Campaign '04

Kerry, NASA’s budget, and prizes

As noted in the comments to the previous entry, some news articles, like this Information Week report, claim that Kerry is backing a budget increase for NASA. As the article puts it, “Kerry also said he would increase funding for the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, Energy Department, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology…” However, if you actually look at the plan itself, you’ll see something subtly different:

John Kerry will boost support for the physical sciences and engineering by increasing research investments in agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Increasing “research investments” is not necessarily the same as increasing overall agency budgets: funding could simply be shifted from operational to research programs, for example. That snippet is also the only section of the nine-page document that specifically mentions NASA.

However, later in the same document Kerry comes out strongly in favor of one popular instrument of space commercialization advocates, prizes:

Prizes have a number of advantages as a tool for stimulating technological innovation compared to traditional grants and contracts. For example, they allow the government to set a goal, while allowing researchers and entrepreneurs to pursue different strategies for reaching that goal. The private sector’s X Prize illustrates the power of this approach. This prize has captured the public imagination, and encouraged two-dozen teams of rocket scientists from around the world to develop reusable spaceships. The Kerry plan would provide every science agency with the authority to establish prizes to foster technological advances.

While this doesn’t specifically mention NASA, this suggests that regardless of the fate of the Vision for Space Exploration under a Kerry Administration, the Centennial Challenges program would stand a good chance to continue.

7 comments to Kerry, NASA’s budget, and prizes

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Tom Hill has a thought-provoking essay on the prize issue on The Space Review. He raises some questions that have been itching my brain for awhile now. The biggest one is whether we have any reliable data on if prizes work and how well they work. The advocates always cite success stories, but they are not really unbiased. It strikes me as if somebody should do a careful, unbiased analysis of prizes because right now the unbridled enthusiasm seems to be running amok (is that a mixed metaphor?).

  • What bad thing could result from a prize, other than the goal not being accomplished? That often happens with the way that NASA approaches things anyway, and unlike prizes, it often costs the taxpayers billions.

    Prizes shouldn’t be used for national imperatives, but they’re great for “nice to haves” that the government has shown an inability to do. And given the history of the space program, with all its failure and pork, it’s hard to argue that anything about civil space, particularly civil manned space, is something in which “failure is not an option.”

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Simberg wrote:
    “What bad thing could result from a prize, other than the goal not being accomplished?”

    I think you’re instantly jumping to the extreme conclusion and assuming that I am arguing that they could be “bad” as opposed to “not as good as the advocates claim.” (And I would also argue that in some cases “the goal not being accomplished” could be pretty bad indeed.)

    I was trying to point out that more thought needs to be put into prizes than simply “Yippee! They’re good!” Part of this would be determining legal requirements for doing them. For instance, right now NASA is not allowed to award prizes for more than $250K, requiring changes in the law. But are there other political consequences and roadblocks that are currently not being thought about? One that occurs to me is implementation. Congress cannot currently commit future congresses to spend money. So today’s Congress cannot create a prize that pays $100 million in five years, because five years from now _that_ Congress may decide not to pay the prize. So how does one get around this? Can the US government put large amounts of money into private escrow? (I don’t think so.)

    You yourself had some critical words to say about the DARPA robotics prize. What exactly went wrong there? Did they not think things through? What should they do differently? And now that they’re running that competition again, have they learned any lessons from the first failure?

  • Can the US government put large amounts of money into private escrow? (I don’t think so.)

    Land a billion dollars in cash, in unmarked bills, in a safe on the moon…

    Anyway, I never claimed that prizes are intrsinsically good. Obviously, they have to be implemented properly, and we certainly may not know as much as we need to about how that’s accomplished (which is why it’s useful to try to get some going soon so we can start climbing that learning curve). There may indeed be lessons to be learned from the DARPA challenge.

  • Anonymous

    From a comment on Slashdot:

    “My opinion on prizes: Prizes are great, but they should complement grants, not replace them. An analogy: If we want to catch Osama bin Laden, we should put a big bounty on him. But that doesn’t mean we should call off the military and the CIA. We should post a big bounty AND fund the military and the CIA. Same thing with space: Put a big ‘bounty’ on space achievements, but fund NASA too.”

  • Sorry, that first paragraph was a quote from Dr. Day. Again, I forgot that this comments section doesn’t allow HTML.

  • Jason Rhian

    Kerry wont get us out of low Earth orbit. Bush is the 1st President since Kennedy to propose a initiative to change everything. TO that Kerry cant hold a candle.