The Applied Sciences Program: NASA’s (almost) hidden treasure.

(The last few posts have focused on technology transfer, by various names; this present piece continues that line of thought.)

Artist's rendition of NASA's SMAP spacecraft

Artist’s rendition of NASA’s SMAP spacecraft

It’s been a privilege to serve on several advisory groups over my career, but none has proved more interesting than NASA’s Applied Sciences Advisory Committee (ASAC), which has provided periodic looks at NASA’s Applied Sciences Program (ASP)[1]. Embedded within NASA’s Earth Sciences Division, ASP is unique across the agency.

There’s history behind this. Look back to the 1958 language establishing NASA, which charged the new Agency with conducting the aeronautical and space activities of the United States “so as to contribute materially to one or more of the following objectives:”

  • Expansion of human knowledge of the Earth, the atmosphere and space
  • Improvement of aeronautical and space vehicles
  • Development and operation of vehicles for space flight
  • Establishment of long-range studies of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes
  • Preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science technology
  • The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance
  • Cooperation by the United States with other nations in the peaceful application of space research
  • Effective utilization of scientific and engineering resources of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment…”

With the exception of the bullet referring directly to national defense, the stated objectives only hint at applying NASA science for societal benefit outside the aeronautical and space activities per se. That was the way things were done back then. NASA was established as a so-called science agency, and it was accepted as a given at the time that as science and technology advanced, applications – and with them, societal benefits – would necessarily follow. There was no need to take special measures to foster such innovation. Much the same philosophy guided the formation in those years of the National Science Foundation, the DoE national laboratories, the Office of Naval Research, and so on.

As policies, go, it hasn’t proved half-bad. Results for the past half-century have surpassed expectations. Public support and funding for science (not just for NASA but for all these agencies) have remained strong and remarkably consistent. Scientists and engineers in turn have delivered an enormous payback – in all branches of science and technology: IT, healthcare, energy technologies, earth sciences, and much more. But over time, both sides have developed a sense that it might be possible to do better. Start with scientists: ICSU noted early in this century that the biggest challenge facing science and technology is the widening gap between the advance of science and society’s ability to benefit. For its part, society has found itself financially strapped even as confronted with resource-, environmental-, and hazard- challenges of greater complexity, scale, and urgency. Requests for help from scientists and engineers have gotten more pointed. In recent years, language in the enabling legislation for NASA and other science agencies has made more explicit mention of societal benefit as an overarching goal.

Enter the Applied Sciences Program, specifically established in NASA to accelerate and increase societal return on investments in space science and technology. ASP is both relatively young (dating back in its present form only about 14 years) and relatively small (its budget is just less than $40M/year, compared with a budget of $1.5-$2B for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division as a whole). But throughout its history, ASP has been punching above its weight. The Program can already point to numerous successes: fostering the application of space technology to air quality monitoring, public health, agriculture, resilience to natural hazards, and much more.

The societal benefits aren’t confined to the United States. They’ve been shared abroad as well. Just one example: SERVIR, a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helps developing nations in Asia, East Africa and Central America improve their environmental decision making through access to observations from space.

Over its short lifetime, ASP has quickly grown more disciplined and proactive in its work, across a broad front. ASP is increasingly able to entrain applied scientists and users in the early mission-planning stages, instead of waiting until near-launch. In this way they’ve reduced the time lag separating the initial collection of data for science from its ultimate practical use. Consultation with users has led ASP and NASA’s ESD to develop new big-data archive formats such as so-called data rods to facilitate data access and applications. And by explicitly characterizing the rate at which projects advance through nine-level Applied Readiness Levels (ALR)[2], ASP has helped its investigators and users evaluate their progress.

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active-Passive (SMAP) mission exemplifies the progress being made. Encouraged by a call in the 2007 Decadal Survey[3], the SMAP mission and science team included applications in their pre-launch sciences while remaining within a pre-determined funding envelope. Scientists found that such inclusion strengthened the science itself as well as the direct societal benefit. Their experience is encouraging scientists working on other missions to follow suit.

This spirit is captured in the SMAP Handbook:

“A rare characteristic of the SMAP Project is its emphasis on serving both basic Earth System science as well as applications in operational and practice-oriented communities. The NRC Decadal Survey identified a number of possible domains of applications with SMAP science data products. These include weather and climate prediction, agricultural and food production decision support systems, floods and drought monitoring, environmental human health assessments, and national security applications. The SMAP Project and the SMAP Science Definition Team developed formal plans to engage application users from a diversity of settings and institutions. A SMAP Early Adopter program was launched to facilitate two-way exchanges of needs and capabilities between the community and the Project. The approach to applied science is described in a dedicated section in the SMAP Handbook.”

The successes of NASA’s Applied Sciences Program hold two lessons: (1) first, there’s no dearth of low-hanging fruit in applications. Societal benefits are instead limited more by existing funding levels for such work. (2) We would likely greatly reduce the cost and accelerate the progress of harnessing science for practical use by recognizing and treating science application as an object of research and study in and of itself.

Want an analogy? Consider the Human Genome Project. Mapping the human genome was pursued along two distinct lines. The first was a brute-force method, using technologies available early in the project, at a cost of about $10/gene. The second explored ways and means to accelerate and reduce the cost of the sequencing process itself (reaching a goal of something like $1/gene) and only then turning to the mapping. The first approach more than repaid its investment. But the second approach has made it possible to economically map individual human genetic differences, as well as the genomes of countless other species, unlocking even more riches. Mapping the human genome for the first time cost about $3B; today the cost is less than $1000. This is transforming the prospects for healthcare much as the Global Positioning System has expanded the possibilities for and applications of geolocation.)

