Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value
by Mary Lynne Dittmar
|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.|
This question, as reflected in public opinion and policy, underlies of some of our work over the past several years and has been the topic of publications too numerous to catalog. In fact, the simmering national debate about NASA’s value to the nation is nothing new; it has waxed and waned since the inception of the space agency in 1958, including throughout the Apollo program1. Recent research on public opinion does not definitively answer the question. The American public, as Mr. Sterner points out, embraces the notion that the agency and space exploration are important to the nation. Yet, as has been well-discussed in The Space Review, it simultaneously questions the allocation of funds to NASA and expresses a lack of enthusiasm about specific missions associated with the Vision for Space Exploration. What is at the bottom of this apparent contradiction?
The answer is important for the future of the agency. Inconveniently, it is neither simple nor grounded in a single factor. Some initial clues about it can be uncovered when looking at how the public responds to questions about NASA’s relevance, which emerged from our research as a powerful variable influencing people’s attitudes toward the agency. (“Powerful” here is a statistical term denoting predictive power of “relevance” as it related to other variables.) We learned that many Americans are thoughtful in their assessment of the NASA’s relevance to the nation and to their own lives. 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. Depending upon ethnic background, occupation, education, gender, and age, the outcome of these trades varies. The much-publicized result describing the relative lack of enthusiasm for the space program among younger Americans was one aspect of these findings.2,3
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. Improving this state of affairs is rightly one of the primary goals of NASA’s Strategic Communications initiatives, such as the NASA Lecture Series and the planned “special sections” in Business Week beginning in 2008.4,5
As with all trade studies, “benefit” is only one of two factors primarily responsible for the outcome of the trade. “Cost” is the other. Americans in general have no idea what NASA’s “cost” is. In fact, most members of the public have no idea how much any government agency’s budget is. What we do know—and have recently documented—is that the public perception of NASA’s budget is grossly inflated relative to actual dollars. In a just-completed study6, we asked respondents what percentage of the national budget is allocated to NASA and to the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services, among other agencies. NASA’s allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget (the NASA allocation in 2007 was approximately 0.58% of the budget.) The next highest over-estimate was for the Department of Defense, which received approximately 21% of the budget in 2007 and was estimated on average to receive approximately 33%.
In other words, respondents believed NASA’s budget approaches that of the Department of Defense, which receives almost 38 times more money (see “Putting NASA’s budget in perspective”, The Space Review, July 2, 2007). Once people were informed of the actual allocations, they were almost uniformly surprised. Our favorite response came from one of the more vocal participants, who exclaimed, “No wonder we haven’t gone anywhere!”
While one might be tempted to assert that accurate information about expenditures would help people to better assess relevance (in NASA’s favor), additional research would be necessary to confirm this. 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.
These two sets of answers have direct bearing on how the value of the space agency is experienced across the nation. The first refers to an earlier point; that the benefits accruing to the nation from the US space agency are not clear to the public. This may be due in part to widespread confusion about NASA’s activities; when asked, the majority of respondents in a recent national survey cannot identify specific programs or endeavors other than a general identification of NASA with space.7
With some exceptions, the public discussion about NASA and communications has focused almost solely on this first point. The debate referenced at the beginning of this article is really about educating people about what NASA does, and persuading them of the value of those activities. Unfortunately, over the past year this debate has devolved into an argument about communications tactics, where it has gotten stuck.
|Unfortunately, over the past year this debate has devolved into an argument about communications tactics, where it has gotten stuck.|
The initial series of presentations that I made of our work also emphasized tactics when exploring the “marketing problem”8 that existed for NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Our emphasis on marketing was in reaction to public and Congressional skepticism which surfaced in the early days following the roll-out of the VSE in January of 2004. I believed that selective application of industry “best practices” in marketing might be of benefit to the space agency, and so designed and executed demographic research to begin that process. In subsequent publications, particularly those concerned with young Americans, we talked about communications in terms of content (“messaging”) and distribution channels (“media”), such as podcasts, websites, and viral videos, and focused on other tactics that might be useful with various demographic groups.
I continue to believe that these things are important, and am pleased that our work may have been helpful in this regard. However, we never intended to suggest that larger questions about our national commitment to space exploration could or should be answered solely by implementing a strategic communications program or a well-crafted marketing effort. Those who focus the discussion about public perception of NASA’s relevance in those terms alone have, in effect, hijacked a growing body of research while failing to understand its complexities. They have failed to move beyond tactics to the tougher issues. Effective communication is an absolutely necessary condition—but not a sufficient one—for coming to terms with the value of NASA and space exploration for the nation and the larger global community.
Another example of being stuck on tactics can be found in the occasionally vitriolic criticism of the media and messages put forth by NASA’s Office of Strategic Communications and by other space advocacy organizations. While thoughtful, constructive criticism can be helpful, the critique that has appeared in print, at conferences, and on blogs or elsewhere online generally reflects an overemphasis on tactics both when attacking various approaches and prescribing new ones. The net effect has been singularly unhelpful, acting to further mire the debate about communications, relevance, and value.
Most importantly, the tendency to remain stuck on tactics diverts attention from larger concerns that must be addressed in order to ensure the sustainability of space exploration, and perhaps of NASA itself. In the 2004 study, we tried to identify some of them:
The hoped-for outcome of the study is that it will provide findings of value [for] the development of the Space Exploration initiative, with particular regard to the following:
- Policy formulation and planning
- Establishment of program requirements
- Planning and implementation of a 40-year advocacy program
- Clarification of some political issues9
|At its core lies a question of critical importance to NASA’s survival: “What is the nature of the value that NASA (and the VSE) creates and delivers to its customers?”|
Only one of these objectives was focused solely on influencing public relations. The others were concerned with the direction of policy and programs, and with addressing the attendant political issues. Those objectives were not about communication, but about action, and were predicated on our hope that members of American public might have important things to say about the space program, its activities, and its goals. As it turned out, they did.
Returning to our original research, the second category of responses that emerged when asked about how NASA could become more relevant was that NASA could do so by actually engaging in activities that are perceived to be of value. This response may be difficult to understand at first. It also may provoke a defensive reaction among those who already believe NASA’s activities are of great value. But at its core lies a question of critical importance to NASA’s survival: “What is the nature of the value that NASA (and the VSE) creates and delivers to its customers?”
In the course of deciding whether to rethink value, NASA must identify who its customers really are—including customers that it may not recognize as such. To begin, it must first understand that real value is created in the marketplace, not mandated by policy. 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.