Review: Science Advice to NASA

Science Advice to NASA: Conflict, Consensus, Partnership, Leadership
by Joseph K. Alexander
NASA, 2017
ebook, 292 pp.

A week and a half ago, NASA announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope would be delayed from October 2018 to the spring of 2019. That announcement took many by surprise, given that NASA has publicly said on many occasions that the telescope remained on schedule.

For those who follow NASA’s advisory committees, though, the news was less surprising. At a July meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee, members discussed concerns about a potential delay in the mission because of both declining schedule reserves as well as a potential schedule conflict with an ESA mission, BepiColombo, that also planned to launch on an Ariane 5 in October 2018. (NASA didn’t cite the BepiColombo conflict in its announcement of the delay, although it was increasingly clear that the ESA mission, with its narrow launch window, would take priority.)

That is just example of the insights that can come from NASA’s complex network of advisory groups, ranging from the NASA Advisory Council and its committees and subcommittees to the National Academies and the studies it is chartered to do for NASA. In Science Advice to NASA, the latest publication in the Monographs in Aerospace History series by NASA’s History Office, Joseph Alexander offers a thorough examination of how NASA has solicited and received advice on its science programs throughout the agency’s history.

The use of advisory groups at NASA predates the agency itself, as its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, itself provided advice to the government while making use of various committees. That helped create “a tradition and culture in which the agency’s operations were guided by an independent advisory body,” Alexander writes.

Those advisory bodies have evolved over the nearly six decades of NASA’s existence. For much of its early history, it relied heavily on the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academy of Science, including the board in formal organization charts for years. That formal reliance on the SSB faded in later years, as NASA established its own advisory council and committees, with shifting roles, responsibilities, and influence over the years.

One of the most significant sources of advice for NASA science programs is the series of “decadal surveys” conducted for major science disciplines. “The decadal surveys may have been lauded to the point of exhaustion, but the fact remains that this course of advisory activities has had an indelible impact on the direction of U.S. space science,” he writes. This is very true: the studies, developed as part of a lengthy process that incorporates input from the scientific community, are treated with almost biblical reverence once published, not only by scientists but also members of Congress. That influence is all the more notable given that, outside of astrophysics, where decadal-like surveys date back to the 1960s, the decadal survey approach was adopted only at the turn of this century.

Those surveys, and other major reports usually conducted by the SSB, differ from the advice from NASA’s own advisory council. “The NASA Advisory Council is… what I think of as tactical advice,” John Grunsfeld, the former associate administrator for science at the agency, said in an interview for the book. For strategic advice, he said, “that’s what the National Research Council Space Studies Board does.”

But the NASA Advisory Council’s ability to provide tactical advice has waxed and waned over the years. Some scientists interviewed for the book were critical of NASA’s use of the council when Sean O’Keefe and Mike Griffin were administrators. One former chair of the council called it a “rather pathetic observer” when O’Keefe was in charge, while the council’s science committee as shaped by Griffin developed an “adversarial relationship” with science staff at NASA Headquarters. That relationship improved to a degree with Charles Bolden as administrator, and the book notes that the latest NASA authorization act, signed into law in March, includes a section calling for a review by the National Academy of Public Administration on the effectiveness of the council and recommendations for any reforms.

Science Advice to NASA may be too detailed for the casual reader about the role of advisory committees, while others may find it a bit limiting since it does not focus on the advisory roles in other areas, like aeronautics and human spaceflight (beyond a brief digression in the discussion of decadal surveys about why such studies, as effective as they may be in the sciences, would be less useful for human spaceflight.) Overall, though, the book offers a thorough examination of the role of advisory groups, both internal and external, for NASA science missions, and is recommended reading for anyone serving, or considering serving, on one of those advisory groups—not to mention those at the agency on the receiving end of that advice.


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