Such attention to the discipline of science application more broadly will add to the store of human riches – what the economist Joel Mokyr has described as “our free lunch.”


[1] An important disclaimer: the views expressed here are just that – views (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW homepage). Moreover, they’re solely my own and do not necessarily reflect the conclusions of the ASAC or other ASAC members.

[2]In general, ARLs 1-3 encompass discovery and feasibility; ARLs 4-6 address development, testing, and validation; and, ARLs 7-9 focus on integration of the “application” into an end-user’s decision-making activity.

[3]The 2007 National Research Council report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (referred to in this report as the “2007 decadal survey” or “2007 survey”)

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Technology transfer: remedial reading.

Thanksgiving provided me time for family (never enough!), but it also gave opportunity for some remedial reading[1] bearing on the process by which scientific and technical advance are harvested for societal benefit. There’s much food for thought in these two books; wish I’d read them earlier. The first, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, by the economic historian Joel Mokyr, dates back a quarter of a century. It was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.The second, Congress’ s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), by Peter D. Blair, is more current (Palmgrave/Macmillan 2013).

Some background: you might recognize technology transfer by one or more of its aliases: applied R&D, technology valorization, the transition from research to operations (or, more simply, as R2O), and so on.

The Wikipedia entry for technology transfer starts off this way: “Technology transfer, also called transfer of technology (TOT), is the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies, methods of manufacturing, samples of manufacturing and facilities among governments or universities and other institutions to ensure that scientific and technological developments are accessible to a wider range of users who can then further develop and exploit the technology into new products, processes, applications, materials or services. It is closely related to (and may arguably be considered a subset of) knowledge transfer. Horizontal transfer is the movement of technologies from one area to another. At present[when?] transfer of technology (TOT) is primarily horizontal. Vertical transfer occurs when technologies are moved from applied research centers to research and development departments.

Technology brokers are people who discovered how to bridge the emergent worlds and apply scientific concepts or processes to new situations or circumstances.”

This scrap of Wikipedia text nicely describes the activity and the players, but doesn’t capture its true significance for humanity as a whole. Continually adding to the store of human understanding, and harnessing that new knowledge to meet growing human needs more efficiently and cheaply, while at the same time reducing onerous labor, is not “nice-to-have.” It underpins our economic growth. This constant innovation is the means by which we postpone the Malthusian gloom-and-doom scenario[2]. It is fundamental to our continued existence on this planet.

Joel Mokyr’s book (worth study in its entirety – and many thanks to the colleague who brought this book to my attention) hints at these existential stakes. He speaks of innovation as the means by which societies “get a free lunch.” He takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through world history, showing how innovation has ebbed and flowed from place to place and from time to time. His richly referenced work makes it clear that continuing innovation can’t be taken for granted. A people’s culture and values (religion, interest in learning from others, high regard for mechanical ingenuity as well as academic accomplishment, propensity for risk-taking, willingness to assume individual responsibility, emphasis on public education, protection of free speech and much, much more) play a major role in shaping the pace and nature of progress. Mr. Mokyr illustrates by comparing the rate of innovation in (1) the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome with that of the Middle Ages, (2) China vs. Europe, and (3) England vs. the rest of Europe at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps most chillingly, he makes repeated references to what he calls Cardwell’s Law (see, for example, any of the links here): “no nation has been (technologically) creative for more than an historically short period.” That ought to ring ominous for any nation comprising no more than 4% of the world’s population, which nevertheless wants to remain “the indispensable nation” for the 21st century, after already laying claim to that title for more than 100 years.

Which brings us to Peter Blair’s book. Let’s suppose a country wants to beat the odds – wants to develop and sustain an innovative culture, with all the attendant benefits to its national and personal wealth, national security, and its place in the world. In that instance, it’s not enough to see technology advance and application as priceless. Individuals, corporations, universities, and government at federal, state, and local levels must exert discipline and rigor in its pursuit. The United States had just such a mindset following World War II. Looking at the role played by technology in winning the War – including but not limited to the atomic bomb, radar, and penicillin – the country decided it couldn’t depend upon luck to provide such innovation again. It would make a policy of fostering scientific understanding, technological advance, and the application of that science to national aspirations and goals. The United States established the National Science Foundation and took other measures to increase the level and rigor of investment in R&D. In the 1970’s Congress took the policy a step further. It established the Office of Technology Assessment to anticipate the positive impacts and unintended consequences of science and technology and systematically guide where and how the Nation placed its bets. The road was found to be rocky and the political support proved ephemeral. But that doesn’t mean the United States can afford to stop trying. We don’t have unlimited resources; funding for science and technology has to be prioritized at the same time it is nurtured.

Mr. Blair does an extraordinary job of documenting all this. He provides a crisp, highly readable account of OTA’s history (including its de-funding in 1995 by a single vote in the Congress). Equally important, given that the stakes in technological advance and application are so critically important that the United States can’t afford to “wing it,” hoping to be lucky, Mr. Blair lays out several alternatives for Congress going forward. These include: expanding the purview of the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, once again re-funding and standing up OTA itself (the enabling legislation is still in place), and/or making more aggressive use of the National Research Council. Mr. Blair knows whereof he speaks. From 1992 to 1996, he served first as OTA’s energy research program manager and later as Assistant Director of OTA and director of its Division of Industry, Commerce, and International Security. Presently, he is executive director of the NAS/NRC Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences.

To review: (1) tech transfer (aka R2O) is pivotal to mankind’s prospects, and (2) most effectively meets society’s needs when governments get the public policy framework right. The executive branch and the Congress each play a pivotal role. The sheer numbers of executive-branch employees – hundreds of thousands – leads to establishing and functioning of lots of pockets of energy on R2O. But America looks equally to Congress for the needed leadership. To meet these expectations, Congress could use some form of ongoing in-house analytical capability at its end. That’s a little harder to achieve in a total employee base numbering only 20,000.

