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New brooms at NASA?

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Ellen Stofan (10409828915).jpgFrom Jeff Foust at Space.com:

Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, Departs Space Agency

She served three years.

In the NASA interview, Stofan cited a range of “fun challenges” she worked on while chief scientist, including helping develop NASA’s long-term strategy for human Mars exploration. That effort, she said, is a key part of a broader scientific theme of searching for evidence of life beyond Earth

Institutionally, she said one of the achievements she was most proud of as chief scientist was getting the agency to voluntarily request demographic information in grant proposals submitted by scientists. That information, she said, is important to understanding any biases in how the agency awards those grants.

“Implicit or unconscious bias is all around us; we may act on deep-seated biases that we don’t even know we have,” she said. “The first step in dealing with bias is seeing if you have a problem, and that is what the data collection will tell us.”

What “demographic information” did NASA have in mind? Are you a Mormon? Are you divorced? How many children do you have? Or even: Do you think fine-tuning of the universe is a matter of evidence or does a multiverse obviate discussion of evidence?  (This last question probably code for “traditional thinker” of some kind, not post-fact progressive.)

Stofan’s departure coincides with NASA selecting a new deputy associate administrator for science. In a Dec. 20 internal memo, the agency said that Dennis Andrucyk will take the position effective Jan. 17. Andrucyk, currently the deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and acting chief technologist, will split his time between the science and space technology directorates until his formal start date.

“Dennis brings to this position a wealth of organizational and leadership experience within NASA,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in the memo. “His deep technical knowledge and innovative forward thinking will further enhance our ability to build successful and new missions that help answer some of the most fundamental science questions of our time, including the search for life beyond Earth.”More.

Might there be a new focus on hands-on exploration of possible life sites for Mars, as opposed to, say, the sociology of religion or whether They are out there?

If so, it might be a welcome change from 2011. See, for example, A physicist reflects on the end of space accomplishment – now that speculation has replaced exploration, on recent political hostility to the Mars missions:

The first casualty was the NASA director, replaced with a person of no particular engineering or scientific training. After a year, the second casualty was the Constellation program to the moon. But now the scientists were beginning to feel the heat. So there was a brief public relations noise about robot missions to an asteroid. It’s a pipe dream. As long as engineers who may not be politically loyal run the manned program, the current administration will not fund it.. So until either California or Maryland turn their robotic NASA centers into manned spaceflight centers, there just won’t be any funding, now or in the future.

It’s all a consequence of making everything into a short-term political game.

NASA-watching readers, what do you think?

See also: NASA cares what your religion thinks about ET: One would expect that those world religions that care much one way or the other if NASA finds bacteria in space could fund their own examination of the question.

and

The aliens went extinct before we found them—there, that’s the answer! But now, consider all the other theses about why the aliens, they never write, they never phone. Lotsa good sci-fi novels in there…

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28 Replies to “New brooms at NASA?

  1. 1
    wd400 says:

    What “demographic information” did NASA have in mind? Are you a Mormon? Are you divorced? How many children do you have? Or even: Do you think fine-tuning of the universe is a matter of evidence or does a multiverse obviate discussion of evidence? (This last question probably code for “traditional thinker” of some kind, not post-fact progresive)

    The usual information collected by granting agencies is age, ethnicity, gender and citenzship. Sometimes also disability and having had career breaks since PhD.

    But more importantly, I think you are a little confused about what is meant by “post-factual” and “post-truth”. This is not something progressives and scientists hope to bring in. It’s a phrase that is used (mostly by progressives) to express dismay politics is now less about what is true than the meta-narrative about how political statements (wether true or not) are likely to appeal to voters.

  2. 2
    News says:

    wd400at 1: The nice thing is, she may be replaced by someone whose focus is on productivity, not ” age, ethnicity, gender and citenzship. Sometimes also disability and having had career breaks since PhD”

  3. 3
    Silver Asiatic says:

    wd400

    But more importantly, I think you are a little confused about what is meant by “post-factual” and “post-truth”. This is not something progressives and scientists hope to bring in. It’s a phrase that is used (mostly by progressives) to express dismay politics is now less about what is true than the meta-narrative about how political statements (wether true or not) are likely to appeal to voters.

    We read this story last week:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....h-society/

    From Julia Shaw at Scientific American:

    I’m a factual relativist. I abandoned the idea of facts and “the truth” some time last year. I wrote a whole science book, The Memory Illusion, almost never mentioning the terms fact and truth. Why? Because much like Santa Claus and unicorns, facts don’t actually exist. At least not in the way we commonly think of them.

