Author Topic: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency  (Read 7412 times)

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Ok, so this thread is being started to move a discussion out of the "Next Administrator" thread, and its based on various comments I see everywhere - is NASA a science agency.  I am going to stipulate a few things up front

1)  NASA does do science.  A lot of science.  And it has science in it's objectives.  And, it should continue to do science, and a lot of it. 

2)  I am in the camp who is very concerned about climate change, and thinks we are headed to some serious pain if we don't change our activities.  Please understand, I don't t want this thread to be about the climate change issue.  But I suspect this will come up during the discussions, and so I do want to put that on the record. 

3)  If you allow for a maximum extrapolation, everything becomes some form of science - this includes business, art, raising a family, etc.  However, most people don't say "applied human biology", but rather, medical.  They don't say "real-time applied economics" but business.  So, I respect this fact.

So, this brings us to the point - why I say NASA's not a science organization.  There are a lot of activities that NASA has done, and is doing, and should do, that aren't about enabling or doing science.  For example - the COTS program and the Commercial Crew program - they enable science, but that is not to say they are about science.  And yes, they utilize science in their program, but again - they aren't about science, in the way that something like the Curiosity Rover is. 

You could also say the same thing about Apollo - everyone acknowledges that, while we did get a lot of science from the Apollo moon landings, their primary purpose was about geo-politics.  It was about showing that we were equal or better than the Russians.  The National Academy Study that our friend Mary Lynne Dittmar was a part of stated that there were many reasons for sending people to space.

I'll even point out that, in the US code that establishes NASA, it explicitly states non-scientific activities for NASA.  From Title 51, US code 20102 (basically the NASA act)

"(c)Commercial Use of Space.
Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that [NASA] seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space."

The point of this is to demonstrate that there are a lot of activities that NASA engages in that aren't about science.  This isn't to say that science isn't important, or NASA should do it.  However, I do think that we need to recognize that there are many reasons for doing activities in space, and a large number of them are not about doing science, and NASA is a part of these non-science activities, and (most importantly) the non-scientific activities deserve to be seen as equal when considering and making national policy and NASA activities. 

This is not just an intellectual exercise, because there are real world implications of this.  For a real world example, I turn to the issue of  Harmful contamination of celestial bodies and planetary protection. 

Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty states "States Parties to the Treaty shall ... conduct exploration of [the Moon and other celestial bodies] so as to avoid their harmful contamination ..." and Article VI basically states non-state actors (ie companies, NGOs and individuals) are to be regulated by the launch states, and the launching states will be held liable if something goes wrong. 

The problem is that there is no formal definition for what constitutes harmful contamination.  There has been the development of planetary protection policies, under COSPAR.  But, those policies have historically focused on protecting the availability to do life science, above all else.  Now, I don't disagree with the importance of finding out if there is life off planet.  However, I don't agree that there should be a hierarchy when it comes to doing space activities, and at the top is life science, and I don't believe we've actually had that debate.  In fact, the Outer Space Treaty makes it clear that all uses of space are equal (short of making war in space).  In short, we are going to have to have a long discussion about what is important in attempting to prevent harmful contamination, and I don't believe it can be focused on just protecting the ability to do life science investigations on Mars, Europa, and Enceladus. 

My point in all of this is to borrow a line from a discussion a long time ago - Space is a place, not a program.  Our purpose of doing activity in space, cannot be focused purely on learning about space for science sake, but that it must play a role in actively helping people.  Space is not the domain of only scientists and engineers, but everyone should be involved in space and reaching for space, and because of that NASA has a role to play in space development and space settlement. 

Thus - NASA is a space agency, not a science agency. 

(and yes, I still don't have a way to address the issue of NASA aeronautics)
« Last Edit: 11/03/2017 01:04 PM by Political Hack Wannabe »
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Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #1 on: 11/03/2017 01:40 PM »
Is is good of you to start this thread to not derail the "Who should be the next NASA Administrator"...
Allow me to restate: Pure science (understanding fundamentals) Applied Science eg. engineering (using knowledge gained from understanding the fundamentals to solve problems)... This my opening line for the junior courses I have taught over my career...

