Friday, February 29, 2008

New Social Contract

I'm live blogging a meeting at the New America Foundation meeting on the topic of the new social contract.

CSPAN broadcasting.

Room not really set up for blogging. SFF did much better last July.

Room is packed. Few empty seats.

New era of American politics? Post partisan? Progressive? Comeback conservatism?

Post partisan -- advocated for deficit reduction. Normal partisanship unable to cope with long standing problems. JFK Jr. -- George reference.

Now Schwartzenegger, Bloomberg. Republicans and Democrats working together to bring forth new ideas.

Americans becoming more partisan, not less, according to polls. Partisanship rising among youth as well. Millenials have been formed by exposure to out of control individuals. Parents have emphasized cooperation, prosocial behavior. Open minded, keep focused on big picture. New generation looks for respect, comity, etc.

Rutgers prof Cliff? up. Middle aged, grey beard (literally). Political culture and issues of day quite different.

Issues will be played out in political culture. Core values will underlie.

Core values:

1. Society favors equal opportunity to succeed. Committed to altruism, also self reliance, entrepreneurism, etc.

2. Commitment to public sector, also wary of it. Ambivalence about major institutions.

3. Americans have firm belief in God. 80% see themselves as believers. Religious beliefs shape our politics.

4. We believe we should have aggressive place in world. Opening for space: Charles Elachi.

5. Social security and retirement income. People no longer believe it will be there for them. No trust in government retirement plans.

6. People believe they are overtaxed. Think taxes are unfair, complicated. Replacement could be worse.

7. Health care an important issue. People concerned about cost.

8. Job satisfaction OK. (Didn't ask me.)

9. Environment a second tier issue. Finance and economics can affect.

Good for next social contract. Crisis will produce change. People tired of Bush, war in Iraq. Concern about economy has hit major proportions.

Public ready to put 9/11 behind us.

Cliff stops. Liked working with NAF very much.

Younger people less likely to be interested in politics. More leisure oriented, more entrepreneurial, more cooperative.

Interesting thought -- what about cooperation among individuals? Out of control individuals more a symptom of failed authoritarianism than democratic societies.

Millenials have sense of us, not of they.


Mark? Panel of people from whom I have learned the most about Congress. Singularity point in American politics. Does he know of techie "Singularity?"

I'm wearing a suit. Lots of people more casually dressed. Lots of young people. Fair number of middle aged folk. They tend to be more business dress.

Mark thinks we can't go back to governing like we did in 1980s and 1990s. 1994 wiped out Southern Democrats. 2006 wiped out northern Republicans. Democratic Party now the liberal party with base in north and west. Republican party now conservative party with base in south.

Question is now how do we govern the country. Reading liberal encomiums to Buckley. We need a liberalism that can engage with conservativism. Obama has this approach. Mentioned Dionne. Laugher: Dionne once used TSA as an example supporting "sensible" gun control.

K Street project of conservatives. Courts have been shifted. Conservatives have had some policy victories.

Democrats still in Bill Clinton era -- big government is over.

Susan: Republicans have created new agency, Federal intrusion into education, new benefits. Can't happen now -- majority is too thin. Personalities, e.g., Delay, Rove also played role. Shift to Senate led to House style being tried in Senate. Electorate taking control back. McCain would not have been pick of Republican leadership. Hillary according to theory should have been shoe in. People tired of partisanship. Much larger turnout inn 2008.

Susan says demographics driving elections. Hmm. Why do people from NYC move to Nevada?

12:15. Battery at 57% -- 1hr, 45min left.

Powerful communication tools at service of politically active.

12:30. Panel scheduled to start at 12:15.

Savings have been eroded. Housing a problem.

Tax benefits will flow to people with higher incomes, more wealth. Need an inclusive savings policy. Must be life long. Left focuses on opportunity, right on ownership. Universal 401k, savings plans that start at birth.

David Gray -- work and family issues. Under the radar issues: foster care, child care. Work family imbalance. Stress, two earner couples. 81% want better work life balance. People feel stressed at work. Democrats all had work life proposals. Tight labor markets leading business to accommodate desires, needs. States taking a lead. War forcing administration to take a look at work life balance. Lots of stress on family life for military. Back to 18th century? Baby boom retiring. Want to work flexibly. Older people want flexibility in work place. Fiscal crisis will also push flexibility.

Maya: budget issues. Need to update and raise revenues. We need fundamental tax reform. Percent of total economy an important line for many people.

Only a few of us live blogging. Some people taking written notes.

Now switching to dead tree note taking. Keeping the laptop on my lap is not that comfortable.

