Marketing for Scientists

Marketing Your Science? Keep it Real: An Interview with Congressman Robert Walker, Part II

(This piece was originally published in Scientific American)

When I speak to scientists about marketing, I like to say how important it is to “keep it real”.   Pardon me while I say that again in business-speak. I like to emphasize the importance of developing long-term relationships with your customers. That means being as honest as possible about what you can do for your customers, and it means doing work with transparent integrity and clear lasting value.

Space ShuttleWell, I used to take it for granted that scientists met this standard automatically. What could be more “real” and honest than scientific research? But when I interviewed former Congressman Robert Walker about his experiences as chair of the House Science Committee, he told me about some mistakes NASA made back in the 1970s and 1980s that damaged the relationship between NASA and Congress. His stories illustrate why it’s crucial for us to keep it real as we communicate with Congress and other customers for our scientific work.

Of course, building relationships means taking risks, like the risk that people won’t want what you have to offer. And there’s nowhere that the risks seem higher than on the floor of Congress. Walker’s stories show why marketing science at these high levels calls for a rare kind of guts and confidence.

This is an excerpt from a long interview. The first half of the interview is published here.

MK:  Robert, earlier on you were starting to tell me a story about NASA, and how it has lost some of its credibility.  It was about the space shuttle, and how NASA proposed to fly the space shuttle 53 times in a year.

RW:  Yeah. NASA, when they were first getting the approval of the space shuttle, wanted to show the Congress that they were capable of reducing the costs of going to low-earth orbit. That was the whole premise behind the shuttle, that you would have a reusable vehicle that thereby we cut down the cost of launching expendable launch vehicles. So in order to prove their case they had to have a significant number of flights each year so they could say that the cost per flight then is low. But they gave us numbers that had the shuttle flight more than once a week, and no one on The Hill believed them. We would say to them, “You have seven shuttles. How in the world are seven shuttles going to fly more than once a week?”

Oh, they assured us they had three bays for processing them, and they could take them over to the vertical assembly building and put them up on that and hustle them out to the two pads they had on the launch. They would be firing these things off all the time.

When you saw the complexity of the system that was involved, when you saw that there were literally dozens of points of catastrophic failure that were inherent in the system, it just wasn’t believable.

My point is that in those instances science and technologists lose their credibility with the Congress because we know that we’re being scammed. We know that this is an attempt to make budget numbers work–to survive the political process rather than making the system entirely believable and acceptable. NASA has paid a huge penalty for that over the years.

Space StationThe original proposal for the space station was to build it for $8.5 billion, but it cost $100 billion. Now, that wasn’t all NASA’s fault. Congress contributed mightily to that. We used to have a staff member in the Appropriations Committee that would redesign the Space Station every year. He would add a few things to it, subtract a few things. Well, of course, you don’t just do that in a system that complex.

MK:  Right.

RW:  And so you stretched out the time that it took to build it at enormous cost. It’s a combination of things, but NASA’s fiscal credibility has been badly damaged over the years with an attitude that says, well if we start it, they’ll build it. And they’ll give us the money that we need to do what we want, even though we know we don’t have the money at the beginning. And with people who have to justify that spending over a period of time, that’s not an acceptable path.

MK:  Do you think that this incident with NASA hurt the reputation of scientists in general?

RW:  Well, no. I think it hurt NASA and it hurt some scientists, but it probably exists in the back of people’s minds as one more place where we have to be careful. But I’m not certain that that in itself was a major credibility problem, but you put that together with a series of things…For the whole 20 years I was in the Congress, the guys at the High Energy Physics Lab at Princeton would come in and testify to us that, just give us a few hundred more million dollars, and we’ll get there. We’re 20 years off. They were 20 years off when I got there; they were 20 years off when I left. In the meantime, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Tokamak
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Tokamak

Now, is this [cost-effectively generating energy through controlled nuclear fusion] a tough thing to do? Absolutely, and I think Congress believes even if it’s always 20 years off it’s an investment worth making, because if it can ever be done it would be revolutionary.

But the testimony itself before the Congress lacks a lot of credibility, because it’s just kind of an ongoing sore spot with the Congress to be told, well it’s 20 years off. You get out in 20 years, and then it’s still 20 years off.

MK:  The problem remains, though, the time scale is 20 years.  It takes 20 years to find out that it wasn’t really going to be 20 years.

RW:  Twenty years. No, no. But meantime, Congress is being told, well, we only have this much more money. We’ll get there in 20 years. And I think scientists need to say, we don’t know when the endpoint is on this. We’re doing basic science here–and the whole point of doing basic science is you don’t know where it’s going to take you–but here are the potentials. Now, do you want to invest in this kind of basic science and move us forward in this field and have world leadership in a field that has revolutionary potential or not? They run the risk that the answer to that will be “or not”.

I just happen to think that scientists need to be much more honest inside the process about just what the hurdles are that they’re facing in all of this. That they have to regard the people who actually have to raise the money and spend the money as being skeptics.

And to those skeptics, and particularly to skeptics who actually are skeptical because they want to be advocates, it really hurts them to have the cost and the schedule mis-portrayed.

MK:  How do you know when someone in Congress is being skeptical because he wants to be an advocate?

RW:  You don’t.