It’s been such a rich meeting that, actually, I find the duty of closing this meeting to be bittersweet.
With that, SSB Chair Charlie Kennel began to sum up what had been said and heard over the course of the past 2 days of the workshop. Kennel framed his concluding remarks around two concepts from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.1 Kahneman uses the book to discuss how humans think, and Kennel analogized Kahneman’s work to the nature of the relationship between the Space Studies Board (SSB) and its activities, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its subcommittees, and NASA as a whole.
As humans first developed, Kennel explained, their “think fast” capacity evolved first as they needed to react quickly to, say, the appearance of a saber tooth tiger. “Think fast” is constantly busy, trying to warn humans about something new and mobilize emotional reactions. “Think slow,” on the other hand, evolved later, during the time humans first began to develop language, and it represents our capacity for long-term rational thought. Kennel explained that the nature of the discussion about the relationship between the SSB and the NASA internal advisory apparatus is actually buried in fundamental human psychology and that one cannot determine the correct action unless “think fast” and “think slow” work together in a correlated way. For better or worse, he summarized, the SSB is the Earth and space science community’s “think slow” apparatus.
Kennel then discussed what he did—or did not—hear at the workshop, starting with NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld’s keynote remarks. Grunsfeld had said that the SSB is a planning group and that it should not lose its taste for innovation and excitement; doing so would be a big mistake. Lennard Fisk discussed in his keynote speech the parallel development of NASA and the SSB, and thus the parallel development of the Earth and space sciences community’s “think fast” and “think slow” capacities.
He recalled that during the panel session with the former decadal survey chairs, an audience member asked if the decadal surveys had reached their capacity limit in terms of size and scope. The chairs were unanimous that the length of time for the surveys, though quite long, was necessary and sufficient. Kennel interpreted this exchange, as well as the rest of the workshop, as evidence that while the decadal survey process cannot be shortened by much, it should also not be made more complex or elaborate than it already is.
Kennel also highlighted the importance of the statement of task (SOT) in the decadal survey process, paraphrasing Steven Squyres—former planetary science decadal survey chair—by saying, “It’s the statement of task, stupid.” In essence, everybody will get what they asked for, like it or not. To some extent, he explained, that was the outcome from the most recent round of decadal surveys, an outcome that further emphasizes how much more important the SOT is than might have been previously thought. The SOT, like the decadal surveys themselves, speaks to multiple stakeholders who are involved in the negotiation of its content. Kennel implored participants to think about what was discussed at the workshop and how to improve the negotiation process for future decadal survey statements of task, what
1 D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, N.Y., 2011.
should be included in the task, and what the National Academies’ bottom line might be when coming to the negotiating table.
Along similar lines, Kennel remarked that participants at the workshop discussed a great deal about preparatory work that can be done before a decadal survey gets underway. Two areas in particular, however, can prove tricky: international collaboration and interagency collaboration. In reflecting the discussion from the workshop, Kennel called for better coordination between the NRC and NASA to determine what information the decadal surveys need from NASA to do their job and how it can be provided. Enhanced coordination is partly a NASA leadership issue, but he acknowledged that the NRC needs to actively encourage NASA to bring about an enhanced level of collaboration.
Another somewhat contentious issue discussed throughout the workshop was the balance between science objectives and mission priorities in crafting a decadal survey recommended program. There were some panelists and audience members who felt that the NRC should focus the decadal surveys’ attentions exclusively on scientific priorities and give NASA the leeway to determine how to accomplish those goals, thus making the overall recommended program more resilient to any changes or adversity. According to Kennel, however, following this discussion, he did not hear anyone say that this method of conducting the decadal surveys is inappropriate. “How,” he asked the audience, “can we do the surveys if we don’t have prototype reference missions to assess?” He said that he chose that language carefully because from the three decadal surveys with the CATE process as we know it today, the use of proper phrasing to describe the recommended missions in the surveys matters a great deal for how those mission concepts are perceived and interpreted. Furthermore, the community learned that the purpose of the CATE process was to convince itself that the community is making feasible and actionable recommendations to NASA. In the future, the decadal surveys should take care to clearly explain what the CATE process is and is not. Also, because the CATE estimates are so probabilistic, he suggested that including a description of the uncertainty in cost would better illustrate the fact that the CATE numbers are notional at best, thus conveying cost and risk at the same time.
There also seemed to be, in his opinion, significant support among participants that the decadal survey process cannot do without the CATE process, but that does not mean that there is no room for improvement, or that some parts of the process can be done away with. Kennel highlighted the challenges that the different decadal surveys ran into when implementing the CATE process—for instance, occurring late in the process and often forcing decisions before the committees felt ready to make them. Nevertheless, he believes that come the next round of decadal surveys, the NRC will know how to manage the CATE better, including aligning the timing of the CATE process with the larger decision-making element of the decadal survey committee process. Ultimately, future decadal survey committees will have to be careful not to overemphasize the cost of their programs, while also finding a “sweet spot” in the balance of recommendations to convince stakeholders that the community is not being irresponsible.
The workshop also tackled the issue of large-scale missions—or, as the moderator of the high-profile mission panel, John Klineberg, called them, “all-in” missions, which are riskier than small or medium-class missions like the Explorer program. Kennel said that it appears that these missions perhaps demand a far greater risk management commitment than their less risky counterparts, and future decadal surveys could be encouraged to explicitly assign a risk acceptance level to the survey recommendations. This would allow the community to tell NASA what the risk parameters are for the various scientific objectives and measurements recommended in the surveys, or, as Kennel said, “We’re willing to accept the consequences of not getting these measurements, but we’re not willing to risk that over here.” Kennel also emphasized that the risk or profile of a mission (e.g., “high profile”) does not necessarily denote the actual size of a mission.
Finally, after 2 days of discussion, Kennel proclaimed that the bottom line he got from the workshop was this: “Nobody said we shouldn’t have another decadal survey.”
There is another important outcome that simply cannot be captured in any summary report or other document, he observed, but the consequences of which may be far more reaching than any of the others. That is that the participants assembled at the workshop are leaders of different stripes, disciplines,
and functions, but leaders nevertheless in the decision-making process for the Earth and space sciences. This community has gone through a turbulent, even potentially disruptive few years—as David Southwood’s presentation from the international panel session would suggest—but the community has assembled to figure out how to move forward. This coming together to discuss how the strategic planning process might be improved is, perhaps, the most important outcome of this workshop.
To this end, Kennel said that he hoped that the discussion that occurred at the workshop does not “walk gently into the night.” So much has been said, and so many issues and opinions surfaced that he believes a document weightier than a workshop summary report is required to adequately capture and advise how to improve this most important process. In his opinion, such a report would take what was said at the workshop and put it into a more formal and deliberative NRC report than can then be used to help guide future decadal surveys.