Here are my dead tree notes:
Len Nichols: Why now? Why optimistic? Cost of doing nothing is very high.

China, India make it impossible to increase prices. (What will happen if China collapses?)

Reality: Need 70 votes in Senate for a proposal to get the 60 you need. (Mikulski does bipartisanship well on aerospace issues.)

Need to buy smarter. (We need discussion of what is possible and what is not.)

Incentives are for much health care.

Political parties.

David Frum: Coalition of 70s and 80s declining. Republicans not doing as well. Movement to Democratic Party real and strong.

Bush aimed at reassembling Republican coalition.

9/11 elevated nationalism.

Lack of success in Iraq has been painful.

Collapse in Republican identification among young.

Open door at end: party shift, not political shift.

Typical voter quote: "If Eisenhower were alive, I'd vote for him." (Susan Eisenhower has endorsed Obama. She's also married to Roald Sagdeyev -- one time head of Soviet civil space program.)

Johnathan Chait: Issues moving to left. People in antigovernment mood. Democrats are shills for home state industry. Left creating an institutions on left to counterbalance ones on right.

I left at 1:47.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Aerospace Workforce Issues

In September 2007 Claudia Morrell, Executive Director of the Center for Women and Information Technology of the University of Maryland Baltimore County gave a talk to the committee leading the Aerospace Initiative of the Governor's Workforce Investment Board in the State of Maryland. During her talk she emphasized three reasons why young women were not pursuing careers in technology:

  • They disliked the work-life balance common in technology fields.
  • They thought the work was boring.
  • They were familiar with managers in their 30s and 40s who were extraordinarily poor leaders who not only did harm to their groups but also to the careers and lives of young people coming into their fields.

She noted that when these issues were successfully addressed, that young women – as well as young men – were far more likely to choose work in technology.

These findings echo what I have heard in other forums as well. In July at a NewSpace meeting organized by Space Frontier Foundation Loretta Whitesides commented how the generation born after Apollo did not share the memories of older people involved in aerospace. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin might vividly remember John Glenn's orbital flight. Some one born after the last Apollo mission in 1972 will remember the Challenger tragedy instead. She also commented that they were looking for leadership that listened and was open to new ideas. The fact that NASA does not have that reputation any more is a major criticism.

Mary Lynne Dittmar has done extensive research in how the public thinks about NASA. She has delivered papers at conferences such as Space 2006, organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and written articles such as Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value (Part 1) and Part 2. In her work she has expressed the view that NASA needs to start listening to people and develop a bottom up as well as a top down method of generating value. Dittmar has noted that younger people are not much interested in sending humans to Mars – one goal of the current Vision for Space Exploration. She does note, though, that young people are much more interested and supportive of things like space tourism – which offers the possibility of real participation – and probes to places such as Mars – which again offers some possibility of participation, if only vicariously.

We also have the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Among other things, they described NASA as an organization that failed to listen to issues raised by staff more familiar with matters at hand than managers above them. They also described NASA as not a learning organization. This should be viewed as damning criticism of a research and development organization.

We thus see some common threads developing with regard to the aerospace industry. There is a lack of listening, a lack of willingness to try ideas that are developed outside an insiders' club (the “Not Invented Here” syndrome) and problems learning things outside relatively narrow specialties. While this leads to high profile failures in the case of NASA, one can see similar things throughout technological fields. There is also the notion that the culture of aerospace – and indeed much of technological work – needs reform. One interesting observation is made by tech workers in all sorts of fields. We claim that the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams is not a comic strip, but a documentary. Adams himself is a former IT professional. Tech workers supply him with many ideas.

There are, however, good examples we can learn from. The SAS Institute has an excellent reputation for the quality of its products as well as the way it treats its employees and the way it operates in the larger community. SAS seems like one company that has learned that “It Takes a Village” to not only bring up healthy citizens but to do all sorts of things – including run a successful business that makes significant contributions to the larger society for over thirty years. In the past few years NASA Ames, under Pete Worden, also seems like a place that is open to the outside and new ideas. They are also doing some pretty interesting things technically. There are also other examples of quality leadership in aerospace. Friends who have worked for Nobel Prize Winner John Mather at Goddard Space Flight Center say all sorts of good things about the man. He is described as a man who listens, who gives credit to others and is, to quote one man, “a real Boy Scout.”

In this short paper I have begun to describe workforce problems in aerospace and, indeed, in much of technological work. What are some solutions that a Clinton administration could pursue to help address these very real problems?

