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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) Setting Priorities for Space Research Opportunities and Imperatives 4 The Rationale for Setting Priorities Priorities reflect ambitions and values. Individuals or organizations set priorities to ensure that attention is concentrated on the most important objectives, to ensure that the most important things are done first. To set priorities effectively, we need to clarify our objectives. We must be confident that our purpose and operating principles advance, rather than impede, the achievement of those objectives. Long-range priorities -should facilitate management of the scientific research enterprise in a variety of ways. They should indicate directions in which the program may evolve and stimulate technological development, organizational evolution, and cooperative arrangements with other agencies and other nations. There is increasing interest in establishing priorities for federally funded research. In a study requested by the House Committee on Science, Space, and REPORT MENU Technology, the Office of Technology Assessment cited three problems with NOTICE current federal priority setting:1 MEMBERSHIP PREFACE First, criteria used in selecting various areas of research and SUMMARY megaprojects are not made explicit . . . . Second, there is currently CHAPTER 1 no mechanism for evaluating the total research portfolio of the CHAPTER 2 Federal Government in terms of progress toward national CHAPTER 3 objectives. . . . Third, although scientific merit and mission CHAPTER 4 relevance must always be the chief criteria used to judge . . . , CHAPTER 5 they cannot always be the sole criteria. Attempts to set priorities in scientific research should concentrate on specific initiatives or proposals for activities at the margins of ongoing efforts. Just as it is impossible to say whether painting or music is the more important activity, it is impossible to rank the disciplines of science or space research in a priority order. It is essential to concentrate on the initiatives produced by disciplines, not the disciplines themselves.2 Priorities are necessary at several levels within the national scientific enterprise and within the space program and scientific research in space file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (1 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) because science has created a wealth of opportunities for new initiatives. Some initiatives will contribute more to scientific understanding than others, some will contribute more to national economic and technological vitality, some will advance important applications of information from space, and some will assist in resolving important policy issues. Because we cannot do them all, both science and the nation need an orderly process leading to the necessary choices. First, resources will be allocated between scientific efforts and other compelling national needs. Next, resources will be divided between basic and applied science and technological development, between scientific research in space and other ways of obtaining new knowledge. Finally, within space research itself there is competition for resources between new initiatives and maintenance of the intellectual and physical infrastructure, as well as competition among the initiatives themselves. MOTIVATIONS FOR RECOMMENDING PRIORITIES There are strong motivations on three levels for creating a scientific agenda through the establishment of priorities among competing endeavors: on the national level, to ensure that national goals are served as effectively as possible; for all of science, to ensure that a share of available resources commensurate with benefits is provided; and within science, to ensure that the most worthwhile scientific endeavors are given precedence. There are two principal arguments in favor of acting on these motivations to achieve consensus and recommend priorities: Consensus is politically compelling. Scientists, in space research and other endeavors, believe that the benefits from science justify a share of resources adequate to pursue the most promising initiatives and to maintain the vitality of science through support for scientific education and modern scientific equipment. They also believe that public and political identification of technological initiatives as "science" may not be in the best interests of science or in the long-term national interest. Nevertheless, scientists, as individuals or in groups, have generally restricted their advocacy statements to the disciplines or initiatives in which they are most interested rather than arguing for a focused scientific agenda. But an agenda for science or for space research created and supported by the scientific community should be compelling. If scientists demonstrate that their agenda responds to national needs and to scientific imperatives, then they may argue effectively for an adequate share of resources file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (2 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) and for an orderly progression through the suite of initiatives endorsed by the community. If the players will not act, then the spectators will take the stage.3 Because the costs to pursue all opportunities in science or in space research exceed available resources by a large margin, choices must be made. If scientists engaged in space research cannot, or will not, set priorities among opportunities, then others whose own goals may be quite different will take the stage and make the decisions. Passivity or disarray on the part of the scientists presents the political process with the opportunity, indeed the necessity, to make choices, some of which may not be in the best interests of science. None of the reasons scientists cite for eschewing the strenuous work of reaching a consensus prevent federal officials or congressional representatives from making the necessary choices. When others act, it is the scientists who become the spectators. COUNTER-ARGUMENTS TO THE COUNTER-ARGUMENTS A number of arguments against recommending priorities are sometimes offered by scientists. Some of them are listed below, with explanations as to why the task group does not find them compelling. There will be losers. Indeed there will be, but there are losers now. Certainly, some who enter the priority-setting process will lose; some initiatives will necessarily be given low priority or cast aside. That happens now, sometimes for reasons unrelated to the quality of the science. It would seem preferable that scientists, as a community, help to determine the winners. The argument over whether to set priorities is a struggle between the common good and individual goals, between enterprise and risk avoidance, and, ultimately, between good science and pedestrian endeavors. Consensus in the scientific community along with effective advocacy will, in all likelihood, produce more funds and stable funding patterns and hence strengthen