Presidential science adviser John Holdren made a frank admission today: Selling the Administration’s plan to restructure the U.S. space program hasn’t been easy. And the reason underscores an important lesson about communicating science to the public: Keep the message simple.
In 2010, President Barack Obama announced that he was scrapping his predecessor's 2004 vision for returning astronauts to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars because it was unaffordable and threatened to undermine NASA's other programs, which include telescopes and other robotic exploration missions, Earth observation, and advanced aeronautics. In addition to abandoning plans for a lunar landing in 2020, the new policy assigns private companies the job of ferrying crew and cargo to and from the international space station so that NASA can be free to pursue more advanced technologies. The Administration even evoked the country's past achievements in space, declaring that the new approach would be "putting science back into rocket science"
The new policy strikes a much better balance among all the parts of NASA's $18 billion budget, Holdren explained to an audience attending a 2-day symposium on the science of communicating science. But it requires a sophisticated understanding of the subject.
"It's an interesting object lesson about how difficult it is to communicate when the messages require a lot of references to analysis and detail," Holdren said during a panel discussion with three former presidential science advisers about their successes and failures in shaping their bosses’ policies toward science. In contrast, he said, "the counter-messages are very simple: Losing leadership, no vision, and giving up proven technologies for unproven ones. It’s a real challenge."
This morning's successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by a California company known as SpaceX offers evidence that the commercial sector is "up to the task" of servicing the space station, Holdren said. "It may be worth reminding people that every rocket and capsule we’ve ever launched has been built by the private sector," he added. "What's different in this case is the management model."
Holdren's comments also provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the White House’s science apparatus. Republicans often accuse the Obama Administration of ignoring legitimate criticism, but Holdren's expert summation of the opposition’s main talking points suggests that the White House hears those complaints all too well. Instead, it may simply be the case that the president's inner circle does not always have an effective response.
"Now all of those concerns [by critics] had been analyzed in great detail, and we had fabulous answers to them," Holdren insisted. "But the answers were basically too complicated. So in many respects, we haven't won that communications battle about NASA."