    When we look to science as the arbiter of all things, as many scientists would have us do, then it’s science that leads us to a post-truth society.

  4. 4
    News says:

    A friend who services machines there tells me that “chief scientist” is a figurehead, and she’s a classic: a PR manager’ dream. The trouble is, what if “chief scientist” in the planetary specialty isn’t just PC. What if NASA wants to do something ahead of the EU or China? Watch that space.

  5. 5
    wd400 says:

    Why would you think tracking the way your organisation supports people by gender, age and ethnicity would get in the way of productivity?

  6. 6
    Charles says:

    wd400 @ 5

    Why would you think tracking the way your organisation supports people by gender, age and ethnicity would get in the way of productivity?

    Because gender, age, and ethnicity are not “skills” essential to the correct design, development, and operation of spacecraft?

    This actually is “rocket science”.

  7. 7
    wd400 says:

    Because gender, age, and ethnicity are not “skills” essential to the correct design, development, and operation of spacecraft?

    That’s true, but I asked how recording this information gets in the way of productivity. Do you have an answer?

  8. 8
    Charles says:

    I asked how recording this information gets in the way of productivity.

    NASA is to be “productive” at rocket science. Age, gender and ethnicity are not factors in rocket science, hence “recording” such is an unproductive, misallocation of scarce resources.

    But you already knew that, because your goal isn’t about “productivity”, is it.

  9. 9
    wd400 says:

    My “goal” was to answer News’ question about what information is likely to be recorded. I’m genuinely confused as to how anyone could think this would have a major (negative) impact on productivity.

    If you think the seconds required to fill in a section of a form and hours required to collate the stats are major administrative burden you are not going to like US fedral granting agencies (like NASA) very much.

    I don’t think this tiny burden will lower the productivity of NASA. It may increase it, since, as you say, gender and age and ethnicity are not “factors” in NASA’s science (which is much, much more than rocket science, BTW). That being the case none of these factors should be limiting people from working on NASA projects, and if they are then removing those impediments will surely let NASA make the most of the people that want to work on their projects?

    But you can’t know if such impediments exist if you don’t at least record this information. So I’m still at a loss as to why anyone would be concerned about this tiny step.

  10. 10
    Charles says:

    So I’m still at a loss as to why anyone would be concerned about this tiny step.

    Because when billions of taxpayer dollars and lives, are at stake, the outcome should be based on technical competance, not genetalia, pigmentation, or age.

    But then of course you are genuinely confused about that.

  11. 11
    wd400 says:

    Because when billions of taxpayer dollars and lives, are at stake, the outcome should be based on technical competance, not genetalia, pigmentation, or age.

    Sure. I think you’ve failed to understand this is about grants, not jobs. But even then, I think you probably have to record that demographic information to know if gender ethnicity or age are influencing these decisions.

  12. 12
    Charles says:

    I think you’ve failed to understand this is about grants, not jobs.

    I think you’re also confused that grants pay for the people who do the jobs.

    And neither should grants be awarded on the basis of genitalia, pigmentation, or age. But you knew that also.

  13. 13
    wd400 says:

    And neither should grants be awarded on the basis of genitalia, pigmentation, or age.

    So, I’ll ask you again: how would you know if they are being awarded based on these factors if this information is not at least recorded?

  14. 14
    Charles says:

    how would you know if they are being awarded based on these factors

    Because if grants are awarded based on tangible technical metrics, such as “within budget”, “achieved mission goals”, “delivered six-sigma quality”, etc. then I don’t care about genitalia, pigmentation or age.

    And if grants are being awarded and the tangible technical metrics are not being met, the solution is not to presume apriori too many ovaries, but too much stupidity. Find the stupidity and replace it with competence (regardless of genitalia, pigmentation, or age).

    And if grants are being awarded on bases other than technical merit, then the granting agency needs new management, again without regard to genitalia, etc.

    Have I mentioned that genitalia, pigmentation or age are not factors in productivity?

  15. 15
    wd400 says:

    Again, I don’t think you know what science NASA does. These are scientific grants, not engineering tenders. The criteria they ought to be decided on are things like the relevance of the research, the probability that the research will produce important new knowledge, the ability of the researchers proposing the work to finish it etc. These can’t be easily instrumentalised, so grant success falls largely on the assessment few peer reviewers for each proposal. As you imply with you talk of “six sigma” results, it’s much easier for biases to slip in when these sorts of judgements are being made.

