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NASA Pays For Decision Making Advice On A Decision It Already Made

By Keith Cowing
August 28, 2015
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NASA Pays For Decision Making Advice On A Decision It Already Made

Innovative Study Supports Asteroid Initiative, Journey To Mars
“NASA employed ECAST to engage in a “participatory technology assessment,” an engagement model that seeks to improve the outcomes of science and technology decision-making through dialog with informed citizens. Participatory technology assessment involves engaging a group of non-experts who are representative of the general population but who unlike political, academic, and industry stakeholders who are often under represented in technology-related policymaking. … During meetings in Phoenix and Boston in November, 2014, participants voiced their thoughts and preferences about asteroids, planetary defense and space exploration.”
Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – A Citizen’s Forum – Full report
Keith’s note: According to the report “We at ECAST designed the forums to explore what a diverse group of lay citizens thought about complex issues when provided with unbiased information and offered the opportunity to have a respectful and open conversation about these matters with their peers. Quite different from a poll or survey, forums like the one developed for this project explore the views and values that citizens use in assessing sociotechnical issues. … ECAST undertook the recruitment of the lay citizen participants, achieving a distribution that aligned with the demographic characteristics of their respective states by taking into account gender, age, education, ethnicity, income, and employment status.”
So … how did these people from nowhere in particular get up to speed on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)? According to the report “Rather than survey people who may have little understanding of the subject, these forums provided the opportunity for participants to learn a great deal about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. In fact, participants were provided with much the same technical information that NASA’s administrators and program managers use, but presented in short thematic background papers provided prior to the workshop and four informational videos at the start of each session.”
Ah, so they only showed the participants NASA stuff. Did the participants receive materials that were in any way critical of ARM? Seriously. The participants were being asked to weigh all aspects of ARM, asteroid defense etc. Given that Congress, the NASA Advisory Council and a significant portion of the planetary science community doubt the value of ARM and/or are totally against it one would hope that this was factored in. If the participants were not given the full spectrum of viewpoints on this topic then the entire effort was null and void at its very inception.

Don’t get me wrong, I really think its great that NASA is seeking to engage and explain things to people of a wide variety of backgrounds – especially non-technical ones, but what possible value is there in asking these lightly-briefed novices to decide whether use of a nuclear device or a kinetic energy impactor is preferable when dealing with a hazardous asteroid? They actually spent time on that. If random folks off the street can make these decisions based on a short Powerpoint briefing then why do we need NASA?
OK, so they got a bunch of non-specialists together (a year ago). Again, public engagement by NASA is good (in any form) and should be encouraged. But what was the purpose of this effort? The report says “The project had two main goals. The first was to develop and apply a participatory technology assessment that elicited nuanced information from a diverse group of citizens whose insights would not otherwise be available to decision makers. Second, through informed, structured feedback from citizens in multiple locations, the project aimed to provide public views of the Asteroid Initiative as input into NASA’s decision making process.”
It took the organizers a year to write this report? Its only 32 pages long. And what is NASA going to do with the results of this effort? NASA has already made the decisions as to how it is going to do ARM and they did so well before this event even happened – and the output arrived (in the form of this report) well after the fact. How can this effort affect decisions that have already been made?
Hmm, maybe NASA should tell more of the general public what they learned from non-NASA discussions about this multi-billion dollar mission that Congress is against – and how they only obtained the input from general public after the decisions had already been made. That sequence of events ought to be illuminating. Instead NASA posts a story at the end of the day before the Labor Day weekend (without sending it to news media) in the hope that no one sees it (I guess).
– Involving a broad expanse of taxpayers in the conduct of a space mission with global significance – priceless.
– Stacking the deck with forgone assumptions and getting the output after the real decisions have been made – pointless.
If ever NASA paid for a self-licking ice cream cone, this report is it.
Keith’s update: Mahmud Farooque from Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes Arizona State University just tweeted this. Apparently this is not a “final” report. I’m not sure that two tweets and the promise of TBD details is really the way to be explaining this project. After having a year to collect and present all of this stuff, one would think that it would have made sense to coordinate the release of the information instead of just throwing a skinny report lacking in specifics online late on a Friday when everyone is on – or going on – vacation.

Keith’s update: I am told that some of the initial results of these forums were provided to NASA prior to the ARM decision. Of course there is no mention of that fact in the “final report” that was posted today. I am also told that a NASAWatch post Meetings on Public Opinion on Space Closed to the Public in 2013 may have had a small role in instigating this project. If you read this report and just ignore the problems I have highlighted, there is some interesting stuff here i.e. can you use actual public input to assist in making mission decisions? To be honest, I really do not think that the NASA individuals involved in the ARM decision really cared about outside opinions (they ignore that Congress has gone on the record against ARM) since they already decided to do the mission without any prior public input. But I am just guessing.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.