But R2O isn’t a spectator sport. If you’re a reader of this blog, chances are good you’re an R2O player. More about that in a follow-on post.


[1] Seven billion people are writing a lot of books while our backs are turned.

[2]Note the emphasis on “postpone.” Sustainable development is an oxymoron, as discussed in earlier LOTRW posts, and in the book Living on the Real World: How Thinking and Acting Like Meteorologists Will Help Save the Planet, available from the AMS or from Amazon.

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Weekend thoughts, on Advent… and on R2O.

“…long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” – John Sullivan Dwight[1]

“…Theophilus’ work on technologyunderlines an important aspect of Christianity, namely, that the application of human industry was no longer sinful or reprehensible… Technology itself served a divine purpose of demonstrating God’s wisdom and hence was a legitimate activity…” – Joel Mokyr[2]


Thanksgiving is now past, bringing us to the first Sunday of the Advent season. This is the time of year when the world’s two billion self-identified Christians look back to the first coming of Christ and Christmas, and look ahead to a second coming at some future date. It’s in the nature of our globalized, co-mingled, well-stirred society that many of the world’s remaining five billion people will be celebrating in some form as well.

Advent looms large for me this time around, because Downtown Baptist Church (212 S. Washington Street, Old Town Alexandria) is in the early stages of a pastor search. In the interim, they’re looking for the occasional pulpit supply, and I’ve been asked to fill in this coming Sunday, December 7, at the 9:30 and 11:00 services. I eagerly accepted; it provides a chance to reflect a bit on what it means for “the soul to feel its worth.”

Some context: Economists have long been willing to put a price on a value of a human life. They have a variety of ways of doing this… basing it either in terms of (present-discounted[3]) future earning power, or how much extra hazardous-duty pay people demand for dangerous work, or other risks people voluntarily accept, for example.

That’s for a life. What about the worth of a soul? And just what is the soul, anyway? Most of us would probably say it is the deepest, fullest core of our being, integrating in some way heart and mind and strength. But while some of us might see this as eternal or transcendent, extending beyond our physical death, others would differ.

You and I, and all our contemporaries, have never known a moment of our lives without the Christmas story, and it’s a safe bet we place a pretty high value on our souls, however conceived. But put yourself in the mind of a middle-Easterner prior to the time of Christ. There was (as yet) no Christ, nor was there any likely prospect of one. The God of your tradition had offered blessings for obedience but curses for disobedience. From what you knew of your own shortcomings and of Israel’s history it was clear you were living under the curse. Reality on the ground pointed to sin and brokenness at every level. Daily life and labor were exhausting, unfair, brutal. You lived under foreign oppression. If God loved anyone, that love was reserved for a few elite Pharisees, at least by their telling. And as it was in this life, so would it be in the next one. You might be forgiven for feeling your soul was worth very little.

This is the world that Christ entered, bringing a lot of good news. Some 2000 years later, we’re still basking in that glow. But that’s next Sunday’s discussion. For now, let’s turn now to another question:

What on earth does this have to do with R2O? Quite a bit, actually. Initially, that might not appear to be the case. The task of harnessing advances in research understanding to realize societal benefit would seem a matter solely for scientists at the one end collaborating with engineers at the other. The rest of us are relegated to bystander status. We’re simply waiting with hands cupped to receive the bounty. From breakthroughs in medicine. In computing. In energy and transportation technology. Improved weather forecasts and climate outlooks, etc. No apparent room for faith or spiritual matters there.

But step back a bit, and it’s easy to see that societal uptake of R&D depends a lot on social behavior at individual and group levels. How we think and act as individuals and groups – how we collaborate, our receptiveness as individuals and institutions to new ideas, how we weigh risk versus opportunity, and more – all play in.

Step back a bit further, as Joel Mokyr and others have done, and it’s possible to see that the advance of technology and innovation is not consistent across disciplines or societies and nations, but varies with cultures and values, and with the passage of time, whether over a few years or a few centuries. The Mokyr quote doesn’t do fair justice to his thoroughly researched and exhaustively documented study of what’s needed to foster R2O. Indeed his purview is far broader, and merits a thoughtful study in its entirety. He compares the vitality of medieval technology advance with the limited progress made in classical Europe; he notes that China held an early lead worldwide in both numbers and technology, but appeared to stagnate after about 1400, while the west not only caught up but sped by. He investigates the root causes for the quick British start relative to the rest of Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the course of these comparisons he and the other scholars he cites have concluded that a diverse array of factors determine whether R2O and innovation more generally thrive or languish. The list includes war, centralized political control versus competing nation states, the primacy of other interests, and much more. But religion and faith rank near the top. He cites in particular the role played by several monastic Christian orders in seeing labor not as penitence but as sacred activity. He adds that during later Medieval times and the early Renaissance this emerging monastic view helped break down the boundaries separating the literate and working classes, and notes “the importance of contact between the educated and producing classes for technological progress seems too obvious to need additional emphasis.”

We’ll be delving into this and other aspects of R2O technology transfer and innovation in following posts. Those of us who are scientists or engineers and want to see our R2O bear fruit might do well to pay attention to the aspirations and core values of our host society. Are we members of the larger public? We’re far, far more than passive bystanders to the R2O process. Our attitudes and actions will determine its effectiveness for good or ill. We might examine ourselves to see how our faith in a higher power, or lack thereof, and other cultural values are fostering or limiting the advance of science and innovation.

