Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?


Go Ahead, Make Another Baby

May 26, 2008

China exempts earthquake victim families from its one child policy so they can have another child/ heir: Story

Other groups qualified for exemptions?
-certain ethnic groups
-rural families in some cases
-families where both parents are only children

And oh yeah, the Chinese government will no longer be fining parents for their children killed in the quake:

Chinese couples who have more than one child are commonly punished by fines. The announcement says that if a child born illegally was killed in the quake, the parents will no longer have to pay fines for that child — but the previously paid fines won’t be refunded.

Does this mean that parents whose children die or are killed in another way normally have to continue paying fines? Interesting…


Case Studies in Ignorance

April 7, 2008

#2 article on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

Did you hear about the state legislator who last week blasted a Lutheran minister during a committee hearing for spewing dangerous religious superstitions, and then attempted to order the minister out of the witness chair on the grounds that his Christian beliefs are “destroying what this state was built upon”?

Of course you didn’t, because it didn’t happen and would never happen. Not to a Christian, not to a Jew, not to a Muslim or to anyone who subscribes to any faith.

OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement. Something like that would happen, but it would definitely cause outrage from many, many areas.

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony. . .and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! . . This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God. Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

For the record, Rep. Davis attends Trinity United Church of Christ, the same place Obama attends. Someone please remind me why Obama (an otherwise an excellent candidate) should go to this church, or how he ever saw political benefit from being a member there?


Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Draw of Dermatology?

March 20, 2008

This piece in the New York Times focuses on a married couple, both Harvard Medical School students, who are in their fourth year and waiting to find out about their residency placements. Like many medical students around the nation, they’re competing for competitive placements in specialty fields instead of going into less lucrative (and possibly less intellectually stimulating?) fields such as family practice and internal medicine.

And the competition is expensive:

Already saddled with about $330,000 in education loans, they borrowed $20,000 more so they could fly around the country this winter for about two dozen residency interviews each. All told, each applied to 90 such training programs.

The article makes me a little sad in general. I had a conversation at CGI U with a med school student who warned me about the “vortex” of med school. Paraphrased: “Everyone’s the same. You get to med school all idealistic, wanting to help people and stuff. Then you spend years and years studying and working, and you see the people ahead of you getting money. You see the doctors with the nice cars and comfortable lives, and you start to wonder when you’re getting yours? And you get into so much debt that you realize you have to practice, and practice well if you want to get out of that hole.”

I’m certainly idealistic about why I want to go to medical school. In fact, the struggle for me is deciding between larger scale health policy work–doing research, designing disease control programs, advocacy, etc.–and traditional clinical work, or how to balance both. I’ve never seen myself as one to get into private practice, or really even treating patients full-time as a traditional clinician. But the vortex sucks many people in.

The problem is ultimately not with the medical students who are drawn to dermatology and plastic surgery for the better pay. Medical students will inevitably be drawn toward the specialties that combine interesting work with the highest pay. From the NYTimes again:

“It is an unfortunate circumstance that you can spend an hour with a patient treating them for diabetes and hypertension and make $100, or you can do Botox and make $2,000 in the same time,” said Dr. Eric C. Parlette, 35, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who chose his field because he wanted to perform procedures, like skin-cancer surgery and cosmetic treatments, while keeping regular hours and earning a rewarding salary.

The market simply isn’t working here. We need more (many more!) primary care physicians. There’s a lot more demand for services there. But people who have the money to pay more for cosmetic treatments and surgery skew the demand away from those who don’t have the money to get adequate treatment for more life-threatening conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

I’m not sure what the solution is either. I know it would need to be a large-scale systemic change; merely getting pre-med students to read about Paul Farmer isn’t going to change everyone. Maybe having a single-payer system where doctors are compensated as much or more for basic services as they are for cosmetic services? Or maybe a loan-repayment situation where medical school is even more expensive, but all loans are automatically repaid by the government for those not going into specialties. Who knows. Suggestions?


Clinton Global Initiative University

March 20, 2008

Last weekend I went to New Orleans to visit the Tulane School of Public Health (a prospective graduate school for a few years from now when I get tired of working again) and attend the first annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) University. This was also my first ever visit to New Orleans (more on that later) and a great chance to get out of small-town Arkansas for a few days.

It also meant I got the pleasure (and mild exhaustion) of making a bit of a cross-country drive. Actually, it was only eight hours or so, but some of the drive was quite beautiful, in a flat sort of way. The weather was also outstanding.

CGI U

CGI University was the first annual conference for students modeled on the innovative Clinton Global Initiative meetings that have been going on for several years. At CGI, leaders in business, politics, and other fields from around the globe make commitments to action. At the next year’s CGI conference, everyone gets to hear who followed through on their commitments.

CGI University was planned similarly, with students making commitments in the areas of (1) human rights and peace, (2) global health, (3) environmental and climate change, and (4) alleviating poverty. My commitment involved connecting a group of students at my school who are interested in health policy with some local public health professors to do some research that will (hopefully) have an impact on health care in Arkansas.

CGI U featured a lot of interesting people–Bill Clinton, James Carville, Ray Nagin, General Honore, Lauren Bush, and so forth. It was also incredibly well-produced / slick (read: expensive). I hope the conference encourages students to do more good in the world than would have been done by simply giving that money directly to good work. But I imagine it did just that. I also got a chance to pass out ~100 copies of Frank, the magazine I work on at the Clinton School, to a very receptive and interested audience.

Despite the interesting speakers and such, the best part of the weekend was connecting and networking with students from around the country. It’s always reinvigorating to be around a group of talented, dedicated young people who aren’t satisfied with things as they, and who dream of things as they could be. So kudos to the Clinton Foundation for finding a way to bring all of us together.


The Language of Abortion

July 5, 2007

Fred Thompson

And again (with a little more detail)

Interesting how this will play out for the uber-conservatives I know who support him.

Here’s one with a (compassionate) quote from Barack Obama, made by a conservative Christian (enjoy the music from Jaws especially):

The amount of in-fighting between Christians on the issue of abortion can be truly vicious. This sort of clip reminds me again and again how Obama’s worldview is closer to my own than to the majority of self-proclaimed Christians I know.

Rudy Giuliani on public funding for abortion (you can bet this one will end up in campaign ads for pro-life Republicans if it hasn’t already!):

And finally, Hillary‘s response on reducing the number of abortions (with some odd sidetracking, like saying ‘the free market has failed’–wtf?, but overall good):