Jan 1, 2019
My Guest this week is Mason Peck, Professor of Aerospace and Systems engineering at Cornell University and former Chief Technologist at NASA. Previously Mason was a was a Principal Fellow at Honeywell Aerospace and has an extremely colorful history we get into during the podcast.
The topic of this conversation is how NASA works, alternatives to the current innovation ecosystem - like crowdsourcing and philanthropy, and also the interplay between government, academia, and private industry.
NIAC (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Directorate)
[00:00:00] This podcast I talk to Mason Peck about NASA alternatives to the current Innovation ecosystem like crowdsourcing and philanthropy and also the interplay between government Academia and Private Industry. Officially Mason is a professor of Aerospace and systems engineering at Cornell University, but I think of him as Cornell space exploration guy.
He's done research on everything from doing construction in space using superconductors to making spacecraft that can fit in the palm of your hand and cost cents instead of millions of dollars from 2011 to 2013. He served as NASA's Chief technologist. Don't worry. We'll get into what that means in the podcast before becoming a professor.
What is a Chief Technologist
Ben: You spent several years as the chief technologist at Nasa. Can you explain for us what the chief technologist at Nasa actually does. I think that it's a usual role that many people have not heard of.
Mason: Sure, NASA's [00:01:00] Chief technologist sets strategy and priorities for NASA's. Let's call them technology Investments. It's helpful to think of it in investment context because it really is that you know, what you're doing is spending money taxpayer money.
You want to be a responsible Steward of that money. You're spending that money on. Something like a bet that you hope will pay off in the future. So taking a portfolio approach that problem probably makes sense. At least it made sense to me. I was the chief technologist for NASA for the over two years started in the end of 2011 and continued to little bit into 2014, but mostly it was the two years 2012-2013.
And I may just offer it was a wonderful time to be doing that difficult from the standpoint of the budget. There are a lot of challenges at that time budgetarily, but good from the standpoint of lots of great support from the White House the office of Science and Technology policy when I was there was particularly aggressive and committed and [00:02:00] passionate about doing what they thought was the best for the nation and the just the degree of energy and expertise some of those people made it a wonderful ecosystem to work in.
How long term were bets?
Ben: Awesome, and going off of that portfolio approach with the bats. how long term were those bets? Like what was the the time scale on them?
Mason: In the portfolio approach that we tried to? Take some of those bets were the long game. I suppose, you know, 20 years out. There was a program known as NIAC Nayak the NASA Innovative advanced concepts program, which placed bets on to keep using this metaphor.
Ideas that probably would pay off in a couple of decades. And by the way, that seems like a hopelessly long time but for spacecraft that's maybe a generation of spacecraft. In fact spacecraft Generations in technological sense almost mirrors the human Generations, if you think of a human generation being 20 years, you could [00:03:00] probably look across the history of space technology.
In spot these Rafi 20-year slices where things seem to happen. So some of the investors are definitely 20 years plus others, whereas near term as possible, but it's not just the the duration of time that is how long it would take for these Investments to pay off. It was also about the type of investment that is the ways in which technology was done.
Different types of tech investment
So, If I can go on about that briefly the me, please you say that it's one thing to as one thing to solicit ideas from the traditional offers of technology or DARPA calls the performers, you know, you go to a Lockheed Martin or university what I've Cornell University of just for one example, you go to university and you ask for a certain result and then they can probably deliver that kind of result.
There's all the non-traditional offers. For example, when the NASA we would start these challenges or competitions. [00:04:00] The idea was to bring in non-traditional providers people who normally wouldn't have bothered or even have been considered qualified to solve a NASA problem, but through a challenge like a coding challenge a hackathon or maybe a more substantial dollar amount.
Prize offered a million dollars for electric aircraft or something through that mechanism you bringing different kinds of people to solve the problem and that's not only the other that's not the only other dimension. Another dimension is whether the problem you're solving is something that is a known problem or something you feel like if you build it they will come.
Either that freezes the death to death to investment, right if you say something like I've got this great idea but no one's asking for a right now, but trust me if we build it somebody it will buy it that is not what a venture capitalist for example wants to hear right? However. It is a distinct type of futurism, right?