Edit:typo
« Last Edit: 11/03/2017 02:08 PM by Rocket Science »
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Offline meberbs

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #2 on: 11/03/2017 01:48 PM »
So, this brings us to the point - why I say NASA's not a science organization.  There are a lot of activities that NASA has done, and is doing, and should do, that aren't about enabling or doing science.  For example - the COTS program and the Commercial Crew program - they enable science, but that is not to say they are about science.  And yes, they utilize science in their program, but again - they aren't about science, in the way that something like the Curiosity Rover is. 
The exact same can be said about NASA in relation to space. One of its primary missions is to study aeronautics and the atmosphere, not even with the goal of enabling spaceflight.

The rest of your post is irrelevant or just a repetition of this point.

Thus - NASA is a space agency, not a science agency. 

(and yes, I still don't have a way to address the issue of NASA aeronautics)
You must have not read my post in the thread this split from, since I gave you the simple solution.
I can help you with that last point. Since science is a major portion of NASA's mission, if you want to people to stop saying "NASA is a science agency" you also just have to be opposed to all statements of the form "NASA is a _____ agency". For anything that you can fill in the blank with, whether aeronautics, space, science, etc. To do otherwise would be hypocritical.

Or you could accept the fact that such short statements are not meant to be a complete description of all agency functions.

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #3 on: 11/03/2017 02:13 PM »
Is is good of you to start this thread to not derail the "Who should be the next NASA Administrator"...
Allow me to restate. Pure science (understanding fundamentals) Applied Science eg. engineering (using knowledge gained from understanding the fundamentals to solve problems)... This my opening line for the junior courses I have taught over my career...

The issue is that "being an enabler of development and settlement" for most of the general public is NOT a science mission.  I get your point that everything can be viewed as science and engineering, but most people don't.  They think in terms of pure hard sciences, and don't understand that there are other areas that have to be addressed.  The example of planetary protection is ultimately a legal issue, and yes, you can view that as a science, but MOST PEOPLE don't treat it as a science, or consider it a science. 

This is trying to figure a way to deal with the fact that language, while important, is frequently used sloppily.   
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #4 on: 11/03/2017 02:14 PM »
So, this brings us to the point - why I say NASA's not a science organization.  There are a lot of activities that NASA has done, and is doing, and should do, that aren't about enabling or doing science.  For example - the COTS program and the Commercial Crew program - they enable science, but that is not to say they are about science.  And yes, they utilize science in their program, but again - they aren't about science, in the way that something like the Curiosity Rover is. 
The exact same can be said about NASA in relation to space. One of its primary missions is to study aeronautics and the atmosphere, not even with the goal of enabling spaceflight.

The rest of your post is irrelevant or just a repetition of this point.

Thus - NASA is a space agency, not a science agency. 

(and yes, I still don't have a way to address the issue of NASA aeronautics)
You must have not read my post in the thread this split from, since I gave you the simple solution.
I can help you with that last point. Since science is a major portion of NASA's mission, if you want to people to stop saying "NASA is a science agency" you also just have to be opposed to all statements of the form "NASA is a _____ agency". For anything that you can fill in the blank with, whether aeronautics, space, science, etc. To do otherwise would be hypocritical.

Or you could accept the fact that such short statements are not meant to be a complete description of all agency functions.

The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline meberbs

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #5 on: 11/03/2017 02:25 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #6 on: 11/03/2017 02:25 PM »
Allow me to help you with the first "A" in NASA, Aeronautics right off their web page:"Aeronautics is the study of the science of flight."
https://www.grc.nasa.gov/www/k-12/UEET/StudentSite/aeronautics.html
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Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #7 on: 11/03/2017 02:26 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion. 
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #8 on: 11/03/2017 02:30 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion.
Why?
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Offline meberbs

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #9 on: 11/03/2017 02:43 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion.
I already gave you 2 alternatives:
-Reject all short descriptions of this form because they are by nature incomplete
-Accept that these descriptions are intended as descriptions of major agency functions, and not as complete descriptions of all functions.