science and increase the opportunities for the recommended initiatives. Some scientists, with confidence in their programs, will welcome priorities; others, with less compelling programs, will seek to delay a decision that they suspect will not be in their favor. Without a process that identifies and promotes good science and strong initiatives, resources are scattered and the strong subsidize the weak. Recommending priorities is too difficult, too contentious. Recommending priorities is difficult and can be accomplished only through a formal process in which competing initiatives are judged uniformly according to explicit criteria, preferably on the basis of written material that specifically addresses the stated criteria. The formality of the process and the existence of criteria specified in advance both tend to mitigate contention and to diminish the influence of hidden agendas. Despite the difficulty of setting priorities, all file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (3 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) scientists do so in their own research programs. In addition, if scientists find it too difficult to create an agenda for space research, then, as argued above, others will do it for them. The community will not be able to maintain consensus. Scientists loyal to initiatives that do not receive high recommendations may tend to subvert the process, it is argued, by lobbying policymakers and Congress for special favor. Such lobbying would tend to undermine the effectiveness of the consensus. Rather than seeking to restore initiatives that have been abandoned, losers in the process would be better advised to develop more exciting initiatives. This argument and the two above combine to make a fourth: Setting priorities will be counterproductive because the community will tear itself apart. Moreover, the argument goes, at present, the rancor of losers is directed at others outside the community; if the community recommends the priorities, then that rancor will remain within the community and fester. Of course, there may be some truth to this observation. But such an outcome can be avoided by insisting on a fair, open, and formal process. Making decisions demands maturity—both the discipline to follow an agreed-upon, honest process and the courage to accept unfavorable results; to depend on the decisions of a bureaucracy is to prolong adolescence. The space research community should accept responsibility for its own future if it is to be taken seriously by others. The low-priority initiatives will not be done. Some argue that policymakers or the Congress will take advantage of any list of recommended priorities by eliminating activities with low priorities. But that is precisely the reason that priorities are recommended—in order that resources can be concentrated on the highest-priority items. The more sophisticated priority schemes, such as those discussed below, allow for balance to be achieved by allocating an appropriate fraction of resources to all essential activities. Nevertheless, if there are insufficient resources to do everything, it certainly seems preferable to abandon low-priority initiatives rather than to starve high- priority ones. Scientists cannot make political judgments. The crux of this argument is that once various disciplines put forward scientifically meritorious proposals, the decisions about relative social benefits and the extent to which the competing initiatives serve higher national purposes are beyond the purview of scientists. But the task group believes that in arguing for initiatives, scientists should be sensitive to national goals and political realities, just as politicians in considering scientific initiatives should be sensitive to scientific merit. Since scientists expect support from taxpayers, they should be willing to explain to the public why some initiatives better serve national purposes. In a related argument, some scientists assert that only scientific merit should be considered, that other social benefits are irrelevant or only of minor concern. This argument is indeed appropriate for basic research. But meaningful file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (4 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) initiatives, especially in space research, demand a significant fraction of national resources and thus involve opportunity costs that must be met by reducing other programs in which social benefits are of prime concern. These questions of social benefits and programmatic readiness are important to our society, and scientists must take them into account. The fact is that scientists do make political judgments about the value of science and about their initiatives, especially when lobbying for them in agency councils and before policymakers and Congress. Some scientists also sharply criticize initiatives that are labeled as science but are approved and pursued for nonscientific motivations. Since scientists do make political judgments, it would be advantageous for them to discuss the broader values of initiatives among themselves and, in presenting their priority recommendations, to illuminate the political considerations that they found compelling. SCHEMES FOR PRESENTING PRIORITIES Statements of priorities, except in restricted classes of activities, cannot be unequivocal. While it is possible to rank three research missions that are candidates for new start authorization unambiguously, it is not possible to rank all activities of science or of space research in a single list. Thus any scheme for presenting priorities must be hierarchical in nature, with certain classes of activities given a higher priority than others. Moreover, priority schemes should distinguish classes of activities that actually can be compared. Broad categories within which separate priority lists can be prepared have been proposed.4,5 Such categories might include support for basic research and the scientific infrastructure, followed by the mandatory efforts, grand initiatives, and incremental efforts that are part of the forward march of science.6 Such schemes can then be presented as two-dimensional matrices, with the columns representing categories and containing activities listed by relative priority. The federal Committee on Earth Sciences has presented such a priority scheme for research activities for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, specifying the relative priorities of items in the columns and of the columns themselves.7 In ranking initiatives or incremental activities, a number of variables and considerations must be taken into account. First, there is the scientific value to the proposing discipline and to science more generally. Other considerations include the probability of success, costs and readiness, alternate opportunities to acquire the knowledge, and benefits to society. Priority schemes must also account for unique opportunities presented by unusual events. Moreover, they must provide for balance and flexibility in the space