Scientists: know your budget process

I have a message to convey to the space science community: if you are seeking or receiving government funding for your research, then you need to know how government funding works.

On February 28 I attended a meeting of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group to hear what space scientists and NASA officials had to say about the cut in funding for NASA’s Mars program proposed in President Obama’s budget request for the coming fiscal year (fiscal 2013). (I add these emphases to remind readers that we’re many months away from an approved budget.) I was appalled, though not surprised, at the level of ignorance about the federal budget process displayed by some scientists there.

There’s no excuse for this ignorance. If you’re old enough to vote and pay taxes, you should know something about how your government works.

The post-World-War-II era of Big Science took off officially with science advisor Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report to President Harry Truman, Science: The Endless Frontier. President Franklin Roosevelt had commissioned this report in 1944, asking, “What can be done…to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?”

The U.S. government sustained its build-up of U.S. scientific and technological capability through WWII and the following Cold War era on the grounds that it was critical to national security. The aerospace community, of which I’ve been a member for almost 30 years, continues to depend on this rationale, well after the end of the Cold War, with too little attention paid to the need for updating it to fit the current cultural context. In the space community, even today too many scientists who receive NASA funding for their work appear to believe that they are entitled to continue receiving the funding they want and that NASA is responsible for ensuring that they get their money.

Let’s do some myth-busting here.

Myth No. 1: space scientists do not need to justify the work they do. The U.S. needs a space exploration program, and those who are engaged in space exploration that they are entitled to government funding.

Myth-buster No. 1: NASA’s Mars exploration program is not an entitlement program – nor is any other program at the agency.

NASA is an executive agency, and as such, its budget falls into the federal budgeting category of non-defense discretionary spending. Not a single NASA program or project or researcher is “entitled” to federal dollars.

Myth No. 2: NASA will do all the program/ project/mission advocacy needed to ensure that space scientists get the funding they want.

Myth-buster No. 2: NASA doesn’t do advocacy. NASA’s responsible for informing Congress and the public about what it’s done, what it’s doing, and what it would like to do. NASA officials will tell you they are not permitted to “advocate” for agency activities to Congress. (I often wonder what the difference is between advocating for and branding and marketing programs, a common practice at NASA, but that’s a subject for another blog post). Most NASA officials I know claim they cannot even ask, let alone direct, recipients of NASA funding to advocate for their programs and projects and missions before Congress. Many scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Geophysical Union, and the American Society for Microbiology, provide training for scientists who want to engage in advocacy work. (I’ve participated in AGU’s advocacy training, and it’s very good.)

Myth No. 3: Science is separate from politics. A scientist’s job is to do science and not to engage in advocacy for that science.

Myth-buster No. 3: Inside the Washington Beltway, where all federal research funding comes from, science is politics. If you, Doctor Scientist, cannot or will not advocate for your work, why should anybody else?

A good description of the federal budget process can be found in the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-11, Section 10(2008).  A brief introduction to the federal budget process is available from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. I vouch for the reliability of both of these sources. (For those scientists in the Mars community who are convinced that OMB is The Devil, while I’d recommend letting go of that notion for your own sakes, I’ll note that, no matter what you think about OMB, it is a voice of authority on the federal budget process.)

I’ll close this post by noting that, of course, the process by which NASA prepares its budget request to submit to OMB, negotiates with OMB to reach agreement on the request that the President will send to Congress, and justifies its request before Congress is exceedingly complex, highly contingent on current events and specific individuals, minimally open to public scrutiny, and cannot be fully understood simply by reading OMB circulars.  I doubt that any individual at NASA (or elsewhere) can know the full breadth and depth of effort that goes into the preparation of the agency’s budget or any particular element of it, including the Mars exploration program budget.


6 Responses to “Scientists: know your budget process”

  1. Dale Ketcham Says:

    Would but that all those associated with NASA, both scientist, engineers and contractors alike, could understand what has been so clearly stated here. Those involved in the ‘business’ of space must learn this or perish in the increasingly tight budget environment of the next few years.

    Nicely done Linda.

  2. Jonathan F. Galloway Says:

    Good going, Linda! Keep searching for the truth because sometimes power speaks to truth rather than the other way around.

  3. rikerjoe Says:

    I did a year-long assignment at NASA Headquarters specifically to be exposed to the political environment as part of the decision-making process for NASA. What I learned is very much in tune with your post. The political part of the process is to be embraced (call it “playing the game”) rather than fought. Taking advantage of advocacy routes is a key means of moving forward. Perhaps a follow-up that explains further the advocacy organizations and options is worth a thought.

    Nice post, Linda.

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