In the meantime, did you catch the point about those Benedictine and Cistercian monks from long ago? According to them, and many who have followed, our so-called secular work – the stupefying, relentless, exhausting, all-too-aptly-named daily grind – is sacred and meaningful, despite appearances to the contrary.

It’s Advent. This month, whatever your persuasion, let the soul feel its worth.


[1] Lyrics from the stunningly beautiful Christmas hymn O Holy Night (you can choose practically any version and not go wrong). The lyrics are not wholly due to Mr. Dwight, who provided a liberal translation (one of several extant) from the original French poem by Placide Cappeau.

[2] A footnote on a Benedictine monk who authored the treatise De Diversis Artibus, from 204 of Mr. Mokyr’ 1990 book, The Lever of Riches, Oxford University Press.

[3] Here’s an early treatment of present-discounted value idea, excerpted from Leviticus 27: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekelfor a female, set her value at thirty shekels; for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels; for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver; for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels, and of a female at ten shekels.

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Thanksgiving, Tech Transfer… and Tisquantum

Harvest festivals can be found among all peoples of the world and every religion, but what we call Thanksgiving has its origins in the English Protestant Reformation. Here’s an extended Wikipedia excerpt:

“In the English tradition, days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving religious services became important during the English Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and in reaction to the large number of religious holidays on the Catholic calendar. Before 1536 there were 95 Church holidays, plus 52 Sundays, when people were required to attend church and forego work and sometimes pay for expensive celebrations. The 1536 reforms reduced the number of Church holidays to 27, but some Puritans wished to completely eliminate all Church holidays, including Christmas and Easter. The holidays were to be replaced by specially called Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving, in response to events that the Puritans viewed as acts of special providence. Unexpected disasters or threats of judgement from on high called for Days of Fasting. Special blessings, viewed as coming from God, called for Days of Thanksgiving. For example, Days of Fasting were called on account of drought in 1611, floods in 1613, and plagues in 1604 and 1622. Days of Thanksgiving were called following the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and following the deliverance of Queen Anne in 1705. An unusual annual Day of Thanksgiving began in 1606 following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and developed into Guy Fawkes Day.”

Wikipedia goes on to remind us that the American version of Thanksgiving dates back “to a poorly documented [sic; New Englanders, please don’t take umbrage]1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest.” We’re advised that

“Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution…”

and that “… As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, ‘as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God’.” (exactly 225 years ago to this day).

The first American Thanksgiving has been a subject for artists ever since. Here are two examples; one from Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, dated 1914:

brownscombeand another from just yesterday, by Mike Luckovich in The Atlanta Constitution (and reprinted in USA Today):


For the moment, let’s zero in on the cause of that 1621 celebration: a good harvest, following a particularly bitter winter, which likely caught the Pilgrims by surprise. Europeans largely operated on a latitude theory of climate in those days. Unaware of the role played by the Gulf Stream in moderating European climate, they compared Plymouth’s 420N latitude with the much higher 51.50N latitude of London and erroneously concluded that American winters should be a walk in the park.

As for the good harvest, it was attributed to what today we would call “technology transfer[1]” from the indigenous people of the area to the Pilgrim newcomers. Much was owed to a “technology broker” by the name of Tisquantum[2], a member of the Patuxent tribe, part of the Wampanoag Confederacy. Tisquantum, or Squanto as he was also known, had shown the Pilgrims how to plant their maize using menhaden as fertilizer, as the natives did. He threw in other agricultural technology transfer as well, also sharing with the Pilgrims native techniques for catching the menhaden and other fish and game.

The plan here at LOTRW in future posts is to take up the topic of technology transfer and its close cousins applied research, development, and research to operations (or R2O). There’s much to say, but one brief note in honor of the day: we’re sometimes reminded by historians and other social scientists that in technological advance and tech transfer there are winners and losers; not everyone benefits equally from all exchanges. And today’s technology brokers of a cynical bent might note that according to some accounts, Tisquantum was accorded a measure of distrust from all sides for his pains, and perhaps even poisoned by the Wampanoag, leading to his death on November 30, 1622.

In the meantime, enjoy Thanksgiving, and as you look around at family and friends and give thanks for the bounty that surrounds you, remember to add a word of gratitude for the centuries of R2O and all those technology brokers who have made possible so much of what you enjoy.


[1]Technology transfer may be defined as the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies, methods of manufacturing, samples of manufacturing and facilities among governments or universities and other institutions to ensure that scientific and technological developments are accessible to a wider range of users who can then further develop and exploit the technology into new products, processes, applications, materials or services.

[2] A Smithsonian article tells us that More than likely Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth. In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage , the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, Hello, I’m the Wrath of God.

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What kind of world is possible if we act effectively?

To review: LOTRW posts over the past two days have noted that in the Digital Revolution, just as in the earlier Industrial Revolution, we human beings are struggling to find our place. The Industrial Revolution began with human beings servicing machines, instead of vice versa. Long days and brutal working conditions were the initial result. Similarly, in today’s Digital Revolution, as robots and computers get smarter, they’re taking on more and more of the work. Business is investing in such IT or using novel financial instruments to build profits. Unemployment, economic stagnation or deflation, and flat and declining wages for the human labor force have been the result. This is in contrast with the world we want – one in which human life is valued and respected, where interdependence is acknowledged and celebrated, and technology serves human purposes rather than the other way around.

How do we get to that world we want from here? What kind of world is possible if we act, if not perfectly, at least effectively? And more specifically, since the challenge is complex and evolving, and we lack the intelligence individually and as a society to see more than one move or so ahead on the real world’s chessboard – what’s the first step?