Mission Pull vs Mission Push
There's what we call pull and push Mission pull refers to [00:05:00] when we have a mission that NASA let's say returning samples from the surface of Mars or sending humans to a distant star. I mean, these are not necessarily necessary. What's this if they are then? The Jews demand certain technological solutions certain Innovations, or if you come up with idea that no one's asking for is their value in that and I'll give you the example of a say spacecraft that are the size of your fingernail right now.
You probably know been that this is a topic we were working out of Cornell. I guarantee you no one's asking for that. I can prove that by virtue of how many proposals have been turned down. The basic fact is there are uses for this now. Maybe there aren't enough that are compelling and I'll accept that but the reason no one's asking is because no one knows it can exist and that's not a reason to say no, so.
Again, think of the mission pull versus what we call technology push direction if we can come up with a solution that people maybe could use [00:06:00] a little value in working on that think of the dimension. As I said before of different kinds of offers. What are the sources for technology and then of course, there's the timeframe Dimension.
So there's at least three dimensions that you might think of for the. Portfolio of Technology Investments That least we took it to kind of NASA and that maybe helps other environments to
Non-traditional vs Traditional Offers
Ben: yeah, are there some good examples of non-traditional offers really succeeding where the traditional offers did not.
Mason: Yes, two ways to answer that one is for some problems. They are simply not profitable for a lot of companies even as an example. I major company might spend a hundred thousand to maybe over a billion dollars, maybe multiple millions of dollars. Just writing the proposal to a government agency do some work and it's not at all an exaggeration.
You know, that's really not the [00:07:00] case. Where a small mom-and-pop company. But for larger companies, I see a Honeywell or a Boeing or Lockheed or some other defense kind tractor, you know for sure they spend that kind of money. So the and that's the total money. They spend let alone The Profit they might get in that which is maybe on the order of 10% or something.
So you got to really want. To do this work to invest the money for a proposal into it and something at the scale of I mentioned Nayak before right the NASA innovated the best huh something that small it's simply not worth large company writing a proposal that they're not going to get there not even get the cost of proposal back probably now there may be other reasons, but let's let's give me those for a second.
Let's think about the the other way of answering that question. What am I people who just want to work with NASA? There are people out there that are passionate. About what NASA doesn't and you do you'll be hard pressed by the way to find other government agencies and probably even other businesses with the brand loyalty if you like or their reputation that in Mass it has yeah, so I'll [00:08:00] give you the example of Tom ditto titl was his last name.
He's got had a couple of Nyack Awards over the years. The first one was I think in 2005 ish? He had this brilliant idea for a new kind of spectrometer. And for your I know you probably know but not everyone knows this spectrometer is a device that looks at it a light and finds out what colors it is.
And I'm looking at the Spectrum of a let's say reflected light off of a rock or something will tell you about its chemical may make up so spectrometers the useful thing for astronomy. Well, Tom didn't came up with the idea of using diffraction grating. It's that that colorful rainbow mirror looking stuff.
There was all the rage in the 1970s. So but he had a way of using that to make a spectrometer and he would have been a very long spectrometer. In fact, maybe even on the surface of the Moon a super long kilometers long spectrometer arguably a crazy idea, but absolutely brilliant and solve the problem, but NASA didn't even know it needed to solve.
Once against problem [00:09:00] that no Lockheed would propose but a Tom ditto would so Tom just wanted to work on this and he had a passion for it. He solved the problem and that was a cool example, and there's others just like it's so in an environment where you have Innovation where people can. Contribute, I guess I'll stay out of the goodness of their heart or because I like the idea of the challenge or maybe even for relatively small price.
You'll get different kinds of solutions and that's an interesting possibility.
What would you do to unlock grassroots innovators?
Ben: how would you encourage that even further? So say you you control the entire United States government? what would you do Beyond Nyack anything to sort of unlock those people?
Mason: To clarify for your listeners.
I have no plans to take over the government. Yes. I'm willing if someone like to offer me the job, but that's not my forte. Well, so again, I let me let me go back to the example of prizes and challenges. This is a big deal with in the Obama Administration. [00:10:00] They were faced with this awkward problem of having lots of great ideas and basically no money to work within a Congress that was not supportive.
(Prizes and Challenges)
So what do you do? Well, you open up these opportunities to the nation maybe even to the world. So if you can come up with an away with a way of articulating the value of contributing, you know again in a way that makes the public or maybe just a few individuals wants to help. Depend on that altruistic nature that some people have that's when we dissolve a problem because it doesn't work in all cases.
