Internet Policies: March 2021 Archives

Keith's note: By now you must be bored with my daily critique of how NASA organizes and presents itself to the public, policy makers, news media, and the rest of the world - especially when it comes to education. (see Fixing Education And Outreach At NASA. Part 1: STEM Engagement Office) To virtually everyone, everywhere, NASA.gov online resources are how people learn what NASA does - and where they go to find out what it can do for them. As such you'd expect that the agency would spend the resources needed to put forth the best online face. Guess again. (see NASA's Web Presence is An Amazing Mess).

As you may know the Trump Administration tried to defund the NASA Education Office. But Congress thwarted that. But in a compromise to sooth some political issues they changed the name to the "NASA STEM Engagement Office". While the name is not exactly obvious, whatever you call NASA's main education organization should be the focal point for the agency's education efforts - STEM and otherwise.

That said, the NASA STEM Engagement Office only links to some of the agency's ongoing educational activities and many of the field centers, directorates, missions, and other programs with overt educational interests and content, do not bother to link back to the NASA STEM Engagement Office. And if they do link back they do so indirectly and rely on a web visitor to guess where the link is. And in the case of NASA JPL, well, they simply ignore NASA HQ. But that is another story.

Now there is talk of a massive infrastructure bill to be prosed by the White House which seeks to revitalize things all throughout the government and the economy. Maybe NASA can grab some of that funding and focus it on its education and outreach problems - and not on yet another shiny office building for SES and GS-15 employees.

Here's my latest flyby analysis of how badly NASA coordinates its education activities online. It is hard to see more than a superficial semblance of an agency-wide coherent approach to presenting and integrating education and outreach. But you already knew that, right?

Keith's note: When you think of NASA you think of science. That is because NASA wants you to think that. And since there is a lot of science at NASA, this is rather easy to do. Indeed, many times the people or organizations tasked with getting the science out via education and outreach at NASA are not very good at doing so. But the science is so compelling that it gets out despite attempts to trip it up. And when excellence in communication is coupled with the compelling science the world often stops what it is doing to take a look.

Let's pretend for a moment that we are not NASA employees, space fans, or people familiar with how NASA is organized. Let's just think like regular people who want to understand the science that NASA is always talking about. Maybe you are a student. Perhaps a parent. Or maybe just someone who is curious.

As a regular person you'd think that NASA would position its social and online media assets - the most extensive of any government agency on Earth - to best guide you to all the agency's science. Google "NASA Science" and you see a page of links that all refer to the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) - the top one being science.nasa.gov - the SMD home page. This is good. And it is also not so good. At NASA "Science" and "science" are not the same thing.

Keith's note: From my 24 July 1999 NASA PAO media accreditation request:

"NASA Watch is read regularly (during regular working hours) from all NASA centers, the White House (they even asked me to post an OMB job opening on NASA Watch), other agencies, Congress, the aerospace industry, reporters for the "legitimate" press. It is also read by people from countries and locations around the world - including Antarctica. Readership is growing, not fading. I can only surmise that this is because NASA Watch offers something called "news" - even if it is often presented alongside clearly denoted editorial opinion. NASA Watch is only the beginning of what will follow. Others will soon be online (and not in print) who are much more adept at this art than I. They too will be asking for accreditation."

Keith's note: Websites are a thing that people have been doing for a quarter of a century. Despite all of the fancy graphics and tricks there are some basic things a good website should do. NASA has lots of websites - more than any other government agency. The agency's Internet reach is truly global. But it gets this global reach in spite of itself. Its web presence is a jumbled mess with endless actors competing with one another to get their message out without any thought to collaboration or strategic intent.

If you go to a website for an organization or company you will see an "about" menu item. If you check the menu underneath you will see "About us"; "Who we are", "What we do", "Where we are", and "How to contact us". You might also see something like "audience" or "product categories". Under "About us" "who we are" explains where the website sponsor came from and who the "management", "Advisors", and other significant personnel are. "What we do" explains what they sell or offer as service. "Where we are" describes factory or sales or operations locations. "How to contact us" offers email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers, online query forms or other means whereby you can make contact.

NASA tries to do some of this but mostly stumbles into itself, creates dead ends, rabbit holes, and is beset by the stovepipe mentality rampant within the agency wherein everyone does their own thing no matter how redundant it may be. In many cases, as I have noted before, NASA often has 2 or more websites covering the same mission or topic since it is easier to avoid food fights and turf battles by tolerating the status quo.

Jim Bridenstine ordered the agency to fix its website mess in 2019 (see Overhauling NASA's Tangled Internet Presence). The situation existed in 2017 (see Dueling NASA Websites Update) and 2011 (see NASA's Inability To Speak With One Voice Online) and so on. The 2019 action to fix things went to CIO and PAO. They did nothing for a year and then tossed it to the NASA Chief Scientist's office. Supposedly there is something under development but since nothing has changed in the past two years since an action was assigned I am dubious of its imminent arrival or value.