Here’s one answer[1]: build/rebuild critical infrastructure. A definition: critical infrastructure comprises assets essential for the functioning of a society and economy. These include electricity, energy, water, and food production, transport and distribution; highways, roads, rail, airports, harbors, and other transportation facilities; and softer infrastructure such as the public health and safety, financial, education, waste management, and public health systems. Much infrastructure worldwide is either aging or facing obsolescence because of innovation. In the U.S. alone, the ASCE estimates the bill coming due to be some 2 trillion dollars (compare to U.S. GDP, which is about $17T/year and U.S. national debt, which stands at $18T).

Here’s a short list of the benefits of such initiatives. At present levels of technology, building and rebuilding critical infrastructure is relatively labor intensive. It can’t be accomplished by IT or machines alone. Instead it puts large numbers of people to work and requires a broad spectrum of skills. What’s more, it sets the stage for increased labor productivity and economic growth – not narrowly, but across the board, for years to come[2]. Additionally, infrastructure projects remind us of our interdependence – as individuals, institutions, cities, and nations. Such projects also lend themselves to thinking globally but acting locally, in a place-based way.

Some people object to such investments now, on the basis that they require money we don’t have, and will lead to more deficit spending. But economists have a different message. They tell us that such projects actually have the greatest economical and societal benefit when they’re counter-cyclical[3]. What’s more, they reduce the risk of deflation, a great threat to the developed world today.

Note that some infrastructure spending confers more benefit than others. It’s essential to invest in the infrastructure needed for tomorrow, not that which was desirable yesterday. Some examples: As the nations of Africa build their infrastructure, they’re looking to cellphone networks, not landline communication. And they’re balancing growth in fossil-fuel infrastructure with investments in renewable energy; wind and solar energy are plentiful across the continent. Global enthusiasm for dams is declining as their shortcomings come to light.

Earth observations, science, and services (Earth OSS) provide a unique 21st-century opportunity. Earth OSS constitutes critical infrastructure for making vital decisions with regard to Earth as a resource (food, water, energy, and more), Earth as a threat (cycles of flood, drought, storms, earthquakes, and the like), and Earth as a victim (habitat, bio-diversity, air-, water- and soil quality, etc.). Earth OSS provides necessary inputs to design, deployment, operation and maintenance decisions for all other critical infrastructure, whether for energy, food, and water supply, public health, transportation, etc. These decisions are growing more complex, and consequential with each passing year. By contrast, the Earth OSS investments required are the merest fraction of the overall $2 trillion infrastructure bill. In the U.S., they amount to $15B/year. Doubling this annual investment would not only ensure that U.S. investment in its domestic infrastructure yields greater return but also open significant new international markets for U.S. goods and services.

Human spaceflight. Which brings us full circle to the discussion that opened Saturday’s LOTRW post. Even as we lament the struggles of the underfunded human space program, we’re overlooking the fact that all seven billion of us are in fact crew on the largest space mission now ongoing in our solar system. We’re on a unique spacecraft, weighing 6×1021 tons, and in a 93 million-mile heliocentric orbit. A clever choice! It eliminates any need for an impervious outer shell to contain our atmosphere, or an internal heating source to maintain atmosphere and water in amounts and forms needed to sustain life. And by hitching a ride in orbit around this particular sun, we’ve afforded ourselves some great sightseeing around the galaxy for millions of years to come. Like most crews of spacecraft or aircraft, priority #1 is keeping all the essential systems of the spacecraft humming, especially the ecosystem services, for the duration of the voyage.

In this regard, our biggest challenge remains our humanity itself. Studies suggest that we should place a lot more emphasis on crew resources management – how we work together (especially with respect to our interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making) to ensure our safety and the safety of the spacecraft on which we rely. Investment in Earth OSS will address this need, but only partially. The biggest challenges are social and psychological. That’s the finding of NAS/NRC studies as well. For example, Safe Passage, NAS/NRC 2001 suggests from study of programs in the Antarctic and space travel to date that the stresses and tensions of such for extended periods make teamwork difficult.

Perhaps we see hints of this challenge on Spaceship Earth, aka the real world, with today’s wars, terrorist acts, and disputatious political dialog both domestically and internationally.

[1] Neither original nor unique to me; we see calls for this everywhere.

[2] In these respects it’s superior to homebuilding, which has long been a staple of economic recovery, and remains important.

[3] This is not just a macro-economic argument; it works at the individual level as well. If you and I commute to work by car, when our car breaks down we don’t throw up our hands and say, “too bad we don’t have the money to make repairs or buy another vehicle. We’ll have to accept unemployment as our fate.” Instead we go into debt; we do what it takes to keep our jobs. On the other hand, buying a new car simply because it’s new when our current car is still serviceable confers little benefit.

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Two postscripts to What kind of world is likely/do we want?

1. Lessons from history.

Does humanity serve technology? Or does technology serve humanity?

History books tell us that during the 19th century Industrial Revolution, the workweek could extend to 80 hours or even more. Those same books painted a gruesome picture of working conditions at the time. Here’s a brief summary excerpted from today’s Wikipedia:

“Child labour existed before the Industrial Revolution but with the increase in population and education it became more visible. Many children were forced to work in relatively bad conditions for much lower pay than their elders,10%-20% of an adult male’s wage. Children as young as four were employed. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners and hurriers working from 4am until 5pm. Conditions were dangerous, with some children killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts, while others died from gas explosions. Many children developed lung cancer and other diseases and died before the age of 25. Workhouses would sell orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices”, working without wages for board and lodging. Those who ran away would be whipped and returned to their masters, with some masters shackling them to prevent escape. Children employed as mule scavengers by cotton mills would crawl under machinery to pick up cotton, working 14 hours a day, six days a week. Some lost hands or limbs, others were crushed under the machines, and some were decapitated. Young girls worked at match factories, where phosphorus fumes would cause many to develop phossy jaw. Children employed at glassworks were regularly burned and blinded, and those working at potteries were vulnerable to poisonous clay dust.”