So rather than just offering a challenge where if you do it you get a medal. What about offering a prize prize competitions are interesting because first of all the the organization that offers the price doesn't necessarily spend money until they get a result. For example, the the orteig prize remember this one.
This was the one that encouraged transatlantic flight. Yes. So, you know that that's one way to go. A $20,000 prize and [00:11:00] then you win it and you pay off your mortgage there have been others. Like I birthed an said that building the gossamer Albatross was away from to pay off his mortgage. And so there are there are some folks who are motivated by the prospect of a prize and again from for the funders perspective from a funding perspective.
You're not going to pay until and unless you can get the solution you want. So that's interesting the other interesting feature about crowdsourcing a solution like that is you might get. People applying to solve your problem and you get the best one out of a thousand compare that to a typical again since we're talking Aerospace a typical Aerospace Contracting opportunity.
You'll probably get responses that say NASA would offer millions of dollars for a new rocket. You're going to get doesn't maybe responses to that of which a half dozen maybe will be credible and it's going to be The Usual Suspects. It'll be it'll be Boeing and Lockheed and orbital sciences and maybe a few others well.
What if that one in a thousand Solutions the one you really want offering an [00:12:00] opportunity that solicits such a large number of potential inputs really allows you to pick that best one the again the 2 Sigma 3 Sigma Solution which is kind of exciting possibility. So that's another way to go.
How do you pull out good ideas when they take resources?
Ben: to Riff on that how other good ways of.
Judging a solution before it requires a large amount of investment. So with this Crown funny I can imagine that it would get a lot of people. With ideas and you'd be able to go through the ideas and if there's one that immediately stands out as better than the rest or is very clearly feasible often with things.
You don't actually know if it's a good idea until you've tested it and you poured some resources into it and people might not have those. So is there any trick to pulling out those ideas?
Mason: One interesting interesting fact [00:13:00] about prize competitions is pretty clearly. You have to pitch it at the right dollar amount, you know after ten bucks, you're not going to get in.
This is really what you want a prize where the prize might be the say 20 billion dollars the investment necessary to. That twenty billion dollars might be so prohibitive that you're only going to get a few players and once again, probably the usual suspects right? For instance. Let's say that we offered twenty billion dollars for whoever first built at the hotel on the moon.
Okay, it sounds like an interesting idea maybe but to develop that infrastructure that capability is going to cost billions begin with and and maybe someone will win the 20 billion dollar Enterprise, but I really need to get what you want. So first of all the the scale of the prize. Matters, but let me go back to this portfolio idea we were talking about before if you have the freedom to manage a portfolio of Technology investment your opportunity then is to think about those high-risk investments.
Just the way you would have to say in your own eventual portfolio think about high risk Investments as a way to pick winners [00:14:00] you invest a little bit the high-risk stuff across the large board and maybe a few of them. But you have to be winners. Well, then maybe you go investible bit more in those and soon as saying the case of Nayak, right?
And let's say that we like to Tom Dittos spectrometer so much that the $100,000 that he got for building this which is not peanuts by the way, but it's still small from Aerospace perspective that hundred thousand dollars a small investment. But in a subsequent phase maybe he gets ten times that amount of money maybe he starts a small company.
I think he is company something like ditto tool and die company or something like this maybe ditto Tool company gets a factor of 10 or investment in the in a follow-on phase. In fact, maybe even a subsequent phase could be a hundred times as much. So as time goes on as the maturity of the technology increases as you continually refine the portfolio allowing the failed investment to just sort of Fall by the wayside.
You can concentrate on those ones that are [00:15:00] successful which is first of all a reason why you have to invest in some high-risk stuff. You got to take some risks right and then second if you. And if you have a portfolio approach you have the opportunity to use statistics to your benefit. I can let's say if I'm NASA invest in a hundred a crazy ideas every year and if only one or two of them pan out, well, that's great those one or two.
Probably something I really care about.
How do you incentivize innovation within NASA?
Ben: that makes a lot of sense and in that portfolio. So in a in excellent Financial portfolio, you measure success by how much money you get by your return. There's a number and that's you want to maximize that number that you're getting back NASA's portfolio doesn't quite fit into that.
