Saturday, February 11, 2006

Everything is not what it seems.....

The efficient way that Jim Hansen offed his PAO* carbuncle, George Deutsch, is acquiring considerable notice across blogland. On the surface this is a simple story of a wet behind the ears political appointee trying to impose his political and religious views on a noble scientist. If anything, Deutsch’s recent comments have made his agenda clear, and endeared him to the radical Republican party, while justifying Hansen’s actions to everyone else. Do not be surprised if Deutsch starts running for something in deepest Redland.

What has been missed is the timing and skill with which Hansen did the job. The motives are, I think, clear: The attempt by the current administration to impose its politics on NASA earth science has ticked Hansen off and he has waited for his chance to make a statement. Deutsch was the immediate and easy target, but collateral damage was the purpose.

NASA is not a particularly political agency, but it would be a mistake to think that internal politics play no role and that administrations have no say in the agency. Historically administrations do this by picking the Administrators and by selecting the Agency mission. Since NASA is chronically underfunded and has more missions than dollars, putting a focus in one area of necessity means taking resources away from another. To parse the recent dust up we need to look at the last two administrators, Sean O'Keefe and Michael Griffin.

O'Keefe was a creature of OMB and a long time participant in Republican policy groups. His contributions to NASA were full cost accounting and the Space Exploration Initiative. The effect of both was to restrain the ability of NASA to do many of its missions, in particular the ones that the administration did not want it to do. Even looking at the budget does not tell the whole story, because many of the less favored programs were hard hit with taxes linked to supposed administrative costs under the full cost accounting scheme. Oh yes, the third thing was a reorganization that mashed Space Science and Earth Sciences together into a Science Directorate and de-emphasized it with respect to the new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Michael Griffin is a creature of the space industry, both civilian and military. He has worked with NASA and for NASA all of his professional life. Griffin's first move was to clean house at the top of the agency. Some may argue that it would have been better to keep one or the other of the top 20 appointed by O'Keefe and encouraged to leave asap by Griffin, but there was remarkably little push back.

The final piece of the puzzle is the nature of the snakepit.

From nasawatch (a good place to learn about what is going on at NASA) we read about the environment that James Hanson works in

The following excerpts are taken from GSFC's mandatory career management online training required for all GSFC civil servants.

Slide 28: Knowledge of the Work Environment - NASA's Unwritten Rules

  • Unwritten rules are norms for behaving and performing successfully at GSFC that are not printed in any Standard Operating Procedures Manual or Employee Handbook. When an employee understands and adheres to GSFC's Unwritten Rules we call them politically savvy. Nothing can derail a career more quickly than a lack of political savvy.

No one has ever called James Hansen anything but politically savvy in the NASA sense although (as far as I know) he has never participated in partisan politics. NASA politics OTOH......

Now the lab that Hansen directs, GISS in New York City is an odd duck in an organization chart. Formally it is merely one of four labs in the Earth Sciences Division of the Science and Exploration Directorate at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt Maryland, and Goddard is one of ten NASA labs sited around the US. The director of Goddard, Ed Weiler, reports to Griffin in the new organization chart, but used to report to the Associate Administrator for Science, Mary Cleave. Weiler is a serious astrophysicist, Cleave was an astronaut, and a professional earth scientist. In organization speak, there are at least four people between Hansen and Griffin. ALL OF THOSE PEOPLE INCLUDING GRIFFIN HAVE STRONG EARTH OR SPACE SCIENCE CREDENTIALS.

What is more, GISS has always been more independent than the organization chart implies, with many of its own programs and a relationship with Columbia that gives it much of the intellectual freedom that JPL enjoys through Cal Tech. GISS is both a NASA lab and a part of the Earth Institute at Columbia.

This was not a random lashing out but a carefully considered first step. Need I connect more dots:)

OTOH, if anyone has a strategy for meeting the challenge of anthropic climate change that could be reconciled with the apparent goals of the Bush administration, it is Hansen. More on that later

Update: I forgot to leave links to what Hansen says about climate change and how to meet its challenges. Here is the text of his talk at the AGU session in honor of CD Keeling, and here is an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which first set forth his ideas.


Anonymous said...

John Fleck says -

Thanks for the organizational information, Eli. So if I'm understanding your point, while GISS staff are technically NASA employees, they operate with some of the operational independence implied by the university connection (hence your CalTech/JPL reference)?

And some NASA labs are GOCOs (JPL) while others are not (Goddard)? What is the reasoning behind doing this two different ways, and what, if any, are hte practical results?

EliRabett said...

Like everything else it is history. Remember NASA was formed out of a bunch of agencies right after the first Sputnik went up. GISS exists where it does because NASA badly wanted Robert Jastrow at Columbia to be part of the agency and Jastrow would not leave NY and Columbia. The great irony of this is that Jastrow went on to be Sallie Baliunas' mentor and is part of the SEPP/Marshall crowd. My idle speculation, and that is all it is, is that Jastrow, who is an astronomer, objects that the earth science crowd at GISS has taken over and bears it ill will. Remember, GISS is the Goddard Institute for Space Science.

JPL was founded in the 1930s by Cal Tech and later taken over by NASA. The distinguishing feature of JPL is that about zero of the staff have civil service salaries. They are all on soft money so it is very dangerous to get between them and their NASA grants.

The third group in this mix would be the Space Telescope Institute at Johns Hopkins.

In the case of GISS, if you go through the directory you see the "richness" of the organization It gets even better if you look at the equivalent pages of the associated organizations such as the Earth Institute at Columbia.

Anonymous said...

John Fleck says -

There's a great story told out here (perhaps apocryphal, or at least embroidered) about a Lawrence Livermore scientist back in the 1980s who was quoted in a national newspaper making comments critical of the technical feasability of one of the Reagan Administration's SDI technologies. The scientist was awakened from a dead sleep (remember the time difference) by a phone call from an angry secretary of energy. "I don't work for you," the scientist said, or so the story goes. "I work for the University of California." Thus, in principal, the GOCO system at the Energy Department's nuclear laboratories is said to insulate the researchers from the blowing of political winds. Current reality does not reflect this.

coby said...

Interesting, now that you mention it, it was pretty swiftly that Douche(sp?:) was dusted. I would not have predicted that. Would it have happened if he had not lied on his resume?

Do you think Hansen could be bucking for martyrdom? I know NASA heaven only provides 12 virgins rather than 70, but maybe he wants to embark like a rocket on a more activist, less scientist path....?

EliRabett said...

Coby, I think Hansen was planting a seed. and Deutsch was road kill on the first day, it's just that no one told him.