Monday, July 24, 2006

Mission Critical

Of all the forms of empty rhetoric, the mission statement is perhaps the most overrated. Essentially, it's the bizspeak equivalent of a t-shirt that says "World's Greatest Lover” (except that a strategic planner’s shirt would say “I am matchlessly committed to disruptively exceeding my partner’s expectations through a consistent focus on the synergistic goal of visioning, nurturing, and leveraging best practices that vigorously enhance world-class pleasure-centric horizontal niches”).

Until recently, the NASA mission statement proclaimed the agency’s desire "to understand and protect our home planet.” That phrasing allows a fair amount of interpretive leeway, God knows…particularly for an administration that’s willing to define words in an idiosyncratic way. Regardless, BushCo has actually chosen to delete - rather than debase - this language, lest it give aid and comfort to…well, I was going to say “environmentalists,” but “scientists” is probably more to the point.

According to NASA scientists, the mission statement actually did guide research:

[T]he change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

“We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review, whenever we have strategy meetings,” said Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran who is an atmospheric chemist at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “As civil servants, we’re paid to carry out NASA’s mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet, that made it much easier to justify this kind of work.”
I submit that there’s actually nothing “easy to understand” about a vague commitment to protecting the planet; it might refer to collaborating with the DoD on missile defense, or to recycling the bottles in NASA’s cafeteria. On top of which, the phrase was deleted in February; the linked article says its absence “only recently registered with NASA employees.” That’s quite a testimonial to its efficacy.

We all dislike BushCo’s Stalinist habit of micromanaging words while ignoring the catastrophes to which they refer, and of lashing out against heterodoxy (NASA scientist James E. Hansen frequently used the deleted phrase as justification for paying serious attention to climate change). But I think a subsidiary issue here is the infantilizing effect of mission statements, especially when they guide a public organization like NASA. Scientific and educational agencies are not businesses, and the tasks they perform are too complex and important to be reduced to some simpleminded marketing slogan.

At the same time, the notion that the ultimate goal of science is “to understand and protect our home planet” is pretty goddamn basic; if NASA can fall into disarray, or lose funding, because this truism isn’t explicitly celebrated in its mission statement, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we have a problem.

Maybe someone needs to draw up an org chart...


Anonymous said...

> At the same time, the notion that the ultimate goal of science is “to understand and protect our home planet” is pretty goddamn basic.

"Understand", yes, "Protect", no. Quite clearly a good proportion of what NASA does is the exact opposite of protecting the planet. Rocket launches are not what you might call environmentally friendly activities.

Phila said...

Quite clearly a good proportion of what NASA does is the exact opposite of protecting the planet.

I don't disagree. But it's possible for people of good will to disagree on what constitutes protection, or whether the benefits of these programs outweigh the costs, or what have you.

Still, we generally justify research programs - even ill-conceived or dangerous ones - in terms of reaping benefits, and making progress towards a better world. Rationality is supposed to govern scientific inquiry and self-preservation alike. No legitimate scientific body is going to say in its mission statement that it's "committed to making the earth uninhabitable."

There's always been a huge gap between the romantic theory and politicized practice of science. All the same, I find it weird that NASA is apparently crippled by having a mission statement that doesn't explicitly reject self-destructive behavior.