Early cost estimates of government projects tend to be optimistic, but does that mean an ambitious project should be scrapped when its price increases?
The Washington Post reports on the political storm surrounding continued funding of the Webb Space Telescope, our planned next-generation instrument:
In 2006, NASA estimated that Webb would cost $2.4 billion and could launch in 2014. In 2008, the price tag rose to $5.1 billion. A congressionally mandated report released last year found that NASA had underestimated costs and mismanaged the project. This summer, NASA said it had already spent $3.5 billion on the project and needed a total of $8.7 billion to launch in 2018.
Against critics who say the gap has been growing and the project should be shut down,
[Edward J.] Weiler [retired head of NASA space sciences] said estimating costs on a project that's never been built before is difficult. "You bid optimistically. That's not just a problem with the James Webb Space Telescope. We see it at NASA all the time; you see it at defense contractors. I would argue -- and I'm not making excuses here -- that [the budget overrun] is a product of the way we do business in America."
Top astronomers said early estimates were never realistic.
"People were used to lowballing," said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Congress has been part of the game."
The much-acclaimed Hubble Space Telescope, Weiler reminded critics, was also way over budget. And that very point is reflected in the new book by the Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in the chapter dealing with what he and his colleague Amos Tversky called the Planning Fallacy: using best-case scenarios and not reflecting actual costs of similar projects. Poster child: the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, originally budgeted in 1997 at £40 million and finished only in 2004 at a cost of £431 million.
But would we always be better off by following Dr. Kahneman's wise counsel? Shouldn't we look the future squarely in the eye and not fool ourselves about costs? Mark Twain, who virtually bankrupted himself backing an ultimately unworkable typesetter, might have agreed.(Or maybe not; he kept backing esoteric projects like a Polish-Austrian inventor's carpet-pattern machine.) But Dr. Illingworth's remarks suggest there's something else at work, a tacit agreement to keep original estimates deliberately low. Regarding the Scottish Parliament and other architectural megaprojects, the Danish-born program management guru Bent Flyvbjerg believes such enterprises are more often than not Machiavellian charades.Of course that leaves open the question of whether some notorious cases like the Sydney Opera House may turn out to have been worth the deception or self-deception, while others like New Jersey's Xanadu have at least so far been mere money pits.
Scientific instruments are different from monuments; even ardent Scottish nationalists might not claim that the new building will give their country better laws, while the Webb instrument, like the Hubble, might change our view of the universe and our place in it, and yield the surprising economic benefits that expensive pure science (and some military cost overruns) often do. The question is whether the benefit of greater realism in the majority of cases would be offset by the loss of benefits if legislators ruled out all projects that by Kahneman's criteria were likely to produce substantial cost overruns. Sometimes coping with unexpected difficulties produces surprising new solutions, a phenomenon that the economist Albert O. Hirschman has called the Hiding Hand.
Fiscal realism can also have unintended consequences. Cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, it has often been observed, helped drive legions of physicists from big science to even bigger finance, where they developed the computer infrastructure behind the trading that is now the target of Occupy Wall Street. The NASA executive Dr. Charles Beichman wrote tongue-in-cheek to the Financial Times two years ago that it's cheaper to pay scientists and engineers to work on accelerators and telescopes than to turn them loose writing derivatives.
So, on balance I would suggest implementing Dr. Kahneman's procedure, but (in the case of potentially productive investments) looking not just at all the potential additional costs but at the kinds of benefits, including spinoffs, that previous big projects have created. I find it hard to believe that in the context of the whole Federal budget, the Web Space Telescope would not survive that kind of realism.
Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
Also notable about this brazen show of might is that the missiles traveled through two countries, Iran and Iraq, before hitting their 11 targets in Syria. This means that both countries either gave their permission or simply didn’t confront Putin about the use of their airspace on his birthday.
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
Somewhere in Europe, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
Why Americans tend more and more to want inexperienced presidential candidates
The presidency, it’s often said, is a job for which everyone arrives unprepared. But just how unprepared is unprepared enough?
Political handicappers weigh presidential candidates’ partisanship, ideology, money, endorsements, consultants, and, of course, experience. Yet they too rarely consider an element of growing importance to voters: freshness. Increasingly, American voters view being qualified for the presidency as a disqualification.
In 2003, I announced in National Journal the 14-Year Rule. The rule was actually discovered by a presidential speechwriter named John McConnell, but because his job required him to keep his name out of print, I graciously stepped up to take credit. It is well known that to be elected president, you pretty much have to have been a governor or a U.S. senator. What McConnell had figured out was this: No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.* Surprised, I scoured the history books and found that the rule works astonishingly well going back to the early 20th century, when the modern era of presidential electioneering began.
“If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop.”
There’s plenty of research out there on the benefits of remote and flexible work. It’s been shown to lead to increased productivity, and has an undeniable benefit for work-life balance. But what does it do to everyone back at the office?
In a 2013 memo to workers explaining why the company was eliminating policies that allowed remote work, Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s head of human resources,argued that some of the “best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion,” and that actual presence in the office encourages better collaboration and communication.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
What will happen to digital collections of books, movies, and music when the tech giants fall?
When you purchase a movie from Amazon Instant Video, you’re not buying it, exactly. It’s more like renting indefinitely.
This distinction matters if your notion of “buying” is that you pay for something once and then you get to keep that thing for as long as you want. Increasingly, in the world of digital goods, a purchasing transaction isn’t that simple.
There are two key differences between buying media in a physical format versus a digital one. First, there’s the technical aspect: Maintaining long-term access to a file requires a hard copy of it—that means, for example, downloading a film, not just streaming from a third party’s server. The second distinction is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with how the law has shaped digital rights in the past 15 years. It helps to think about the experience of a person giving up CDs and using iTunes for music purchases instead.
The Red Planet once had an ocean and a magnetic field. A new mission is setting out to discover what happened to them.
The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars’s magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk?
“We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
There are a few leading theories about what decimated the planet’s magnetism. One of them is that huge asteroids bombarded Mars until its magnetic field turned off. That storm of asteroids may have included one enormous rock in particular, even bigger than the one believed to have wiped out Earth’s dinosaurs. Another theory explores the possibility that Mars’s ancient magnetic field only ever covered one of its hemispheres, an idea that would also explain how the planet’s magnetism weakened over time. “The presence of a magnetic field is key to understanding the history of Mars’s atmosphere, which of course is key to habitability on Mars’s surface,” Banerdt told me.