And I second Rocket Science's question of "Why"? Everything NASA does as far as I can think of relates to science (either pure or applied), but some things it does really don't relate to space: https://www.nasa.gov/scientificballoons/overview I don't think that between "NASA is a science agency" and "NASA is a space agency" one is more valid than the other, but if I had to pick which is more complete, I'd pick science.

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #10 on: 11/03/2017 02:57 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion.
Why?

Because most people don't view science and applied science very broadly.  They don't view lawyers as "applied legal scientists", or business people as "applied market scientists." 

In short - I would argue that it is more inclusive, and allows people to think about space beyond the hard sciences. 
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline chrisking0997

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #11 on: 11/03/2017 03:01 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion.

the problem is you are trying to pigeon-hole the agency into one descriptive word, when in fact it has many missions in varying fields and for varying purposes.  But the word "science" encompasses those missions far more than "space" does.

Now if you are talking about public perception, that is a different thing, but the agency shouldnt be defined by public opinion
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Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #12 on: 11/03/2017 03:12 PM »
The problem is that I do actually think a lot of the general public do think its a complete description.  I wish that wasn't the case, but if you engage with a lot of them, they see it as a complete pure description. 

And that is a problem
Again, you have the same problem if you call NASA a space agency.

I would argue that space is at least closer to a better solution than science.  I welcome an alternative suggestion.
Why?

Because most people don't view science and applied science very broadly.  They don't view lawyers as "applied legal scientists", or business people as "applied market scientists." 

In short - I would argue that it is more inclusive, and allows people to think about space beyond the hard sciences.
I appreciate what you are saying because of it's association to being "elitist in nature" in these highly polarized times. First, can you apply the "scientific method" to those occupations you mentioned?  My only suggestion as I have encountered the general public is to ask them first to have an open mind and that no one person has "all" the answers. Second, as I have told my students, "the more I know, the more I realize what I don't know"... "Simply learn how to learn and learn how to think" There is nothing wrong with saying "I do not know"... Allow our friend Commander Data to elucidate...

http://teacher.nsrl.rochester.edu/phy_labs/AppendixE/AppendixE.html
« Last Edit: 11/03/2017 03:17 PM by Rocket Science »
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Offline Coastal Ron

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #13 on: 11/03/2017 03:15 PM »
Just as a point of reference, according to NASA this is who they employ:

- Professional, Engineering and Scientific (60% of NASA's positions)
- Administrative and Management (24% of NASA's positions)
- Clerical and Administrative Support (7% of NASA's positions)
- Technical and Medical Support (9% of NASA's positions)

I agree with others about the challenge of coming up with a one-word description for NASA.

It's clear NASA is tasked by the President and Congress to do many things, and my point has always been that science is a big part of that. And in fact science is an activity that is done not only here on Earth but in space too, so it's not as silo'd as just aeronautics or just space - which are both identified in NASA's name.

Poking around the NASA website trying to find out how many scientists are employed there, I found this:
Quote
While engineering building the rockets and spacecraft and getting them out to their destinations in working order was clearly the driving force of NASA in the early years, science was always an integral part of the space program.

So can we agree to say that science is an integral part of NASA?
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #14 on: 11/03/2017 03:18 PM »
Just as a point of reference, according to NASA this is who they employ:

- Professional, Engineering and Scientific (60% of NASA's positions)
- Administrative and Management (24% of NASA's positions)
- Clerical and Administrative Support (7% of NASA's positions)
- Technical and Medical Support (9% of NASA's positions)

I agree with others about the challenge of coming up with a one-word description for NASA.

It's clear NASA is tasked by the President and Congress to do many things, and my point has always been that science is a big part of that. And in fact science is an activity that is done not only here on Earth but in space too, so it's not as silo'd as just aeronautics or just space - which are both identified in NASA's name.

Poking around the NASA website trying to find out how many scientists are employed there, I found this:
Quote
While engineering building the rockets and spacecraft and getting them out to their destinations in working order was clearly the driving force of NASA in the early years, science was always an integral part of the space program.