    So it seems reasonable that these demographic data are collected, so an organization can check whether the factors you keep say ought to be irrelvant to the success of applicants are nevertheless preventing them from doing good work?

  16. 16
    Charles says:

    These are scientific grants, not engineering tenders. The criteria they ought to be decided on are things like the relevance of the research, the probability that the research will produce important new knowledge, the ability of the researchers proposing the work to finish it etc.

    Unless they’re researching the population distributions of gender, race, and age, then other technical merits apply. And if NASA is misallocating its scarce resources studying sociology, then that needs to be defunded.

    These can’t be easily instrumentalised, so grant success falls largely on the assessment few peer reviewers for each proposal.

    That is a recipe for wasted taxpayer dollars. If “success” can’t be defined well enough to be measured, it ought not to be funded, and if it is so amorphous, there is no justification to argue it is sensitive to gender, race or age of the researcher.

    On the other hand, if success can only be assessed by a few peer reviews, I can understand why you’d want to pack the review team with genders, races and ages that you think would be sympathetic to giving you grant money – lol.

    so an organization can check whether the factors you keep say ought to be irrelvant to the success of applicants are nevertheless preventing them from doing good work?

    Those factors are, by definition, irrelevant. Under no scenario do they become relevant (unless the research is sociological and a misallocation of NASAs resources).

    Demonstrate how the specific grant, research or designs are gender, race or age specific, and why NASA needs to be doing that work. Until then, you’re just another “solution” in search of a problem.

  17. 17
    wd400 says:

    Honestly, why do you have such a strong opinion about a topic that you are clearly learning about for the first time in this thread? Are you sure you aren’t letting some knee-jerk cultural/political position get in the way of actually understanding what is happening here?

    It’s no about stacking peer review panels, or even having review panels know the demographic data that applicants include. Just recording some data about the applicant and collating statistics about their success rates. As you say, the information should be irrelevant to an applicant’s outcome. But we can only start to know if those factors are nevertheless influential in practive by first recording that data (at very little cost). So why object to this?

  18. 18
    Charles says:

    Honestly, why do you have such a strong opinion about a topic that you are clearly learning about for the first time in this thread?

    Says the guy who is “genuinely confused as to how anyone could think this would have a major (negative) impact on productivity” and further agrees “the information should be irrelevant”.

    Let’s not forget your original argument was:

    tracking the way your organisation supports people by gender, age and ethnicity would get in the way of productivity?

    .
    You aren’t looking to just “track”, you are looking to “support” based on gender, age, and ethnicity.

    lol – one small “track” for an SJW, one giant “support” for SJW-kind.

    As you say, the information should be irrelevant to an applicant’s outcome. But we can only start to know if those factors are nevertheless influential in practive by first recording that data (at very little cost). So why object to this?

    Because when something is not a factor in productivity, then changing it will not improve productivity. However, the misallocation of resources (to measure something that does not contribute to productivity), and any erroneous “support” conclusions drawn from irrelevant measurements does reduce productivity.

    It’s a frog with no legs.

  19. 19
    asauber says:

    You know what this is?

    This is Alphanumeric Soup (wd400) defending Alphabet Soup (NASA).

    Andrew

  20. 20
    john_a_designer says:

    From the OP:

    “Institutionally, she said one of the achievements she was most proud of as chief scientist was getting the agency to voluntarily request demographic information in grant proposals submitted by scientists. That information, she said, is important to understanding any biases in how the agency awards those grants…

    “Implicit or unconscious bias is all around us; we may act on deep-seated biases that we don’t even know we have,” she said. “The first step in dealing with bias is seeing if you have a problem, and that is what the data collection will tell us.”
    (emphasis added)

    Without any kind of objective standard how does she know that? In other words, how does she know what she doesn’t know? And why should I believe her?

    Second how would a voluntary request for demographic information be objective? Anyone who has done any kind of research which involves polling knows that the methodology she is employing is deeply flawed. I don’t see how you could get a representative random sampling– without which you aren’t going to learn anything of significance.

    Third, just because find one group is disproportionately represented in a demographic it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is an underlying bias or prejudice (racism, sexism etc.) For example, African American’s are disproportionately represented in the NBA. And women seldom make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker even though they are allowed to compete with men. Are these examples, of racism and sexism or are the other reasons? Personally, I think it’s the latter, and that would be worth researching.

    Stofan’s thinking is an example of what I call pseudo-humility, which is nothing more than dishonest and deceptive pretension and posturing on part of some who think they are on a higher intellectual plane than everyone else.

