There are wide differences between perception and reality, and then there are cavernous differences. Over the weekend, our friends at Slashdot posted an item that we missed in our recent coverage of the U.S. space program, to a study that looked at the public's perception of the amount of money NASA spends. And it's a stunner. Apparently, the average American has no idea just how much government funding the space agency receives.
The Slashdot item points to a section in an essay by The Space Review that notes Americans believe that funding for NASA accounts for 24 percent of the federal budget. In reality, of course, the percentage is much smaller, much, much smaller. Although Congress has not officially passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the final figure is likely to be held to levels currently in place, or somewhere north of US $16 billion (see NASA's current budget reports for more details). That would put the space agency's funding as a percentage of the federal budget at somewhere around 0.6 percent.
That difference in perception is shocking. The essay in The Space Review ("Sustaining Exploration: Communications, Relevance, and Value"), by Mary Lynne Dittmar, head of a Houston-based strategic planning and technical services group, focuses on strategic communications at NASA with regard to its stakeholders, particularly the U.S. government and taxpayers. Here, it finds that the agency is failing in its attempts to explain why its work is important, or even relevant, to the general public, which doesn't deny that space exploration is a worthy endeavor but finds the price of its activities overly expensive in relation to other worthwhile government projects.
Participants in our studies carried out spontaneous ''trade studies'', comparing the benefits of a space program to benefits related to a national healthcare program, or to national defense, or to the quality of education and educational opportunities in the United States, among other things....
According to many of our participants, NASA is often the loser in the trade studies described above. While NASA enjoys great positive regard, its benefits to the nation are not perceived as directly or clearly as those associated with other national programs. Although it is difficult for many space advocates to believe, this absence of specific knowledge about NASA''s activities is quite widespread.
In the passage from her essay that caught the eyes of the editors at Slashdot, Dittmar relates the discrepancy between what the public thinks the space agency is spending and what is really being spent. This is where the 24 percent response came from participants in her study. "Once people were informed of the actual allocations, they were almost uniformly surprised," she notes. "Our favorite response came from one of the more vocal participants, who exclaimed, 'No wonder we haven''t gone anywhere!'"
Dittmar suggests the solution to the perception problem may be found in both better communication from the space agency and in bolstering the relevant value of the projects it takes on, just as her study's respondents suggested:
Anecdotally, our experience is that the rationale for public opinion is less focused the cost side of the equation and more oriented toward the benefits. When asked, ''What could NASA do to be more relevant to you, personally?'' the answers fell into two general categories: (1) NASA could become more relevant by better communicating what it does and the benefits of those activities; and (2) NASA could become more relevant by actually engaging in activities that are perceived to be of value to respondents -- including activities that involve members of the public directly, particularly young persons.
"[NASA] must first understand that real value is created in the marketplace, not mandated by policy," Dittmar concludes. "It is customer driven, not internally focused. Even more fundamentally, however, the agency and the larger space community need to have a shared understanding of what is meant by the word 'value', and why it is so important to NASA''s future and to the future of space exploration."
That sounds like practical advice that the administrators of the U.S. space program should emblazon on their whiteboards for as long as they are in business.