research program. Finally, any methodology should include an analysis of the sensitivity of the rankings to variations in relative weighting of the criteria used. Readiness is often a key issue in evaluating initiatives. For some, the file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (5 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) requisite technology and infrastructure will exist; for others it will have to be developed. Thus readiness to do scientific research in space involves a broad range of programmatic issues, including the availability of sensors and instruments, an appropriate spacecraft and launch vehicle, adequate plans for managing data and information, and the existence of a community of scientists with the talent and commitment to ensure the success of the initiative. High priority for a future initiative helps to develop readiness. It stimulates development of the necessary innovative technology and information management concepts and thus enhances the national technological infrastructure. High priority encourages scientists to redirect research and educational programs in ways that will contribute to the initiative. EXPERIENCE WITH PRIORITIES IN SPACE RESEARCH NASA's Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA), in cooperation with advisory committees, has adopted a structured approach to the assignment of priorities within the program and among new initiatives. The current OSSA approach to developing the mission queue derives from recommendations made in The Crisis in Space and Earth Sciences,8 which set forth a specific procedure for setting priorities among candidates for approval as new starts. OSSA now produces an annual strategic plan that has two important features. First, it divides the program into five components, including ongoing efforts, major and moderate missions, small missions, utilization of the Space Station, and research-base enhancements. Second, priorities among these components are set, in effect, through a series of decision rules for allocating resources among them. The procedure for selecting new starts in each fiscal year from among a list of candidates is a formal one based on the recommendations in the Crisis report referred to above. The OSSA strategic planning effort appears to be effective. The annual budget requests for new initiatives are made in the context of a formal five-year plan. Clarifying components of the program and specifically setting priorities among initiatives through creation of a five-year plan for new starts have reduced uncertainty and divisiveness in the space research community, strengthened space research, and made the program more attractive to the decision makers who provide the resources for it. FOCUSING ON GOALS In order to set priorities and create an agenda for science or for space research, we need to determine what is really important, both to science and to the nation. We need to assess our values and formulate clear and compelling file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (6 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) goals. In this context, our national goals at the highest level seem fairly clear: increase our understanding of ourselves and the world around us and contribute to national strength and the well-being of the citizens. In seeking to serve these goals through the scientific enterprise or scientific research in space, we should then consider the relative importance of more specific goals and objectives: Maintain the strength of the scientific enterprise. Concentrate on the most scientifically meritorious initiatives. Focus on producing information about the world around us in order to stimulate new perceptions, foster creation of knowledge, advance understanding, and enable appropriate policy action. Produce benefits for society, including contributions to national economic and technological vitality, the creation of national pride and sense of purpose, education and public enlightenment, and international cooperation. Clarifying the relative importance of such goals and objectives will help us to decide what we should do. Knowing what importance others in the decision process assign to them will help create an agenda that policymakers can embrace with enthusiasm. PRIORITIES AND THE FUNDAMENTAL ASSUMPTION Even a program with clear priorities and a definite agenda must operate under external constraints. It will be enhanced or impeded by large-scale forces and by assumptions that may or may not be evident. Scientific research in space is clearly affected by the objectives of the civil space program, whose most basic aim has been to foster human spaceflight. This report contends that by concentrating on acquiring and processing information and converting it into knowledge and understanding, space research and the space program will advance science and contribute to national vitality. This is a fundamental assumption on which to base an agenda for national activities in space. From the perspective of knowledge to be gained, flight to orbit and beyond is the enabling technology, not a goal in itself. In all likelihood the civil space program will eventually evolve, as has aviation, from the days in which every flight was a miracle to a multifaceted transportation system advancing a variety of human endeavors. file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (7 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]

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Setting Priorities for Space Research: Opportunities and Imperatives (Chapter 4) NOTES 1. Office of Technology Assessment. 1991. "Summary" in Federally Funded Research: Decisions for a Decade (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.) p. 139. 2. This point was made in a report by the Space and Earth Sciences Advisory Committee, The Crisis in Space and Earth Sciences—A Time for a New Commitment (NASA Advisory Council, 1986). 3. "[Policy] is like a play in many acts, which unfolds inevitably once the curtain is raised. To declare that the performance will not take place is an absurdity. The play will go on, either by means of the actors . . . or by means of the spectators who mount the stage." Klemens von Metternich. 1880. Aus Metternich's Nachgelassenen Papieren 8: 190. 4. Press, Frank, "The Dilemma of the Golden Age," address to members of the National Academy of Sciences (April, 1988). 5. Dutton, John A., and Lawson Crowe. 1988. "Setting Priorities Among Scientific Initiatives," American Scientist 76: 599-603. 6. Dutton and Crowe, "Setting Priorities Among Scientific Initiatives," 1988. 7. Committee on Earth Sciences. 1990. Our Changing Planet: The FY 1991 Global Change Research Plan, Executive Summary (U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Va.), presented as part of the U.S. President's Fiscal Year 1991 Budget. 8. Space and Earth Sciences Advisory Committee, The Crisis in Space and Earth Sciences—A Time for a New Commitment, 1986. file:///C|/SSB_old_web/prio1ch4.htm (8 of 9) [6/21/2004 10:00:53 AM]