So, how do you how do you measure how well a portfolio is doing? How do you incentivize people? To within NASA to really push the best Innovations forward.
[00:16:00] Mason: Yeah several things going on there. First of all, you got to take a look at the organization's culture. You have to take a look at how they respond to Innovation.
My experience with NASA is that it's full of brilliant and committed people at the same time. There's a tendency for the younger folks to be very forward-looking and interestingly for the most senior leadership be fairly forward-looking somewhere in the middle. There's a like a lot of problem, but it would have a low spot would have us soft spot where people in more than elsewhere can be.
Careerist that is the not so willing to take risks. They want to keep their jobs. They want to be seen as effective. And again taking on risks can be not looked upon well that in their opinion. So so that's tricky right here these different populations in any large organization and you got to come up with a way of communicating the value of innovation across the board, right?
That's one of the challenges making this sort of thing work. Suppose a lot more that you can see about about culture and I [00:17:00] suppose every culture is a little different but one of those the hardest parts in making Innovation stick is to communicate to folks that it's a permanent solution what I found again using NASA's an example, and I've also work with other companies by the way for which this is true.
There's a tendency to think that these technology investment initiatives or this Innovation is initiative is just the flavor of the day, you know, it's it's a it's our flash in the pan or whatever metaphor you like. It's a temporary State of Affairs. So there are people who are afraid if they start to go to heavy toward Innovation and man maybe quit their job of doing program management and study to become a radical innovator.
That whatever leadership has been pushing that is going to disappear eventually and it'll go back to business as usual and then they'll be left without a job. Right? So there's risk seen in this process of taking an innovation because you not so sure how permanent is going to be. So, you know, how do you Embrace that problem as someone trying to effect change just [00:18:00] promising it's not going to go away probably won't convince folks.
They've been around long enough. It's in your organization's happen. They've seen issues come and go how do you convince them? So I wish I had an answer to that other than to say that it's only through longevity of an innovation process that people really start to embrace it and what I'm talking about when I say longevity.
I mean really on the order of five plus years you really would like to have almost a generation of folks grow up in an environment where that Innovation is taken to be the order of the day.
Strengths and Weaknesses of each sector
Ben: something like that. I've I don't have an answer to but that I see consistently is that there are these these timescale mismatches where people's careers are sort of judged in maybe two to five year segments where if you nothing's happened in the past two to five years.
People are like well, what are you what are you doing? And then the really the the Innovations take something like. You know seven to 10 years to to really mature so it's very [00:19:00] hard to align those incentives and I'm just always always looking for answers around that. I you mentioned that you've seen this at a bunch of different organizations you've literally been in every every sector right you've been in Industry. You've been in Academia you've been in government. Do you have any sense of what role each of them should ideally occupy in an innovation ecosystem and what strengths and weaknesses each has.
Mason: That's a wonderful question and probably beyond my Ken but I will I will offer for those of your listeners and you as well who want to go back rewind a little bit to the World War II time frame thinking about this fellow named vannevar Bush and then you've probably encountered thanks to him and his Innovations we have what we have now where [00:20:00] universities take on what we call fundamental research which combines both basic and applied research and then come.
The government take on the next step which is implementation in to say potentially demonstration or something operational system. This is at least the way it's shaking out maybe the original town with a bit different but that's kind of how it shakes it out and people are fond of pointing to this Gap or this where they call it the.
This Chasm between the Innovation that happens in universities and then the need for near term profit making investments in companies or low-risk politically safe Investments of the level of the government. There's a gap in their right and how do you feel that Gap? There are organizations like DARPA the defense Advanced research projects agency that are meant to fill that Gap and their NASA.
We try creating programs that would fill that Gap and not surprisingly. There are there are still problems with that. So. We think of universities think of companies think of government that are clearly different motivations that drive each one of these. [00:21:00] I wonder if there isn't a different motivation entirely that might be more Global more Universal at the moment.
We don't have it if we were ever. Oh, I don't know set upon by an alien horde we might pull together as a as a nation as a world and in all contribute a little bit differently to the way things are going but at the moment without any obvious. I'm cataclysm on the horizon and some might argue about climate change for the say we don't all agree that there's a cataclysm on Horizon.
