>> Monday, October 5, 2009
I've mentioned NASAWatch before and, though I often find it self-serving and focused on the aspects of NASA that interest me least, it's leader, Keith Cowling, pulls up enough interesting stuff (and key information) to make it a worthwhile daily stop for me. I'm not badmouthing the blog; it's just not focused (generally) on the same things I focus on.
However, NASAWatch often finds things I might not readily find on my own and, for that, I'm grateful. Yesterday, it mentioned a blog I've seen before (thanks also to NASAWatch) that I wanted to bloglist but had forgotten (I have it now). Not a rocket scientist, but someone working with NASA on those same topics I don't find interesting, politics and the like, that are part and parcel of the job anyway. In this case, the topic was "speaking out at NASA."
Beth Beck (and I can't begin to describe how ironic I find it that that's her name) stood up and asked a question at a "town meeting" and her interpretation of the reaction after the fact from other NASA folks was off-putting - disbelief, even resentment from others that she had the nerve to ask the question and hasn't yet been punished for it. That anyone expects that reaction is disheartening (and I think that's the point of the blog post).
What rather surprised me was the first comment on NASAWatch which was an attack on Beth Beck and her questions as well as her characterization of other NASA folks - apparently out of sync with business etiquette. Say what?
First of all, NASA isn't a business. It's a public organization for the good of all America, to spend taxpayer money to further our nation's interests. If middle management can't take tough questions, maybe they should be doing something else (and if that IS the case in the real world, perhaps our business model is even more screwed up than I imagined. As I've never worked in the "real world" so the rest of you will have to tell me, is honesty punished? Good heavens, why?).
Now, I'll have to raise my hand with my own reputation as a troublemaker, of asking tough questions at times some thought were awkward. But, unlike Ms. Beck, in the technical world of NASA, the reaction (among coworkers) has always been admiration that I asked it and support if/when there have been repercussions. The managers I've questioned in the past have generally professed gratitude, but I think I'm right to take that with a grain of salt. That technical folks at NASA aren't comfortable asking challenging questions is a sad fact that desperately needs change. But that anyone thinks that's not the way to do business for an organization that is bound by physical (and pitiless) laws is a travesty.
I'm fortunate that I work in an environment where my honest and forthrightness have not cost me much (if anything) and have, over time, worked to my benefit. However, the perception that honesty is not acceptable is still pervasive in many areas, and it's impossible to tell where the perception might be true and where it isn't. In either case, though, it's possible that things that need to be said/asked are not voiced because of the perception. And that's frightening. The fact that these two views can both come forward at the same time, right here and now, shows we aren't where we need to be at NASA and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.