NASA is shirking its educational duties, union says

NASA's largest union complained in a March 16 letter to congressional appropriators that the space agency is "shirking its outreach and educational responsibilities."

On Friday, Lee Stone, vice president for legislative affairs at the Ames Research Center chapter of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said that as a scientist, he is most concerned about the deterioration of a post-doctoral fellows program that had recruited much of NASA's talent in the past.

"Twenty years ago, people like myself and [many senior staff in his division] were brought in as post-doctoral fellows," said Stone, a human factors researcher. "The funds for that have almost completely dried up."

Like interns in medical school, the fellows supplied NASA research centers with extra manpower and gave NASA scientists the chance to tap -- and usually keep -- the talented ones for permanent positions.

The union called on appropriators to give NASA about $1 billion more than President Bush proposed for fiscal 2008, or a total of $18.3 billion.

"Given that the Department of Defense's military space programs have been funded in excess of $20 billion annually and that NASA's exploration activities will likely produce new dual-use capabilities, we recommend that you consider moving some space funding from DOD to NASA to cover the plus-up," the letter said.

On Friday, NASA defended the agency's commitment to education. "Education is and will continue to be a fundamental element of NASA's activities reflecting a diverse portfolio of higher, pre-college and informal education programs," spokesman Bob Jacobs said.

He added that NASA's "primary role in education" is providing U.S. youth opportunities to experience "the kind of exciting programs" that will propel them to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

More money is always welcome but not necessary, Jacobs said. The real challenge is prioritizing available resources in a manner that benefits the students and the taxpayers, he said. "We believe we can do that with the funds provided."

But Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch.com and a former NASA scientist, said cuts have prevented the agency from fulfilling its innovative outreach goals.

"Everybody expects every agency to be hip and with it," but that takes time and money, he said. "The real problem is when they try" to meet these expectations, "Congress cuts their budget."

"To their credit, [some officials] are actually getting hip to this," Cowing said. He pointed to NASA's Ames Center, where the agency is sharing computer scientists and office space with Silicon Valley neighbor Google.

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., noted that NASA's fiscal 2008 request for education is down more than 8 percent from last year's request.

"With respect to outreach, I don't agree that it is a case of NASA shirking its responsibilities; rather, I think that the agency could do a better job utilizing the resources it does have," he said in a statement. "NASA is a well-known and respected 'brand.' It has inspired previous generations, and there is no reason it can't continue to do so."

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