  21. 21
    wd400 says:

    Without any kind of objective standard how does she know that? In other words, how does she know what she doesn’t know? And why should I believe her?

    Why don’t you find out for yourself? There is a wealth of evidence that people have implicit biases and stereotypes. In science in particular there are many studies that demonstrate these biases effect decision making (1, 2, 3[pdf]…).

    Perhaps NASA is already free of such biases in decision making, but how can we know this if they don’t record that information?

  22. 22
    Origenes says:

    WD400: There is a wealth of evidence that people have implicit biases and stereotypes. In science in particular there are many studies that demonstrate these biases effect decision making.

    According to your position our biases and “decision making” are consequences of events and laws of nature in the remote past before we were born.

    1. If materialism is true, then all our actions and thoughts are consequences of events and laws of nature in the remote past before we were born.
    2. We have no control over circumstances that existed in the remote past before we were born, nor do we have any control over the laws of nature.
    3. If A causes B, and we have no control over A, and A is sufficient for B, then we have no control over B.
    Therefore
    4. If materialism is true, then we have no control over our own actions and thoughts.

    Therefore
    5. If materialism is true, we have no control over our biases and our “decision making”.

  23. 23
    wd400 says:

    I think you’ve confused me for someone else? I’ve never claimed materialism or a lack for free will was my “position”. (To cut a sidetrack short, I have no interest in discussing religuous or metaphysical points, which I think it a pointless exercise).

  24. 24
    Origenes says:

    I think you’ve confused me for someone else? I’ve never claimed materialism or a lack for free will was my “position”.

    Is it not your position that we are the result of unguided evolution? Are you a theistic evolutionist?

  25. 25
    Charles says:

    wd400 @ 21

    Perhaps NASA is already free of such [implicit] biases in decision making, but how can we know this if they don’t record that information?

    We all have implicit biases. As long as NASAs primary mission(s) is accomplished, I don’t care what those implicit biases are, and I categorically reject any “mission creep” to appease any handwringing just to track gender, race, age, etc.

    I want NASA to build and operate spacecraft. If I wanted them to worry about gender, race and age, we can rebrand them Neurotic Age, Sex and Aculturation, and send them to a liberal arts college.

    NASA has put men on the moon with all their implicit biases. We’d still be living in grass huts without the implicit biases of mankind. Implicit biases are good, they work.

    Tracking implicit biases are just a means for SJWs to gain power and control.

  26. 26
    john_a_designer says:

    “Implicit or unconscious bias is all around us; we may act on deep-seated biases that we don’t even know we have,” Stofan said.

    I am only morally responsible for what I know. So, I am not responsible for biases I do not know about. I have enough problems dealing with the moral short comings, including biases, which I already know about.

    I have a hard taking interlocutors like wd400 because he (or she?) doesn’t appear to be honest or forthcoming about his or her own biases– and I am referring to the explicit ones, not the implicit ones. I think this is just pretension and posturing on “his” part. To what end? Who knows? Maybe he can tell us.

  27. 27
    wd400 says:

    I am only morally responsible for what I know.

    That’s true. Now that you know about implicit biases I hope you support actions that deal with this problem (and consider whether they influence your own life).

    I have a hard taking interlocutors like wd400 because he (or she?) doesn’t appear to be honest or forthcoming about his or her own biases. I think this is just pretension and posturing on “his” part. To what end? Who knows? Maybe he can tell us.

    Well, if you follow the thread you’ll see News asked what demographic information NASA would be collecting. Since I have the advantage of actually knowing about granting agencies, I described the typical info.

    I then made the mistake of thinking that News’ and others objection to collectin this information was rational, and not a sort of automatic cultural/political/identity response. I don’t know what posture I’m meant to be taking up, but my position is that it is a good thing to address biases that may be limiting careers and decreasing the overall productivity generated by grants and fellowships.

  28. 28
    Charles says:

    wd400 @ 27

    I then made the mistake of thinking that News’ and others objection to collectin this information was rational, and not a sort of automatic cultural/political/identity response.

    You’re the one that made this about culture and identity by insisting that gender, age, and ethnicity be tracked and “supported”. I and others are rationally focused on the skills required to achieve mission objectives.

    The issue has always been about achieving NASAs mission objectives, and not appeasing your irrational feigned handwringing. Where is your “concern” for the productivity of the Veterans Administration, or government employees that watch porn all day.

    Yeah, you’re all about the productivity.

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