By the 1950’s, the workweek had trended downwards, to 40 hours. At that time I was in high school reading all this. The son of a mathematician, I thought knew a little something about trends and extrapolation. I calculated that as technology continued to improve, taking more of the burden off the shoulders of labor, the workweek in the early 21st century (as in… about now), would be as little as 24 hours. I looked forward to adulthood in such a leisure-filled world.

My morale remained high until about the 1970’s, by which time it was becoming apparent that this sanguine outlook was failing to verify – an early lesson in the shortcomings of persistence forecasts.

Particularly chilling was a Business Week article of the 1970’s, which noted the date at which the salary for a European executive working in Europe passed that for an American executive working in Europe. I remember the heart-stopping bottom-line verbatim: “The comparison is worse than it sounds, because the European executive gets six weeks of vacation a year and is expected to take it, while the American executive gets three weeks of vacation a year and is fired if he takes it.”

We all know the reality of the last four decades. The nominal workweek for hourly workers has remained steady at 40 hours/week or nearly so; Many hourly workers are forced to settle for part-time hours, so that employers won’t have to provide healthcare or pension benefits. By contrast salaried/professional staff find their work hours increasing slightly. Among the higher executive ranks today, workweeks of 50-60 hours are not uncommon. The health dangers are no longer posed by unsafe industrial equipment, but rather by sedentary, stress-filled lifestyles.

Going back to that persistence forecast, there is a bright side to the story. If indeed the past is prologue, we know from the history that the horrific working conditions of the Industrial revolution (which originated in the logic that the new machines of the age were expensive and needed to be operated by skeleton crews for long hours every day) proved transitory. Both labor and management saw benefits to a shorter workweek, and it was accomplished.

2. People of the Single-Marshmallow now.

What kind of world do we want? The one that provides instant gratification in preference to rewarding patience. The famous Stanford experiment of fifty years ago is receiving a lot of play these days. In case you’ve been on Mars and missed it, here’s the background (an extended excerpt from an online article by Susan Beacham, simply one of many extant):

“The Marshmallow Study, conducted in the 1960’s by Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel, demonstrated how important self-discipline is to lifelong success. He started his longitudinal study by offering a group of 4-year-olds one marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for him to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows. The “errand” took about fifteen to twenty minutes. The theory was that those children who could wait would demonstrate that they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse.

How important is your child’s ability to delay immediate gratification? (Very important.) Is self-discipline a predictor of a child’s success later in life? (Yes.) Can a child who does not know how to delay immediate gratification be taught this skill? (Absolutely.)

Ok. Let’s take a moment and think about the child in our lives before I give you the results of the study. Close your eyes, visualize your child in The Marshmallow Study room chair. Is she eating? Is he waiting? We all know exactly what our children will do – or do we?

Like any good habit, delayed gratification can be learned.About fourteen years later, when the children in the experiment graduated from high school, the Marshmallow Study revealed startling differences between the two groups: the children who waited and did not gobble up the single marshmallow, were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had developed the habits of successful adults. The habits, the centerpiece of which is delayed gratification, point to more thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction which leads to higher incomes, and better health.

The children who did NOT wait were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident. And, they were still unable to delay immediate gratification. Worse yet, these “one marshmallow” kids scored an average of 210 points less on SAT tests. Why? Distraction and the desire for instant gratification got in the way of good, focused study time. If not corrected, lack of impulse control will continue to trip these kids up throughout life, resulting in unsuccessful marriages, low job satisfaction and as a result low income, bad health and all around frustration with life.”

So much for the world that is coming if we take no deliberate action, and the world that we want. What kind of world is possible if we act effectively? We return to that question next.

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What kind of world do we want?

“Here’s my policy on cake… I’m pro-having, and pro-eating.”Boris Johnson,


Politicians may not all be delightfully frank as London’s mayor, but they are well-known to want their cake and eat it too.

But that’s unfair to politicians. They’re not the only ones. The desire is universal.

Call me chauvinist, but I want a world where science and technology serve humanity and not the other way around. I want a world where humans hunger to be human more than we desire to be rich, or powerful, or famous. I want a world where every human life is valued, meaningful, satisfying. I want a world where we celebrate each other and our interdependence as opposed to allowing our relationships to degrade into something much more unbalanced, one-sided, exploitative, or abusive. In the words of pastor John Ortberg, I want a world where we each are able to “do the right thing at the right time in the right spirit.”

I think that’s what you want too.

And that’s because we know in our heart of hearts that if we genuinely aspire and make it our aim to contribute to building that kind of world… then all the other things we want – personal and society-wide health, happiness, and safety; a robust, bio-diverse environment spanning our home planet even as it meets our needs for food, water, energy and other resources – are likely to come along as collateral benefits. We can have it all – literally have our cake and eat it too. By contrast, if we make material goals our primary aim, if we take what look to be shortcuts, and we jettison the angels of our better nature before we leave life’s starting gate, we’re likely to lose it all.


Except that no generation, no people – not even any individuals[1] – have ever been able to live by such rules. Throughout history, the have-it-all strategy has always been available to us, but we have always opted for something less – considerably less. Over love, and putting the truest welfare and interests of others first, we’ve chosen selfishness. But we haven’t stopped there. We’ve chosen depression over joy, war over peace, instant gratification over patience, toughness and even brutality over kindness. No surprise, then, that as individuals we’re often despairing, troubled, fearful, worried, and anxious.