We're in these silos. So universities we innovate in a certain way. We innovate at the level of again. I'll call it basic and applied research. The government innovated the level when it works. Well policy when it doesn't work. Well the government tries to solve its own problems using its own expertise really really in my opinion.
They should be going outside for that expertise and businesses solve problems in a way that maximizes shareholder value probably in the relatively near term. These are all I mean perfectly successful ways of pulling on [00:22:00] Innovation, but they're not the same. And they do lead to very idiosyncratic Solutions.
Again. The question is isn't there something more General and broader. What do you think?
What's the correct system?
Ben: I would have I think I mean, I definitely you're the one being interviewed but I think that there's you've completely identified that Gap and I think that in my mind there's what it should really be is. Sort of a pipeline and that looking at what needs to be done and who is best incentivised to do it.
So for example, the. It's stuff where there's this very long long time Horizon uncertain outcomes sort of like big our research would come from universities with some light support from the government. But then as soon as that needed to be pulled together into something that required a lot of [00:23:00] coordination and a lot of money then perhaps the government or a company would come in depending on.
What the real outcome would be but you know if I had a real and like the whole point of all of this is to try to figure out a real answer. I don't have a good one at the moment.
(Shift in funding methods)
Mason: Yes, happy birthday thinking about this other thing. I guess I could offer is the way we fund research in this country has as changed over the years there was a time and it might surprise some of your listeners to think about this there was a time when as a university researcher.
You probably didn't write any Grant proposals or if you did it was one every few years. These days most people in say my position where I'm working at a well-regarded research-intensive university. I write 10 to 20 individual research proposals a year of which a small faction or funded is probably less than 10% or funded.
And I think I'm actually doing pretty [00:24:00] well frankly for that ten percent. There are folks who go years without getting any of proposal from the despite submitting hundreds of Grant proposals for the amount of time involved in writing these proposals. It's worse and worse every year the money gets Tighter and Tighter and you know, what do you do one answer is that we've.
We've morphed toward this model and maybe it's not what we all want what we have right now in a previous age where the government more directly supported universities where research was done regardless of funding you got different outcomes, but that was a relatively short period of time in our in our history.
If you go back a little farther this a 19th century before for the most part research was done either by the independently wealthy or by people with some kind of philanthropic back. You know the prince of some new name your favorite to European potentate, the I the prince of whatever would would fund your research into discovering new molecules.
And that was just the way it worked. Yeah. So these models have changed [00:25:00] radically over the years and interesting question is where this might go if in fact something like crowdsourcing or. The ubiquity of information and access to it through the internet really matures to inform how we do research.
I do not know what the future holds. I know you've been thinking about the sorts of things in the past. Yeah, but it's interesting question. But what this looks like what the research infrastructure or ecosystem looks like when we can vote up or down a good research projects. Or maybe when crowdfunding can be the basis for what research gets undertaken may not be good. But it's another way to do it.
How good is crowdfunding
Ben: Would you trust a large population of people to be able to. Would you trust them to allocate research dollars? I ask this based on the fact that you see a lot of these articles shouting an outrage that the government is funding someone to I don't know like walk around [00:26:00] and look at snails or something ridiculous.
But then you could make the argument that well you look at snails enough and then you find this one snail that has some chemical compound that then could be synthesized into medicine. So would you trust crowdfunding? What would that get become
Mason: I probably wouldn't trust them as far as I can throw them.
I guessed another way to think about it is there are I probably would not trust the crowd to vote for one thing. I might be trust them statistically if we could fund many things out of such a population and that's where again the benefit of large numbers comes in. I even though I think that the public generally might get some things wrong from time to time and maybe somewhat credulous and believe strange things on the whole they're strangely predictive.
I'll give you another quick story about that please years ago was probably 10 years ago DARPA had this interesting idea. Don't remember exactly who DARPA but isn't. [00:27:00] Dandiya, if you look at how crowd Source information works, it seems surprisingly accurate and predictive. So what if we created a stock market for terrorist attacks, and we had people as actually placed bets on but you know invest in Futures, but.
Terrorist attract attack Futures the the outcome would be people voting to maximize their return on their Investments would use all that work release or most information that we know is out there and would identify the most likely terrorist outcomes of those terrorists outcomes associated with say that again that are continually Rising stock something out there.
