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robertogreco : hypervigilance   1

6, 4: Block quotes
"So! In some of NASA’s actions you can detect a flavor of institutional hypervigilance against controversy. For example, most of what I’m in contact with is EO (Earth Observation, under what to my great pleasure was once called MTPE, Mission to Planet Earth), and for them climate change is a big, big deal. But they have to bend over backwards not to say anything that could be interpreted as even a little partisan, which is a tough move when simple, contextualized facts are very partisan. Likewise, two different people have politely reminded me that their communications are subject to FOIA, giving me the impression that they feel they have to avoid volunteering opinions outside narrow technical topics, even when they’re squeaky clean of any bias that could possibly affect the quality and independence of their work.

The impression that one sometimes gets is of a sticky note on the monitor frame reading “Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to hear read out in Congress by someone who intends to defund your program”.

It’s a shame. You add friction to people’s work when you make them second-guess themselves and not express even well-supported, carefully framed, intellectually honest, professionally relevant opinions.

I wish the squint-inducing sunlight were felt in agencies whose failures cause secret murders, foolish wars, and the creation of surveillance states more than in an agency whose most salient failures so far – seventeen suited astronaut deaths – were caused by institutional lock-up more than by anything else. It should scare us how much Columbia was a repeat of Challenger: in both cases, a good understanding of the problem and solution was diffused within NASA, but it never converged on the point where it was needed. Too little jidoka. It’s not that transparency causes Crew Module Catastrophic Events, but there’s a chain from “we need to make sure the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth” through “let’s make sure we have solid procedures for everything” to “no, don’t just say ‘STOP! I see a problem that could kill the crew.’ to your boss; write up a nice report in rock-solid formal language” that has to be broken somewhere.

Astronaut deaths are the most salient failure, but to my mind the much bigger one is the failure to go further, which is the fault of the Executive and Legislative branches. One illustration of the problem is the Landsat program. As a series of satellites, you might assume it would be NASA’s responsibility to manage the space side of things. Nope. Obama reached over with scissors and glue to move Landsat to its own authority within the Geological Survey, because we was rightly counseled that Congress (and the presidency) cannot be trusted to fund NASA consistently enough to let it run Landsat. The consequence is very good: USGS’s Landsat operation is one of my stock examples when folks ask about doing open data right. But it bodes bogus of our handling of our primary space program when we have to take satellites away from it because we can’t trust ourselves to let it run them.

And so I see the hypervigilance as another face of the imposed institutional conservatism that has made NASA an anxious genius of an agency, never sure whether it will have the funding to do anything ambitious even after it’s been promised, tired of being scolded for not finishing what it doesn’t have the mandate to start, trying to get through a few short-sighted decades while doing justice to its domain. It’s amazing it’s as sure-handed as it is.

This, then, I think, is why we don’t see even more radical innovation from NASA: because Congress hates funding costly failures, even ones that are small and necessary parts of hugely worthwhile successes. And that’s why I doubt we’re anywhere close to the fail-hard/win-big r strategy program that Maly envisions. NSF grants are one good back door. Universal healthcare and a better social net in general is another: read Bill Gates’s “half” story and go ask a single mother who can’t afford daycare how she thinks the US economy is doing at letting her best ideas compete. I bet we’ll get there, but what happens between now and then still counts. America is waiting.

One of many causes for hope is that, even as its funding for outreach is cut, it’s NASA’s figured out how to put on a show on the web."
charlieloyd  2014  nasa  bureaucracy  universalhealthcare  healthcare  research  government  failure  science  hypervigilance  observation  imagery  congress  funding  landsat  usgs  remotesensing  earth  satellites  satelliteimagery 
march 2014 by robertogreco

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