Much if not most of the world’s great art – the major literature, the theater, the musical compositions, the paintings and the sculpture – explore these this human tragedy.

These themes are also the major focus of the world’s great religions. In fact, for much of human history, over most of the world, this problem has been widely understood to be spiritual, discussed in that language, and solutions sought in that realm. But in recent times, many people have chosen to reject any reference to the spiritual. Arguably this is attempting to solve the problem with one hand (or both?) tied behind our backs.

The rejection of the spiritual may be more prevalent among physical scientists than among the rest of the world. But as scientists have searched for ways to increase societal uptake of scientific and technological knowledge and capabilities (about climate change, human health, and much, much more), physical scientists have a halfway step back. They’ve acknowledged the importance of social science in casting light on risk communication, determinants of behavior of individuals and groups, etc. We scientists of both stripes might do well to embrace one step more.

Some world leaders are doing this, in what at first blush might be thought to be the most unlikely places. Take China. According to The Economist, Christianity’s rapid spread in China is causing leaders to rethink. The article suggests Christians number more than Communist Party members (87M), and puts them on track to reach 250M by perhaps as early as 2030. That would make their Christian population the largest in the world. And Buddhist faith is experiencing a similar resurgence. Some excerpts:

“Christianity is hard to control in China, and getting harder all the time. It is spreading rapidly, and infiltrating the party’s own ranks. The line is blurring between house churches and official ones, and Christians are starting to emerge from hiding to play a more active part in society. The Communist Party has to find a new way to deal with all this. There is even talk that the party, the world’s largest explicitly atheist organisation, might follow its sister parties in Vietnam and Cuba and allow members to embrace a dogma other than—even higher than—that of Marx…

…Some Chinese also discern in Christianity the roots of Western strength. They see it as the force behind the development of social justice, civil society and rule of law, all things they hope to see in China…

…In recent years the party’s concerns have shifted from people beliefs to the maintenance of stability and the party’s monopoly of power. If working with churches helps achieve these aims, it will do so, even though it still frets about encouraging an alternative source of authority. In 2000 Jiang Zemin, then party chief, and himself a painter of calligraphy for his local Buddhist temples, said in an official speech that religion would probably still be around when concepts of class and state had vanished…”

It’s the weekend. A great opportunity for us to perhaps read The Economist article in its entirety and to reflect more deeply on the kind of world we want.


[1]as in you and me; we’re all in this together.

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What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

It’s been awhile since we revisited the three questions on the LOTRW masthead. Today’s post and the two to follow give them a fresh look. Let’s stand back and take a running start with regard to the first one…

What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?

For most of human experience, homo sapiens have become accustomed to taking our supremacy in Earth’s affairs as a given. True, there were difficulties in the early going — perhaps a million or so years past. Back then our numbers were few and we hadn’t yet doped out effective rules for living on the real world. But it wasn’t long before we got the human big-brain thing working to our advantage. The challenges once posed by the patchy availability of water and food[1] and the threats posed by predators swifter and stronger than us have long since faded from our memory, if not our DNA. But it seems going forward our value, and our supremacy in the scheme of things here on Earth, are no longer automatically assured. For the first time in a long while, we’re being challenged not just individually but as a species.

An overstatement? Possibly. But here are a few recent data points on this particular trend line. They’re anecdotal, cobbled together. They only hint at the problem. To do this more comprehensively or definitively would require a book (and several have been written along these lines). You can easily come up with your own, better list. We start zoomed-in, looking at interests close to home for readers of this blog; then expand our field of view, zooming out:

A late-October workshop on spaceflight. Several participants and stakeholders familiar with the U.S. space program from different perspectives assessed the prospects for human spaceflight. They found that future problematic. In particular it doesn’t appear that federal budget resources are there in the amounts needed to reach aspirational goals such as putting people on Mars.

The Orbital Sciences explosion on launch of October 28 and the Virgin Galactic crash of October 31. These two events occurred on the heels of the workshop as if to drive home the point. The latter flight involved loss of human life. The former was a cargo lift – scheduled resupply for the International Space Station, a human venture. Both efforts attempted to do spaceflight on the cheap… the Virgin Galactic effort looking to put recreational space tourism within reach (for the wealthy, at least). The Orbital Sciences mission relied on a Russian launch vehicle mothballed for many years before being pressed into service to cut costs.

Drones. Meeting the needs of fragile human beings isn’t just expensive in space. It’s also an issue in flight – especially military flight. The cost of today’s fighter aircraft are high in part because of the need to protect fragile human occupants, either from the altitudes and g-forces that 21st-century high-performance aircraft can achieve or from hostile action. Such protection was necessary when computers and IT infrastructure weren’t up to the demands of flight. But today’s drones are proving quite capable of performing many military missions. And amidst concerns, there’s talk of allowing artificial intelligence a greater role in choosing targets for robotic weapons. (What’s more, the world’s armies are giving the idea of using robots in ground combat a long look.)

Other forms of transportation. But of course we’re seeing a future in which artificial intelligence will take control of virtually all vehicular travel. Google has been advancing and demonstrating robotic capabilities to drive cars for several years. Truckers are contemplating fleets of robotic vehicles whose drivers will no longer tire. If ground-based personnel can fly military drones, presumably they can pilot commercial flights.