Is motivating people to think that that's like the outcome now to issues, of course number one is incredibly crass and in extremely poor taste to defy such a thing [00:28:00] and. And Interpol was I think a little tone deaf, you know offering that as a project because it was very quickly jumped on by the me.
Yeah. I can't believe how horrible these people are really thinking but they're not wrong in that the right kind of crowdsourcing can in fact the almost prescient almost almost. Telepathic or psychic in its ability to predict some things but not all things and that's where I say. You want to have a managed portfolio of this stuff.
So every now and then maybe more often than not the crowd will be wrong. But if you give them the chance to run lots of different things, you'll both encourage A diversity of opinion which leads to different kinds of solutions now, that's a good thing and probably a statistical. Draping over all the different possibilities so that eventually the right answer can come out.
So I think those two ingredients probably could make it work, but I'm very speculative about this right now. And again the DARPA stories interesting cautionary tale because as soon as that became public it just that went away in a [00:29:00] hurry.
What happened to grants?
Ben: just to go back you mentioned that until recently people do University Research only had to write one Grant every few years was that because the great sizes were much larger. Were they getting money from outside sources? Why was that? What changed?
Mason: Yeah, that's interesting cause and effect will bit muddled and you can find other people probably better explain this history.
But my quick version is something like this the kinds of research that we're done in the University's the kind of research was much more skewed toward the basic end of things pencil and paper theoretical development. And also the let's just be frank we knew less than we know now. So coming up with new stuff is a larger maybe than it was before I know if that's fair but I think that's just some research part of it.
Yeah. So well there there you go. So first of all, we were solving different problems right now though. We are taking on a lot of the problems that actually you to be done in Industry. The famous example, of course is Bell [00:30:00] Labs right out of which the transistor came these days. The transistor will be developed within University and to develop a transistor or something analogous to it requires significant infrastructure Investments, not just pencil and paper.
So even though the theory behind some conductors came out of University the actual practice of it came out of bell labs and there have been plenty of other examples like this. So I think actually industry has skewed away from doing research. Although there's a bit of emotion back toward it now, but it's nowhere what it used to be and then necessarily universities have taken a non not out of a sense of obligation, but rather because it's you know, there's a void and they rush to fill.
But to fill it we need more money. So where does the money come from either comes from profit centers or come from the government with the government reducing tax income and also research investments in trouble for the 1980s. Now there's a new kind of Gap. It's the research Gap. So for the most part Industries not doing it and when University does do it.
[00:31:00] It's spending a lot of a server for just bringing the funding. Got it. So you'd also argue probably that the universities are you not the best place for this to be done? You know, there is a lot of my opinion a lot of value in companies developing intellectual property. They keep it to themselves.
They can make a profit on it. That's a huge motivator. What we do need a verse These almost exclusively is open. We publish it and basically anyone can pick it up and use it.
What do you think of breakthrough starshot and philanthropy?
Ben: that makes a lot of sense. You also mentioned that farther in the past a lot. There was a lot of funding that was being done by wealthy individuals and you're an advisor for breakthrough starshot.
I believe which as far as I can tell is almost entirely bankrolled by wealthy individuals it seems like. Breakthrough starshot is sort of something that in the past. We would have expected NASA to do. Do you think that what do you what do you think about this [00:32:00] shift? Do you think that the wealthy individuals are going to start filling in that Gap where the pros and cons there?
Mason: Well, first of all, I think that's a lot of what think it's a fact a lot of wealthy people certainly in the US have been filling that Gap. They have been funding a lot of research more than in the past. The the cliche is you start your computer. Can you sell it you make a billion dollars in new investment with that you really care about which is space exploration and that that that pattern has been repeated over and over Elon Musk for sure.
Jeff Bezos for blue origin and there's been plenty of examples of this so, I don't know maybe maybe it's more than just a cliche. But anyway the going back to this question of will private individual Step Up. We have to an extent but they all have a certain something in it for [00:33:00] themselves that that was always the case has always been the case for privately funded science.
Remember there are foundations. Now that still do fund Sciences. There's not as much there used to be but there are still these foundations, right? So the question is what kind of science do you get when you have a billionaire from to your. There's always going to be some idiosyncrasy associated with it and what we can take the Breakthrough starshot project as an example.