So can we agree to say that science is an integral part of NASA?

Yes, I will agree that it is an integral part.  That I don't disagree with. 
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #15 on: 11/03/2017 03:23 PM »
I appreciate what you are saying because of it's association to being "elitist in nature" in these highly polarized times. First, can you apply the "scientific method" to those occupations you mentioned?  My only suggestion as I have encountered the general public is to ask them first to have an open mind and that no one person has "all" the answers. Second, as I have told my students, "the more I know, the more I realize what I don't know"... "Simply learn how to learn and learn how to think" There is nothing wrong with saying "I do not know"... Allow our friend Commander Data to elucidate...

With regard to your question - I would submit that it is possible to apply the scientific method to almost all activities.  The scientific method, in many respects, is a more systematized version of logic and critical thinking.  But, as state, most people don't perceive the world that way, and don't think that way. 

I fully agree that having people have more open minds is a good thing, and to push them that way.  The problem is that the world remains messy (including communications)

(and if you want to get to a word I REALLY get annoyed at, it's exploration - but that's a different discussion)
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline Political Hack Wannabe

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #16 on: 11/03/2017 03:26 PM »

the problem is you are trying to pigeon-hole the agency into one descriptive word, when in fact it has many missions in varying fields and for varying purposes.  But the word "science" encompasses those missions far more than "space" does.

No, the problem isn't me.  The problem is that society is clumsy with it's language, and thus people broadly pigeon hole items and activities.  (This in fact, IMHO, is the real issue when it comes to discussions about whether we are too "politically correct" - people don't understand and accept how clumsy we are with language).

And I disagree that science is more encompassing - I would submit space is more encompassing.  Science only works if you require everyone to view every activity as fundamentally a science activity.  And most people reject that as well. 

Now if you are talking about public perception, that is a different thing, but the agency shouldnt be defined by public opinion

Actually, the agency is always defined by public opinion, ultimately.  That heavily influences why we have this problem.
It's not democrats vs republicans, it's reality vs innumerate space cadet fantasy.

Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #17 on: 11/03/2017 03:43 PM »
I appreciate what you are saying because of it's association to being "elitist in nature" in these highly polarized times. First, can you apply the "scientific method" to those occupations you mentioned?  My only suggestion as I have encountered the general public is to ask them first to have an open mind and that no one person has "all" the answers. Second, as I have told my students, "the more I know, the more I realize what I don't know"... "Simply learn how to learn and learn how to think" There is nothing wrong with saying "I do not know"... Allow our friend Commander Data to elucidate...

With regard to your question - I would submit that it is possible to apply the scientific method to almost all activities.  The scientific method, in many respects, is a more systematized version of logic and critical thinking.  But, as state, most people don't perceive the world that way, and don't think that way. 

I fully agree that having people have more open minds is a good thing, and to push them that way.  The problem is that the world remains messy (including communications)

(and if you want to get to a word I REALLY get annoyed at, it's exploration - but that's a different discussion)
When it comes to the scientific method, there really is no room for interpretation. The key is reproducibilty in the result no matter who or where the experiment is conducted when all variables are controlled.
Because the "world is messy" is not a good reason to lower the bar in our institutions but to ask the populace to rise to the occasion...
"The laws of physics are unforgiving"
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Offline Coastal Ron

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #18 on: 11/03/2017 03:46 PM »
Actually, the agency is always defined by public opinion, ultimately.  That heavily influences why we have this problem.

What the public has seen in the press over the past couple of years has been mostly science related, since it has dealt with our science missions on Mars, to Pluto, on the ISS, and so on.

The only other NASA news has been rocket engine tests and such about the SLS and Orion, but over the past number of years the most news - and public excitement - has been about our science missions in space.
If we don't continuously lower the cost to access space, how are we ever going to afford to expand humanity out into space?

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Language matters - why I say NASA is not a science agency
« Reply #19 on: 11/03/2017 03:47 PM »
The example of planetary protection is ultimately a legal issue,

Can you cite the relevant legal statutes?


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