‘06.

    It is noted that the Clinton website boasts a 40% increase in spending in his last year, while the Bush Administration has maintained that higher level of spending for 5 years.

    I will guard against sensationalizing in the future, but my point is still valid. The Bush Administration is often cited as impeding the science of climate change while the reality of the budget indicates he has at least maintained Clinton’s best effort.