Personally. I think it's a fantastic project. And for those of you who don't know the Breakthrough starshot project consists of coming up with a 20-year plan to build a spacecraft that could launch again in 20 years and take maybe 20 years to reach the closest star Proxima Centauri or maybe Alpha Centauri with the goal of returning some science data.
Another three or four years after that depending on the light travel time. So that's a long duration project meets almost at the scale of a medieval Cathedral. I doubt that many of us on The Advisory Board will even [00:34:00] be alive to see that data come back if it ever does so it's not dangerous undertaking.
It probably makes sense for that reason for it to be privately funded or funded by something like, you know a church, but these days the church does not fund science that way so it's not not a critique, but it's just it doesn't do that. Yeah, the way that they may be used to fund building Cathedrals.
So these large projects like Cathedrals or Starships probably deserve a special kind of funding one thing I've discovered about em, it's not my own Discovery plenty of other people know this as well. I was just late to realizing it. Congress wants to fund things that they can take credit for okay, so it's going to be 2 4 or 6 years time frame at most where they want to see a return on their investment their investment being stepping up to be sure that some product project is funded.
But so that's their return on investment timeframe and industries return on investment time frames in the sale of months. It takes [00:35:00] something like a billionaire or some other kind of philanthropic effort to fund a project that is longer than a few years. So if we really have aspirations that lie along this axis this temporal axis that makes us want to get a result in decades from now.
We're going to have to look for funding source. That is not something governmental throughly not up to Industry. So I think there's a place for private investment for foundations or philanthropic. God is definitely that kind of thing so that you're not going to get funded by you know, the Air Force.
Let's say or by orbital Sciences Corporation of Northrop Grumman Corporation,
Concerns about philanthropic time scales
Ben: one concern that I always have about. Philanthropic efforts is as you said there has to be something in it for people and when you're not able to get sort of a return on investment that's in money. Sometimes I've seen people be less patient because they [00:36:00] want to see progress on on a shorter time scale. Do you do worry about that at all?
Mason: Well, you know as I said, there's always this risk if you have a single investor, let's say again some billionaire to be named later that he or she will pull out the funding based on some whim they decide rather than funding a Starship that rather fun to the purchase of a massive sculpture massive bronze bust of him or herself to be placed in his front yard.
Who knows? Yeah, and I'm not speaking about Yuri Milner here. Let me say for my few interactions of him. He seems like a legitimately. Two passionate scientist you really does care about knowledge for the sake of humanity. But it's also clear that he wants to be known as the person who successfully they support this work and things nothing wrong with that.
So just like other examples the past of philanthropic contributions. You you probably want your name attached to these discoveries and that's again, that's fine [00:37:00] with me.
Experience With Different Organizations
Ben: and shifting gears a little bit. You've had your research funded by many different organizations both inside the government and in Private Industry.
Have you had different experiences with that? And which ones are your favorite or what did your favorite ones do and what is your least favorite ones do?
Mason: So that's a long story. So I'm gonna give you an answer which sounds like I'm itself said during and that maybe that's correct. The answer is when you get left alone to do the job.
It works really well. Now I totally understand that if let's say I'm a member of a government organization or industry. I need to feel that my money is being well spent I want to check in and I don't want to end up with a yoyodyne propulsion systems. If you remember the movie Buckaroo Banzai, you don't want that kind of contractor gone amok kind of phenomenon.
I get that [00:38:00] at the same time too much micromanagement sort of defeats the purpose of doing fundamental research. You know, the whole idea is we don't have a thing yet. We need to create that thing and that Act of Creation is not something you can exactly legislator specify the requirements. So I'm a little uneasy at of the idea about the idea that very tight control over the act of invention is going to give you a good result at the same time.
Yeah, you need to be responsible stewards of whatever money you're using to fund Sky research. So I see where that comes comes from. I don't want to give a specific example that's going to get me in trouble with the essential functions, but I will say it government agency a government agency collaborating with us on a project.
The project involved a few technological innovations after we scoped out the project with this government agency, the the folks involved at the government agency and supervising our work decided that work was so cool. They want to do it themselves. So they went ahead and try to make themselves removing.
[00:39:00] Most of what I viewed as the really Innovative parts of the work leaving us with some fairly wrote tasks which there were still paying for. So, I guess I'm kind of glad to take the money but. Then the problem was because he's relatively unimaginative tasks the government agency decided it would be very helpful for us to be very tightly supervised to do these simple tasks.
