NASA Impeded by Science Lobby

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Many scientists have complained about the Bush administration’s gutting of research funding, but a careful analysis of NASA’s fiscal year 2005 budget shows almost half-a-billion dollars earmarked for additional pet science projects.

Ironic, but the successful lobbying effort by scientists to secure those projects actually sabotaged other, potentially more valuable, research.

When Congress approved the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s 2005 budget last November, it gave the agency the full $16.2 billion President George W. Bush had requested, an unexpected result given the federal government’s huge budget deficit and consequent political pressure to cut spending.

That $16.2 billion included, however, 168 to 170 congressional earmarks totaling from $426 million to $436 million. The totals vary depending on whether you ask NASA or Congress and how you define what those earmarks are. Whatever the definition, the projects required NASA to cut other programs to stay within budget.

No doubt many of those earmarks were inserted in order to gain the support of specific members of Congress.

For example, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd’s state of West Virginia — not generally considered a hotbed of space research — did very well, gaining $22.9 million in NASA earmarks.

Byrd was not the best at corralling funds for his state, however. Ohio, with $33.35 million in earmarks, was the leader, followed closely by New York with $31.9 million. Next were Alabama with $28.4 and Maryland with $23.5.

All told, Congress earmarked 144 projects in 40 different states. One-third of the remainder involved multi-state operations, while the rest were not specific to any locality.

In fact, those NASA earmarks allowed almost every senator and many members of Congress from all across the country to claim credit for bringing the bacon home to their districts.

Yet, pork-barreling does not explain the earmarks entirely, particularly when one of the largest, $7.5 million, went to the University of Quebec’s Hydrogen Research Institute. Unless the U.S. Constitution was rewritten when no one was looking, Quebec remains part of Canada.

Instead, the focus of most of the projects was to benefit scientific causes, directly funding either academic research institutions, science museums or science education.

In all, 79 different universities, colleges or institutes — including the University of Quebec — received more than $152 million for specific projects, including building construction, maintenance of operations and the study of anything from forestry management to nanotechnology.

Though a good percentage of this research went for space-related work — such as super-computing, space medicine and exotic-materials investigations — a significant portion also went for things that had nothing to do with space.

Some examples:

–NASA is now financing the construction of a “musculoskeletal simulator for injuries” at a medical research clinic in Cleveland.

–The agency is funding an advanced biotechnology incubator project for the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

–It is helping Hollins University in Virginia, a woman’s college, to upgrade its science infrastructure.

–It is paying for improvements to the Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

–It is financing a minority outreach program at Texas A&M.

–It is building a new science center at St. Bonaventure University in New York.

–It is subsidizing environmental research in the forest preserve at the Little River Canyon Field School in Alabama.

Then there were the earmarks to upgrade or build a dozen different museums across the country at a cost of $6.4 million. The Liberty Science Center in New Jersey got $1 million, half of which was to be spent to build the Hudson Harbor and Estuary Ecological Learning Center. Other examples include the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Ga., which received $150,000; the New England Marine Science Center, which got $250,000, and the Boston Museum of Science, for which Congress authorized $1,000,000.

The earmarks saddled NASA with additional unexpected costs for dozens of state and nationwide science-education programs costing from $100,000 to $9.1 million, for a total budget hit of approximately $42 million. Most seem laudable, but the question is why should their funding come out of the space budget?

Also, what of the $200 million or so in earmarks apparently dedicated to space research? These projects, too, might be worthwhile and necessary, but NASA had not requested them, so the lobbying and congressional politics that imposed them on the agency raises questions about their value.

The main problem, though, is the lobbying effort by scientists that resulted in these earmarks seems to have damaged core-value space research.

Case in point: The first mission scheduled to fly in President Bush’s new space initiative is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a robot-scout ship that will orbit the moon and look for water and the best and most practical places for future explorers to land.

Fearful NASA would limit LRO’s research to engineering and scouting information, Congress reduced the project’s 2005 budget from $60 to $10 million and demanded that 25 percent of the project’s remaining funding be “focused solely on answering basic science questions.”

As noted in the congressional conference report, “The conferees are concerned that the lunar measurement investigations to be carried out by the LRO mission, intended to characterize future robotic and human lunar landing sites, will forgo the opportunity for research and focus only on applied engineering assessments.”

So, to make sure LRO did not concentrate on finding water on the moon, which certainly will determine the most likely places for human exploration, the scientific lobbying effort gutted the project. Now it will be difficult, if not impossible, for LRO to search for water on the moon — one of the most basic scientific questions of lunar research.

It was also these earmarks — not Bush’s new space initiative — that forced delays or trims to a number of NASA’s planetary-research projects in 2005. For example, the launch date for the Kepler mission — designed to look for extrasolar planets and originally scheduled for launch in 2007 — was postponed for at least a year due to late trims to the 2005 budget.

Likewise, the Space Interferometry Mission’s launch has been delayed two years, partly because of technical issues, but also because of cuts required in 2005 to pay for the congressional earmarks.

This robust and almost-never-challenged scientific lobbying effort discredits the comments by Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, when she said Feb. 20, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “(Bush’s) moon and Mars (initiative) is basically going to eat everybody’s lunch.”

If anything, should similar lobbying by scientists occur during future budget negotiations — something that seems likely, considering statements such as Bierbaum’s — the efforts could cripple not only Bush’s space initiative, but also good scientific research, as NASA struggles to deal with sudden, unexpected and poorly justified projects imposed by Congress at the last minute.

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