End federal monopoly on ‘knowledge’, urges leaders of NASA and astrophysics

The government must recognise that science is a domain reserved for the state by changing legislation to grant scientific research the same status as education, the head of NASA and a leading astrophysicist have…

End federal monopoly on 'knowledge', urges leaders of NASA and astrophysics

The government must recognise that science is a domain reserved for the state by changing legislation to grant scientific research the same status as education, the head of NASA and a leading astrophysicist have said.

In an opinion piece published in the journal Science on Wednesday, the head of the space agency, Jim Bridenstine, and the director of the US National Space Science and Technology Administration, Mike Morell, wrote that the “view that the pursuit of knowledge alone provides a government mandate to pursue it is increasingly divorced from current economic and social realities”.

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“Many in the country’s scientific community agree that significant reform is needed,” they wrote.

The paper comes as the Obama administration prepares to hand over control of US space policy to the Trump administration. There is no clarity on who will occupy the role of the next space “czar”. Many see the US space agency as a bastion of modern scientific thinking, which in many ways it is.

Since 2011, President Barack Obama has appointed an interagency National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which decides on policies for a range of relevant agencies.

But the paper argues that the NSTC model is ill-suited to the increasingly complex frontier of the space era. Allowing “space to contribute to the national wellbeing in an organic and meaningful way to other questions of national importance [might] be critical”.

They propose that “managing a national policy for space, the most technologically advanced and mission-rich sector of the federal government, may be better managed by cabinet-level officials with non-science expertise, and that a national policy to govern space should designate a Cabinet member for the job”.

If anything, the paper is even further down the line than one suggested by Bridenstine’s predecessor, the retired Marine general James “Mad Dog” Cartwright. At the time, Cartwright proposed the creation of a “national commission on space” to enable the US government to better manage the greater uncertainties of the space era. But in May, Bridenstine implied that such a body would not be necessary, telling reporters that he saw no need for government expertise to design, build or operate spacecraft.

The review could draw on recommendations from the National Academies of Science and Engineering report in 2013, which proposed a suite of measures for land on what is currently US space policy called the “spacepolicy”. The US space agency NASA was one of three agencies that would be eligible to compete for “elevated funding”, similar to the programmes now approved for Nasa and the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But the consequences of mission failures and technical issues will be felt far beyond the agency: the paper refers to “unsystematic and inefficient consequences”, with “federal agencies and citizens alike assuming an unruly burden from the protracted failures of private industry”.

Bridenstine and Morell have called for changes to government spending legislation to allow space agencies to be given a much greater share of federal budget.

“Researchers must be allowed to operate at the highest standards of quality, independence and protection for taxpayers, without the bureaucratic burdens of large commercial entities,” they wrote.

The paper argues that the government should amend the “primary direction” legislation of the 1787 Constitution so that scientific research can be seen as a separate function of the state. It also sees the Department of Defense’s “serious” proposed downsizing of its space budget as “largely an acceptable short-term downturn”, but suggests that the agency become a “reserve fund to buy private [laboratory services] when we have available capacity”.

The authors also favour using a new fleet of satellites to offer rapid response to scientific problems “impeding our understanding of the universe”.

Bridenstine and Morell are joined by members of the science community, including scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Planetary Society and America’s Centre for Space Policy Research.

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