If A Party Is Thrown And No Guests Show, Is It Still A Party?

The question posed by this post’s title was on my and my colleagues’ minds all day today.  We didn’t hold a “party” per se.  In fact, the event that we held was no fun whatsoever. But I digress.  The cogent point is: no one showed up!

What exactly is this un-fun event that was poorly attended?  Well, as you may recall from my last post, the science program that has kept me employed for the last nearly-five years is about to be cancelled, should the proposed President’s 2015 budget have any say in the matter.   And since that bombshell was dropped on us last month, things have gotten weird.  Really weird.

Take today, for example.  Today’s event was supposed to be a type of “open house” to attract potential partners who may be interested in funding some of the costs of the science mission to which I belong.  There are several problems with this seemingly simple solution to our current dire budget situation:

(1) My colleagues and I must suddenly transform into expert salespersons, hawking our wares.  Now, I ask you … have you ever watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory?  Specifically, do you remember The Benefactor Factor episode, in which the rich old lady (Mrs. Latham) would like to philanthropically support physics research in Leonard’s laboratory?  If so, then you will understand when I say that most scientists and engineers do not exactly excel at the art of “selling what they do” and effortlessly mingling with business suits and big money.  [insert relevant geek joke here:   Question: How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert or an introvert? Answer: He’s an extrovert if he is looking at YOUR shoes when he talks to you!]  I am pleased to report that today’s enterprise did not have the same ending as for Leonard and Mrs. Latham.  I’d like to think the reason is because of my strong moral fiber, but maybe it’s because…

2) No. one. showed. up.   That is, no potential partner showed up. But just to make sure that everyone knows that no one showed up, reporters were invited to this event.  Naturally, the reporters did show up.   Seriously, what sane top-management person who cared even an iota about this science program would think, even for a minute, that the following was a brilliant idea: “Oh, let’s hold an open house and invite lots of potential partners on really short notice, as in one week.  Oh, and we absolutely must have the media attend — all those lovely cameras and inquisitive reporters will really add some class to the whole event!”   To make matters even worse, the head of the agency for which I work, during a congressional hearing earlier this week, drew a line in the sand by stating that “if this project is producing science that is as good as everyone is saying, folks will be lining up to become partners”.  If I were some whacko conspiracy-theory-believing person, I might start suspecting that the open house no-show was a carefully calculated outcome that helps seal the fate … nah … nah?

In any case, today I dutifully provided a presentation on the science relevance of this program to a mostly-empty room.  I must have spent at least 10 solid hours working on the powerpoint charts, and I was very sad by the time that I finished:   It’s easy to get caught up in all the day-to-day “admintrivia” of a job and lose track of the bigger picture.  Putting together a “fresh” science rationale of this mission, and doing introspective thinking regarding the questions about the universe that will go unanswered if this fledgling mission is terminated,  was a powerful reminder of this program’s importance to the astronomical community that it serves.

You see, the head of the agency has grossly oversimplified the issue:  The absence of partners “lining up” to be part of this program is not an indictment on the science, but rather is confirmation of what we have known for a long time:  some of the most notable accomplishments of modern civilization were achieved only through government funding, because their value does not readily translate into a marketable product that could turn a profit for industry.  No one but the government could have sent man to the Moon.  Aerospace companies are happy to be hired by the government to build magnificent space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, but you’ll never see those companies taking the initiative to build such facilities on their own.

As I drove back to the airport to catch my flight home, following a long day of presentations, facility tours, and interviews by reporters (who were likely questioning the wisdom of their choice in how to spend the day), I passed by a geologically interesting area by the highway that I’ve passed innumerable times before.  In addition to just being flat-out fascinating, from a geology perspective, there’s something oddly …  familiar …  about it.   It took me a couple of years of driving by it before I finally put my finger on what was causing deja vu!   Do you recognize the landscape? Here’s what it looks like from the highway:IMG-20140411-00119

And today, despite not having adequate driving time margin to the airport, I made an impulsive “screw it” decision to go in for a closer look, and confirmed that this place will provide an awesome future hike!  Does the closer view help jog your memory?



Here’s hoping that you, me and “my” science mission all live long and prosper!


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