I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

NASA's Perception Problem

While reading the NASA News Brief this morning I came across an article from ABC News regarding a misuse of tax dollars by reimbursing employees who sought degree programs at for-profit institutions. http://abcnews.go.com/US/nasa-misuses-14-million-tax-dollars-oig-audit/story?id=14271958

When I started reading this article, I expected to see it name degrees such as Art History or some liberal arts degree in which one would be hard put to identify a benefit to the Agency. But Business administration? Human Resources? These are two areas which do undoubtedly benefit the agency and contribute to mission success. A higher education in Business Management and Human Resources enables these employees to provide a higher level of service in these areas, thereby freeing those working to achieve NASA’s scientific and engineering missions from the burden of added administrative tasks. That the article specified only non-technical employees also bothered me deeply as it is contrary to the inclusion initiative that our own Center is championing. Are these programs at for-profit colleges costly? Yes.  Are they valuable to NASA? Also a yes. The dagger in these for-profit programs lies in the fact that they frequently have the most comprehensive and accessible online degree programs for working adults needing an accelerated program and with that knowledge they can charge a premium for their services – something that is 100% allowed if not encouraged by our free-market (though less free than previously) capitalist economy.

As a contractor, I am completely unaffected by the Agency’s policy of academic reimbursement for their civil service employees. As a taxpayer, however (not to mention one who knows through experience that most scientists and engineers wouldn’t be good candidates for an MBA), I am bothered that the government deems the academic improvement of those wanting to pursue business careers at NASA as a misuse of taxpayer funds. A solid business foundation is extremely crucial to the running of any large entity, whether it is governmental or corporate in nature, but it would unfortunately appear that the public perception of possible waste is a greater threat than the loss of any intrinsic value to be gained with developing our much-needed business staff.

This is an unfortunate situation, and while I’d love to believe that this is a cultural and transitional phenomenon, I can’t quite force myself to shed the nagging certainty that this perception issue is here to stay. What pushes me over the edge in that fear is buried in the article itself – the article is boldly entitled “NASA Misuses $1.4 Million In Tax Dollars, Says OIG Audit”.  Emphasis on ‘Misuses’ in this case. Now cut to emphasis on my previous paragraph: ‘possible waste.’ While the article states that “the OIG said it was not clear what benefit NASA received for its $1.4 million investment in academic courses for these employees,” both the OIG and the media are seemingly anxious to brand this as a misappropriation. Since when did a status of Not Clear become a verdict of Guilty?

Both the executive and legislative arms of the government are no longer the once strong allies that would stand up for us and protect NASA’s ability to complete extraordinary missions.  Therefore, most hurtful of all of this, perhaps, is that NASA gained yet another unwarranted black eye in the media when favorable public opinion is needed now more than ever.

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