NASA's Economic Impact Study Misses Much Of NASA's Economic Impact

Keith's note: NASA put out an "Economic Impact Study" today. Not much thought was put into making the most of this report given that it was issued at 7:00 am on a Friday. So NASA will get one day of media bounce before a weekend at a time when news recycles every 17 minutes. Bad rollout planning aside, the report is quite useful and contains some very important information that bears on NASA's future - not just for the whole space thing - but as an economic and societal force. But this report is only useful to the extent that people know that it exists and that those people who convey its contents understand what it says and convey that information such that a broader audience can ingest and use it. NASA issued a brochure for the media but odds are very few regular taxpayers will ever know about it. That's a shame since NASA's impact is considerable.

As for the report itself, the breakdown of economic numbers is done on a state by state level. At the end of the day it is obvious that most economic policy has a high state level quotient to it. But if NASA really wanted to explain where it has an impact (and by default where it does not) the breakdown should be done at a town or zip code level. These maps with large states give a somewhat inaccurate impress of where the impact is derived. In many cases it is located in metropolitan or regional areas that either focus a state's economic power to limited areas, or span the borders of more than one state and offer a regional focus.

In many cases these maps point out woeful inequalities by default such as Montana (less than 1 FTE who earned $10,000), Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.. Nothing is ever said in this report with regard to why some parts of America do not share in all of this NASA economic goodness. But wait: they do. These states have large agricultural and natural resource sectors of their economy that benefit from remote sensing. GPS and satellite communications enable many economic activities that would otherwise be impossible. And every person who lives there derives some benefit from all of these 'spinoffs" that NASA is forever waving its arms about. Yet I see no mention in this report as to how these technologies with clear NASA heritage and continued involvement impact these states. It just looks like they get nothing. Why would anyone in those states ever care about NASA's benefits since NASA shows there to be virtually none?

The report uses lots of models and makes incessant mention of how one NASA FTE civil servant job leads to X number of other jobs but the report never provides actual examples i.e. where a specific program with a specific number of civil servants resulted in contracts to specific companies and how many people they hired and what their collective economic impact on their community was. I think that would be most enlightening since most people are unaware of how this all works. I suppose some of the company stuff is proprietary but absent any granularity it seems that a 'one size fits all' metric is used to compute and express this multiplier effect.

Also - the efficiency with which a large aerospace contractor hires and conducts work vs how a small business does hiring can be vastly different. Since we constantly hear about how much of America's business is done by small businesses one would think that would be very useful information. Oh yes, although this was based on older FY 2019 information, given that we are all working at home now in a dispersed mode - and will be for some time to come - this would also give some insight as to what a dispersed, but networked, workforce can do.

It would be interesting to see how NASA's economic impact fares when compared on a dollar:dollar basis with scientific organizations such as NSF and NIST and on large developmental/operational organizations such as NOAA and DoD. It would also be interesting to compare what an academic dollar buys you vs what a commercial dollar can buy.

It would, of course, be interesting to see how the economics map put when compared to Congressional districts. Having once worked for a large aerospace contractor I can tell you with certainty that they know exactly who gets what. And if someone was really industrious they'd map political contributions ... but I digress.

I guess what I am looking for is how you translate this report (which I am certain has accurate information) into words that people outside of economic wonkery and internal beltway spin can understand. NASA put together a nice data dump but it is somewhat cold and devoid of any human connectivity. Does the report mention how often state and local organizations interact with NASA on business matters? Does it mention how many high school and college graduates take on majors related to - or inspired-by NASA and how that contributes to a broader aspect of the nation's economy?

This is a very useful report and I am sure there is a lot in there that I have missed. The reach of the agency's economic impact is chronically under appreciated and rarely quantified in such a comprehensive fashion. Kudos to the authors and sponsors.

But if I were a state economic official (from Montana) and I looked at what other states got from NASA, I'd like to know why they got what they did and why my state did not. If I was at a state or local chamber of commerce I'd like to see some local examples and lessons learned. It would be nice to see some plain language success stories - such as how a machine shop with several dozen employees got to make a part that goes in a NASA rocket and how the income from that one part employed people, how those people felt about their work, what the actual impact was interns of the specific jobs created, and how all of that translated (or did not translate) into visibility for NASA's role at an organic level. In essence I'd like to see how the mere presence of a company doing space stuff has impacts other than sheer numbers.

Members of Congress like big numbers and often fall under the spell of lobbyists and big aerospace companies and the self-serving yarns that they spin. But they also like small stories. They like to get letters about home town impacts and success stories based on real people leading normal lives. Such stories can often exceed they impact of a lobbyists' spin. You cannot quantify hope or inspiration and the impact that they have with mere numbers. But a report on NASA's economic impact is incomplete without presenting the impact of hope and inspiration - and pride - especially right now when people are looking for a bright light at the end of this horrible tunnel

NASA's impact on America is woefully underestimated - sadly, it is all too often underestimated by NASA itself.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on September 25, 2020 4:01 PM.

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