One idea could be fairly simple to implement. There is an office of the ombudsman. It seems to me – someone who worked at Goddard Space Flight Center for 9 years – that this office is fairly low profile. Raising the profile – and extending its mission to include contractors seems to me to be a good idea. Allowing anyone – regardless of employment status – to anonymously bring issues to the attention of this office, especially management issues, would help address problems that I have identified. There are some dirty little secrets that need addressing. People – especially contractor employees – have quit because of “lies and abuse.” Some groups withhold the granting of civil servant status to more independent employees.

A second idea is to begin sending employees – both civil servant and contractor – off for training in people knowledge. At Space 2006 I met a woman involved with an aerospace MBA program at the University of Tennessee. Since she was one of the few people I have ever met with a background in both the “hard” and social sciences, I asked her why so many MBAs had such poor knowledge of how humans behaved. She replied that, while an MBA student could get a solid knowledge of such things, too many avoided such areas. This needs to be changed. When NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who holds, among other things an MBA degree, can get up in public and, while discussing the Columbia report, say that he doesn't understand cultural issues because of a lack of knowledge of human psychology, that is an admission of inadequacy that needs rectifying.

A third idea is to bring such training to all employees in aerospace. This would mean not just an occasional lecture at a NASA center or contractor facility but serious education programs along the lines that, for example, engineers receive as part of their careers.

A fourth idea is to identify those employees who have already gained experience in some field outside their technical specialty. While at Goddard I participated as a photographer and occasional actor in Goddard's Music and Drama Club. Members of this club – who put on major shows more than once a year – had social skills and knowledge significantly superior to most employees. There are many other ways of identifying employees with broader knowledge.

NASA in this way could become a model for society to emulate. Many scientists decry the lack of knowledge of science by our political leaders. Much less often some scientists observe that scientists lack knowledge of the political sector – and, indeed, almost anything outside their narrow specialty. This needs to change.

This brief paper is meant to spark discussion about an important but not high profile challenge facing our society. I think the challenge can be met with thoughtful, open minded leadership.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A New, Improved Carl Sagan

I first started paying close attention to Nobel Prize Winner in Physics John Mather after a lecture at the Goddard Memorial Symposium last year. He's a fine public speaker -- especially for a physicist. He also seemed like a friendly guy -- at least on the podium. During his talk he displayed at one point photos of members of his team. I recognized one, Steve Leete, from my time at Goddard. I asked Steve what kind of guy Mather was -- besides being a brilliant physicist. He told me he was a really nice guy who listened to people, freely gave credit where it was due to team members and was a "real Boy Scout."

Many people note several problems with academia today. Undergraduate students are almost an afterthought. Graduate students are all too often treated as close to slave labor. Teaching is held in low regard. Listening to students -- essential for really good teaching -- is all too often neglected. And we wonder why students depart from such difficult fields as physics for more remunerative career paths.

But there are alternative models that seem to work. And John Mather seems to have first benefited from them and could now pass on the things he has learned. Here's a bit of John's biography, along with some comments of my own.

John grew up in a small town in then (possibly still) rural north New Jersey. Newton High School which he attended still has only 901 students according to Wikipedia. Hmm. Many observers now think that the smaller high school does a much better job of listening to students. Administrators and other school leaders get to know their students better. Teachers spend more time teaching and less administering. They also interact with other teachers who are considerably different from themselves. They're more likely to find out what Sally and John are doing in other classes and activities. It's also easier for parents -- especially intelligent parents -- to interact with the school. The school is nearby. The school's staff are people who are part of the larger community.

After high school, John did not attend a large research university. He went to the private Swarthmore College, current student population 1,500. Small schools like Swarthmore and Vassar College where I spent a year emphasize undergraduate education. While research is done by faculty, teaching is given highest priority. People who attend such schools pick up better listening and communication skills. The comments I made about John's high school apply just as well to places like Swarthmore.

By the time John hit the major research establishments of U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, his character had been formed in major ways. He had picked up skills that students who attended large institutions have much more difficulty learning. Also, by reaching Berkeley when he did, he escaped to some extent the problems that have come to engulf contemporary academia. Weren't there protests at Berkeley in the late 60s? There certainly were. While lots of people blame the students for not respecting authority, some of us note that faculty respect for students had begun to drop earlier -- possibly as a result of the schools becoming too big with too high a focus on research and too little on teaching.

Perhaps it is time for John Mather to become the new Carl Sagan. There's one advantage John might have right off the bat. It would be very hard for people to say he wasn't a real scientist. Since he listens to people, it might be possible for him to use his own life story to instruct others in ways that he developed.