So let's take another swipe at what is broken. If you go to NASA.gov and go to "About" in the top menu and click on leadership all you get is a short bio of Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. No one else is mentioned. You have to go to Organization to get that information. Oddly, all of the people listed are indeed the agency's leadership but they are not listed on the leadership page. All of the field centers are listed at the bottom of the leadership page with a one sentence listing of their specialties. But if you go to the org chart from August 2020 many of the locations are not even mentioned - Wallops, White Sands, Michoud, IV&V, Safety etc. Shared services and JPL are shown in different places).

If you go to locations there is also a list of the NASA field centers but no mention is made of what they do (unlike the leadership page which at least gives a few key words for what each center does). Moreover if you visit each of NASA's locations (field centers) they only talk about themselves and rarely (if ever) talk about other NASA field centers. Indeed, they often take NASA HQ press releases and modify them to have a local feel with local contacts. If you land on one of these field center websites you'd be almost certain to not know that there are any other field centers operated by NASA. One would also think that an explanation of what each field center does and what areas it serves would be prudent. But then again, if you read the content on each of the sites, you'd be forgiven for thinking that each field center does everything that NASA as a whole does. As such, a chart showing what they do would be pointless since every field center would fight to have every box checked for every topic - even if they only do a tiny piece of that work.

One extreme example is JPL. If you go to the NASA JPL website and click on the NASA logo you go to ... the site you are already reading. The only place you can find a link to NASA on NASA JPL main page is at the absolute bottom of the page on the left hand side in small type. Talk about burying visibility of NASA outside of JPL.

But back to NASA.gov. If you look at the options under "NASA Audiences" you have 3 to choose from: Media, Educators, Students. There is nothing for "Scientists/Engineers, "Business Interests", or "Policy Makers". There are topical links but they lead you away from most of what the agency has online. Try "Solar System And Beyond". There is no link to the NASA Science Mission Directorate where all of this stuff is done. The "The Search for Life and Exoplanets" page makes mention of the Astrobiology program or the multibillion dollar Mars Perseverance mission and its "mobile astrobiologist". If you go to the Earth page there is zero mention of the major effort by the White House to address climate change. And despite having the word "aeronautics" in its name - there is no obvious link to "aeronautics" at NASA.gov.

Given that the Biden Administration is all about SCIENCE - with the tagline #ScienceIsBack in frequent use, you'd think that there would be more of a focus on helping visitors find all of the science goodness at NASA - both for the general public and for actual scientists and policy makers. Good luck with that. If you use the Search box on the upper right hand side you get results that are a mix of specific and general, and that are old and new. No strategic thought of presenting topics of relevance to current policy discussions is presented in a strategic, prominent fashion.

But NASA does have some amazing only research and search capabilities. You can only find them if you know in advance to look for them. NASA.gov is of no help. NASA.gov and its subsidiary pages make no up front mention of these NASA funded search resources. One example is PubSpace - a NASA partnership with the PubMed Central (PMC) repository, hosted by The National Institutes of Health, to provide public access to peer-reviewed papers resulting from NASA-funded research. One page buried deep inside the website sends you here where only NASA folks seem to be welcome. The public? No mention. But if you know to go to the actual PubSpace site hosted by NIH - well, everyone is welcome.

Then there is the treasure trove of 70-plus years of NASA and NACA information at NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) which "provides access to NASA metadata records, full-text online documents, images, and videos. The types of information included are conference papers, journal articles, meeting papers, patents, research reports, images, movies, and technical videos - scientific and technical information created or funded by NASA." You can't find it anywhere prominent via NASA.gov.

NASA JSC posted this the other day: International Space Station Archives Fuel New Scientific Discoveries: "That legacy is evident in a publication by Cell Press, a collection of scientific journals that recently compiled 29 papers on the biology of spaceflight or the study of how space affects the human body. A number of the papers relied on the NASA Life Sciences Data Archive (LSDA) and NASA's Genelab, two repositories that contain decades of biological samples and data from the International Space Station." Cool stuff, eh? Worth telling the world about, don't you think? Go to the Humans In Space page. No mention of either database. Go to the International Space Station link. No mention of either database. Go to Space Station Research and Technology. No mention of either database. Indeed go to Let's Explore Space Station Science with a searchable database. No mention of either database.

Another overlooked resource is extremely comprehensive NASA Spaceline which is "compiled weekly, contain citations to articles from peer-reviewed journals and other recent publications of interest in the space life sciences." It is buried on the NASA Taskbook website which no one in the real world ever hears about. The ISS Program Office and CASIS make no mention of this listing of their own research results. Indeed, the only complete archive is on our SpaceRef website back to 1999. NASA's support for this service has wavered - but we did a diving catch to make sure it was not lost. So ... I could go on - but I have been doing that for decades. Have a look here.

When it comes to stunning imagery and stories of the moment, NASA constantly manages to thrill, awe, and stun the world with its audacious accomplishments. Yet the same agency manages to hide much of its treasures - thus limiting the full impact of its discoveries and limiting its ability to have an impact beyond its comparatively small governmental sandbox. Maybe the Biden folks will fix this once and for all.


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This page is an archive of entries in the Internet Policies category from March 2021.

Internet Policies: September 2020 is the previous archive.

Internet Policies: May 2021 is the next archive.

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