NASA Cannot Answer A Simple, Basic Question on Its Value

Keith's 7 July update: A week Two weeks Three weeks ago I sent NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan (and NASA HQ PAO) a simple question about her statement regarding NASA's value to America's economy i.e."there was a report that showed that for ever $1.00 you spend on NASA you get $4.00 returned to the economy". NASA has still not gotten back to me with an answer. Either NASA refuses to answer or (more likely) they cannot answer - because their answer would reveal that they have no idea where their claims come from.

After 20 years I can totally understand that some people at NASA are loathe to respond to NASAWatch questions like this - especially ones with a high gotcha quotient. I get that. But you'd think that such a basic talking point - one repeatedly used by senior agency personnel to explain the purported value of NASA to our economy - would be one that is strongly grounded in research data - data that should be at everyone's finger tips. Guess again. If NASA is unable to answer such a simple, basic question about a commonly-used talking point, why should anyone take agency staff seriously when they start to talk about commerce, economics, and return on investment?

NASA has no idea what it is talking about when it comes to its economic value to our nation. So they just make stuff up and hope that no one asks any questions.

NASA has been getting ready for visits from presidential campaign transition teams in the coming weeks. Based on my sources agency leadership is under some collective pervasive delusion that space is actually an issue that campaigns intend to pay attention to prior to the election. Moreover, their aim is to tell the campaigns that NASA is doing what it should be doing, to please just let NASA do whatever it is doing, and not ask too many questions as to why NASA is doing what it is doing. Among the things NASA would normally do is drop the whole dollar-invested/dollar-returned thing into the briefing charts. If NASA cannot answer a simple media question about NASA's numerical claim of value added benefits to the economy, I am not certain that they should be perpetuating these urban factoids by telling them to representatives of the next administration.

Keith's 16 June note: I was listening to a local NPR radio station, WAMU today at 1:15 pm EDT when NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan was being interviewed. At one point she said "there was a report that showed that for ever $1.00 you spend on NASA you get $4.00 returned to the economy". I have heard variations on this line from NASA - about NASA - for decades. Sometimes it is $6.00 - even $8.00. And there is always a "study" or "report" cited as the source of these return on investment (ROI) numbers. Yet unfailingly when you ask NASA for the actual report - or a valid citation or reference - they can't give you one. I have even had NASA respond by pointing to NASA reports that repeat the same claim but never cite an actual report with numbers, metrics, etc. As many of you know if you repeat an apocryphal number like this NASA ROI often enough it becomes a fact at NASA. So I just sent Dr. Stofan and NASA PAO a request for a report citation. I think I already know their answer - if they reply, that is.

Keith's update: I did some Googling and found this recent report NASA paid for which calls into question the $4.00 figure Stofan used - as well as the whole notion of actually measuring what NASA's impact on the economy in terms of dollars. But NASA still does so anyway.

NASA Socio-Economic Impacts, The Tauri Group (prepared for NASA) April 2013

"No single metric can capture the returns from NASA's activities, given their many dimensions. This report organizes NASA's socio-economic impacts into six categories and highlights important outcomes in each one. ... An input/output analysis using IMPLAN (a widely used input-output modeling software) shows that every dollar NASA spends on employees, businesses, universities, and others generates $2.60 of output in the economy, as compared to the federal non-military average of $2.30 and the federal military average of $2.00. ... Accurately estimating revenue generated from technology transfers is difficult. ... There is currently no systematic process in place to gather data related to revenues generated from NASA's transferred technologies. Ad hoc surveys provide limited data that typically capture cumulative rather than annual revenues."

Keith's second update: One of our readers noticed this 2011 paper "A Sustainable Method for Quantifying the Benefits of NASA Technology Transfer" online at NASA which states:

"Studies have indicated discounted rates of return from 33% to 43%, and include ratios from around 7 up to a 23.4 multiplier effect depending on the study, its criteria, and its methodology. Another ratio often calculated in past studies is the number of jobs created as a result of investment in NASA".

Hmm: "7 up to a 23.4 multiplier effect". That is certainly a nice point spread. I wonder where Stofan got the 4:1 number she used. Alas, all of the studies that the authors are re-studying were conducted between 1971-1997. Apparently NASA is more interested in rehashing older data and less interested in doing similar studies using more recent economic data.

Curiously the NASA paper adds this disclaimer about its conclusions: "It is important that any use of the findings, data, methodologies, previous studies and data cited, and conclusions in this study be placed in context. The use of these sources should include a disclaimer explaining that this study and all previous and cited studies on this subject were conducted using limited and carefully selected data samples, and that the findings from these samples cannot be extrapolated to encompass, explain, or make predictions concerning the full range and scope of benefits that can be attributed to the U.S. government's investment in, and the general existence and activities of, NASA."

Alas, you never hear NASA people mentioning these caveats. They just like to use that sentence "For every dollar that is spent on NASA [pick a number] is put back into the economy." Caveat emptor.

- Dazed and Confused About Space Commerce At NASA, earlier post
- Earlier spinoff posts

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 7, 2016 12:06 AM.

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