Zooming out further…

The global workplace. Since the 2008 financial debacle, business media (see, e.g., the recent special report on technology and the world economy published in The Economist) have been telling us repeatedly that the world’s economies have been growing but job numbers have not kept pace. Moreover, wages remain stagnant or have been declining slightly. Corporations have preferred during this most recent recovery to improve their stated profits through financial measures such as stock buybacks, relocating their headquarters to tax havens, and through investment in robotics and technology rather than hiring people (with our inconvenient propensity to tire after several hours of effort and our pesky need for health benefits and retirement plans). The articles moot the proposition that unlike the first two industrial revolutions, which ultimately led to vast improvements in the human condition across the board, the current digital revolution may not confer the same benefits to all… that employment opportunities will be available only to a privileged few. Pundits such as David Brooks and Tom Friedman have also recently picked up on the theme. They question whether we will master machines or they will master us.

In summary, then, some world trends hint that if we take no action, the human race, individually and as a species, will have to scramble to maintain its place in world affairs over the course of the 21st century. Taken to the extreme…given the talk of recent decades that overpopulation is the root cause of most environmental woes… the recent events might be suggesting that the ideal population level for us might be … zero.[2]

Which brings us to the second LOTRW question, slightly rephrased…

Is that the kind of real world that we want?

You know the answer. More in the next post.


[1] For an interesting take on this see The Improbable Primate: how water shaped human evolution, by Clive Finlayson, Oxford University Press 2014.

[2] A tongue-in-cheek prediction, made in the context of this summer’s LOTRW posts: should there ever occur such a decline in human numbers, at no point will the handful of people remaining “speak with one voice.”

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Speaking with one voice: building accord.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.” – African Proverb

“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Hatred is so much easier than reconciliation; no sacrifices or compromises are required.” – Lawrence Wright[1]

An infinitesimal fraction of the world’s seven billion people – perhaps an infinitesimal fraction of our much smaller community itself – may have noticed a long hiatus between recent posts here on LOTRW. In part[2] this pause stemmed from a promise made in the LOTRW post of August 20: “the weightier matter of actually building consensus [is] to be discussed in the next post.” Simply put, it turned out to be a bit more difficult to distill a few thoughts on this than I’d anticipated.

Let’s review. “Speaking with one voice” is often promoted within the realm of political advocacy. The logic behind the idea is that if this or that community of interest or practice, comprising, say, public health professionals, or retired persons, or corn growers, or – closer to home, those providing Earth observations, science, and services – speaks with one voice, then political leaders at federal, state, and local levels will either be encouraged or (even better, say some) forced to listen. If instead such communities are less communal, if their members hold a diversity of contested views, then elected leaders feel free to ignore the resulting babble and take their attention and energies elsewhere.

So far, so good. The problem arises when the desire to speak with one voice prompts some to try a shortcut. They may either try to speak with a simple majority voice, ignoring any minority opinions extant. Alternatively, a small group may simply misrepresent themselves as “speaking on behalf of” or otherwise embodying the views of some larger constituency that is in fact internally conflicted or divided or has differing views.

Previous LOTRW posts have argued that to speak with one voice it helps to be of one accord, and that it’s also sometimes possible to identify previously existing but unsuspected accord. But truly building accord – getting from initial difference of opinion or even violent disagreement to true consensus – takes some work. To accomplish that work usually requires that all parties share some larger common value or goal, or destiny.

The older wisdom was clear. For instance, at the time of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin motivated his disputatious hearers to reach agreement by reminding them they were all in it together – whether they succeeded or failed, they would share a common fate.

We can go back even further in time: the African proverb reminds us that the key to sustainability, a value that most 21st century thinkers would claim they hold dear, is to build, and then remain in, accord. And for the centuries during which divorce wasn’t really an option, couples would reach a range of accommodations[3].

In recent decades, however, the trend has been to factionalize, to polarize, to splinter. We see this in U.S. politics. In the recent Scottish independence referendum. In failed marriages. In media coverage of these issues and myriad more. Along the way, we’ve often found it expedient to justify such splits on the basis of principle rather than mere self-interest. In divorce courts, the grounds most often cited are “irreconcilable differences.” Lawrence Wright suggests similar logic underlies enduring Middle East problems. In like manner, we’ve elevated our debates over healthcare, jobs, education, foreign policy, the environment, and much more to this level, jettisoning any ambition of problem-solving in favor of self-righteous stands.

When it comes to living on the real world, we would do well to walk according to Franklin and the ancient African wisdom. Our individual destinies are inextricably intertwined with one another, whether with respect to wealth or poverty, good health or illness (yes, including Ebola), resilience to hazards or vulnerability, peace or war. When I see my interests as the same as your interests, and you see me in the same light, we’re one step down the road to building accord.

A closing thought – think of it as lying somewhere between a conjecture to be proved or disproved by events, and a conditional forecast:

If we make it our common goal to be more collaborative, more willing to accommodate, more in community with one another, we might become (1) more effective in our use of natural resources, (2) more resilient to hazards, and (3) better stewards of the environment as a collateral benefit.

But if instead we attempt to realize these three goals while remaining as contentious as we are today, we’ll likely fail on all fronts.

Just saying.

[1] From his new book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David.

[2] There were other contributors to this pause, including a succession of family matters and my own desire to reevaluate the goals and purposes of this blog before moving forward. Perhaps more about the latter in future posts.

[3] Full disclosure; I’m divorced and remarried myself, for more than 38 years now.

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Google Hangout tomorrow, September 18

Readers of this blog will be interested in the upcoming Google hangout on-air live webcast scheduled for Thursday, September 18 from 12:00-1:00 pm EDT. Entitled Overcoming Extreme Weather: Informing a Weather-Ready Nation, it brings together prominent government officials, academics, and social-media leaders from the weather community. A great chance to learn from the best about the emerging science, technological advances and social change that are creating new opportunities for reducing vulnerability to severe weather. A collaboration of the American Astronautical Society, the American Meteorological Society and Northrop Grumman.


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