Status Report

Science x Hype = Bad policy + No Benefit: NASA Life Science Research

By SpaceRef Editor
October 29, 2003
Filed under ,

Editor’s note: This was first published on NASA Watch in 1999.

Science x Hype = Bad policy + No Benefit

20 May 1999

By Keith Cowing, Editor, NASA Watch

Congress, the scientific community, and NASA often seem determined to take unambiguous scientific results from research performed in space, and hype these results (or distorting them as the case may be) to suit their own political agendas. In so doing, they leave America with a confused and contradictory plan for the scientific utilization of the International Space Station.

Someone needs to grab a hold of this issue and fix it once and for all. Perhaps NASA’s new Chief Scientist can take on this task.

Yesterday, towards the end of the debate regarding H.R. 1654, the NASA Authorization Act of 1999, Rep. Mark Stanford (R-SC) rose to speak in support of Rep. Tim Roemer’s annual kill ISS efforts. As part of his presentation he repeated much of the same list of outraged taxpayer organizations that Rep. Roemer mentioned and alluded to unnamed scientific organizations who were against ISS. Sanford did name one organization – the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). In so doing he referred to a “report” issued by ASCB last year purporting to be a scientific review of microgravity research done thus far and planned for ISS.

Sanford said:

“Indeed, the American Society for Cell Biology declared that crystallography experiments in microgravity have made no serious contribution to analysis of protein structures or the development of new pharmaceuticals. “

As you may recall, a detailed analysis of this report appeared on NASA Watch:

  • 9 July 1998: Full Text of the ASCB report “Urges NASA to Concentrate on Ground, Not Space, Research – yes folks this press release IS the report!

  • 15 July 1998: The ASCB report: A Closer Look, by Keith Cowing

  • 18 July 1998: Articles and stories regarding the American Society for Cell Biology’s Report on NASA’s Life and Microgravity Science Research

  • 20 July 1998: Response to the report by the American Society for Cell Biology on NASA Life Sciences Research, by Dr. Lawrence J. DeLucas, Director. Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

  • Suffice it to say the authors of the ASCB report, with virtually no microgravity research expertise, hastily threw together a report designed specifically to validate their own personal opinions, using newspaper articles and press releases (but not any peer reviewed research) as references, put it all in the form of a 2 page press release, and issued it in the name of the ASCB. This report has since been repudiated by the broader scientific community.

    Yet Rep. Sanford’s staff did not bother to check that small fact – or to find more substantive data to support Rep. Sanford’s position.

    Meanwhile, NASA is to blame as well.

    In the 14 May 1999 issue of Science, an article “Space Station: A $100 Billion Orbiting Lab Takes Shape. What Will It Do?” takes a look at NASA’s selling of its own research. In citing the July 1998 ASCB report, the article relates an instance where NASA also engaged in some less than accurate descriptions:

    “In March, the program attracted more criticism after NASA issued press releases claiming that structural data from space-grown crystals had helped an international team of researchers based at
    the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), and nearby BioCryst Pharmaceuticals to develop a promising flu drug. The claim infuriated one of the researchers involved, biochemist W.
    Graeme Laver of the Australian National University in Canberra. He says his one-time funder inflated the importance of its space-based work in “another pathetic attempt” to boost the crystal
    program’s image. In fact, Laver says, the single space-produced crystal involved in the project was grown aboard Mir without NASA’s help. “And it had nothing to do with the drug’s
    development. BioCryst’s findings came from crystals I grew on Earth,” he adds.”

    The twin attacks have put UAB crystallographer DeLucas, a former chief scientist for the station and now head of a NASA-funded research center, on the defensive. He says the ASCB report is
    “dead wrong” and that low gravity has allowed researchers to grow several dozen kinds of crystals that are larger and purer than those produced on Earth, making it easier for crystallographers
    to deduce their structure. He also notes that the program has been extensively peer reviewed and is currently under the microscope of another NAS review panel, which will deliver its verdict
    later this year. As for Laver’s complaint, DeLucas believes his former colleague has overreacted to an unfortunate bit of NASA hype. In retrospect, agency officials “could have toned down the
    [press release],” DeLucas says. “You would have to say there was a little over enthusiasm from NASA,” adds Charles Bugg, BioCryst’s president.


  • 14 May 1999:Space Station: A $100 Billion Orbiting Lab Takes Shape. What Will It Do?, Science, [summary – can be viewed for free once registered]

  • 12 March 1999: 
    Space research may accelerate development of flu fighting drug, NASA press release

  • When Congress fails to obtain credible scientific and technical expertise when making decisions, the taxpayers and the country’s research base suffer.

    When scientists themselves produce superficial pronouncements such as the ASCB “report” and deliver it to Congress, they undermine the credibility of all scientific expertise – everywhere.

    When NASA takes clear evidence of the value of its programs and hypes it out of proportion to serve its own PR needs, it becomes harder and harder for its supporters to muster the support to keep that research funded.

    SpaceRef staff editor.