Discovery Deprivation: Why Gutting NASA Education and Outreach is a Loss for Us All

Sequestration is sucking the last breath of air out of the already oxygen-starved funding environment for US science, and make no mistake: our culture is losing brain cells. The ill effects of the sequester have been far-reaching, impacting research from the furthest cosmos to work that is directly relevant to monitoring our Earthly environment and its associated hazards. Most Americans don’t think that the sequester affects them, but that is only because the impact of this ischemic decrease in research funding has not yet fully manifested itself. After all, how does one count knowledge that won’t be gained, or lessons gone unlearned?

One crystal ball into the future of American science is to look at how today’s funding decisions affect those who might be scientists and engineers tomorrow: students from elementary school on up. Two months ago, NASA suspended all Education and Public Outreach (EPO) activities, including (but not limited to):

– Programs, events, and workshops.
– Permanent and traveling exhibits, signage, and other materials.
– Speeches, presentations, and appearances, with the exception of technical presentations by researchers at scientific and technical symposia.
– Video and multimedia products in development (and renewal of existing products).
– Web and social media sites in development (excludes operational sites).
– External and internal publications, with the exception of Scientific and Technical Information as defined by NPD 2200.1B.
– Any other activity whose goal is to reach out to external and internal stakeholders and the public concerning NASA, its programs, and activities.

If it’s not already obvious, the above comprises literally every effort NASA makes to tell the general public about its discoveries. The suspension was intended to immediately cut spending associated with EPO activities, in preparation for  a massive restructuring of how (and who) conducts education and outreach. The argument in favor of this restructuring is essentially that moving EPO activities under the purview of the Department of Education, the NSF and Smithsonian will eliminate any redundancy between the previously-ongoing EPO efforts at various NASA centers. When the memo was first released, as now, it is unclear what the full ramifications of the suspension and restructuring will be (including how much money will actually be saved). Since the initial announcement, the NASA Advisory Council’s Astrophysics Subcommittee has expressed its deep concern, and organizations from AURA to the AAS  have issued statements of dismay (AURA also maintains a centralized site for additional information).

On paper, eliminating redundancy and enhancing the impact of taxpayer dollars on education efforts sounds great. It’s completely reasonable to examine the ongoing programs and ask if they are being done in the best way possible. Unfortunately, whisking education and outreach away from the source of discovery is not the best way possible. Here’s why: NASA EPO is conducted by teams of scientists, educators, visualization experts and writers that come together to bring you news from the bleeding edge of space. The reason they can do that is that they are located at the source of where discovery is happening. I don’t necessarily mean this in the strict physical sense, as many NASA missions comprise teams of scientists that are spread out (the Kepler team is a good example), but NASA EPO personnel are akin to embedded journalists who function as part of the mission team. These efforts capture something that is tremendously exciting about science, something that often gets lost in translation: that science isn’t “done” yet, and it never will be. Science is fast-moving, changeable, and the most exciting things in science are not what we have already learned, but the questions we don’t yet know the answers to.

So let’s consider what it means for our future to not only thwart current research efforts, but to convey to students that knowledge is something handed down from on high, rather than gained through the day-to-day work of discovery. It’s not that there isn’t room for formal education efforts as well, it’s that taking EPO away from where new discoveries are being made disconnects us from science as a human pursuit. In order for young, curious minds to see science and engineering as possible future careers, it is essential for them to see the people who are pushing the boundaries of our knowledge every day. And while yes, it’s important to make sure students are learning the fundamentals of science, the body of knowledge that human history has acquired so far– in my experience, the best use for a pile of textbooks is as a stepping stone to something just out of reach.

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