They were very good at and that led to a lot of in my opinion wasted money on things some example for this example is we were building an object out of some official part. Some of you can find at a hardware store, right? The reason we were doing so is because those parts a lot of design margin that is to say you could you can pressurize them or you could add electricity or whatever it was and the parts would not fail.
They were made for Consumer use their super safe and excessively over design and it which is great actually very safe. But the sponsor wanted us to do value in [00:40:00] all these with a super detailed analysis using what's known as finite element analysis element analysis where you break it into little mathematical chunks and put in the computer.
They wanted us to test it. They want to do all sorts of things for parts. You could buy at the hardware store which you buy every day without thinking about because they're super safe because they're built that way that was a ton of a waste of time. So so that was a very negative experience I think.
II chalk it up to my naive tank and working with that sponsor. I now know what kind of work to specify for that sponsor at the same time. It was not going to be a relationship of whatever worked. Well for what it's worth. We took that project and we're doing ourselves now and we've made more progress in the last.
Two years that we did in the two years previous where they were helping us. I guess we'll call it. So I'm glad to say that research is doing well now but it's only because we have a few resources internally that we can use to spend on the stuff. I'd rather not end on a cynical no Opera offer positive [00:41:00] version this case so the positive version and I will create the big breakthrough starshot with this positive version of those of us working on The Advisory Board.
Sometimes get some funding. From the the foundation to see what that will really pay for a service but with that money I can do lots of cool stuff. So I've been able to turn a few students to we're solving some problems of interest of breakthrough starshot it when we've got some great results. It doesn't actually take that much as long as we have the researchers have some freedom to pursue the work on our own terms.
So if there's a lesson there it's something along the lines of you need a light touch. Normal gostin, the former CEO of Lockheed said the best way he's ever found to manage people this pick the right folks be clear about what you want and then get out of their way. Yeah, and that's that's lucky to that's not just some pie-in-the-sky academic like me saying that so there's something to this in the lesson learned again is to have a light touch
How do you change the 10 year goals 8 year political cycle mismatch?
Ben: excellent. And then going back to [00:42:00] NASA briefly while I was working with you. I saw consistently that the executive branch would set tenure goals, but then. For political reasons those goals would change at most every eight years. And so you get this progress towards this 10-year goals and then it would change. Do you see any way to change that sort of unfortunate situation?
Mason: Well, there have been wasted proposed for example for NASA again since I know that example really well, it has been proposed even in this most recent Congress that NASA should be funded on a 10-year time frame and the idea would be that a a congress whatever the hundred and some odd Congress whatever it is would set the budget for NASA appropriate the funds and get out of the way.
So the idea is that again once a decade, maybe you would check in and change the objectives. So this is I think most people recognize that the best way to run these long-term [00:43:00] projects. If you keep changing course every two to six or eight years, you just have chaos. This is one of the main reasons why things like the James Webb Space Telescope the International Space Station space shuttle, these all have given mass of the reputation of going over budget.
But I have to defend NASA in this case because NASA really is able to defend itself on the spaces. It's not NASA. Okay, it's Congress if you have a project. That is complicated and takes a long time. There's a natural funding profile that goes with this. It's a little bit at first while you get your feet under you and then there's a big lump in the middle and that tails off toward the end.
This is standard funding profile. But NASA's budget from Congress is flat. So you end up very inefficiently smearing this money across a very long time which makes things inefficient expensive things. Don't go. Well, you lose good people along the way and you end up spending more in the long. This story has been told over and over again and Congress.
They're smart people. Well, actually you may not think so, but they are [00:44:00] in my experience. They know what they're doing and they know that they're going to trade off between the right answer and the politically expedient answer the politically expedient answer is as long as they can be seen to having their finger on the button for NASA there there there folks will vote for them.
So you understand that's what motivates them. So I would say if there's a way to make this work. Well, it's something like. Come up with a way for they can where they can get credit for things are working. Well without necessarily having to change what's going on. Yeah, and I don't have an answer probably make that work if that were possible that makes a lot of sense.
What's the best way to make the world that has never been today?
Ben: So I realize we're coming up on time. One of the the last things I want to ask you about was that some things that people might not have guessed about you is that you have a master's in English because. As your bio states that you thought that that was the way to make the world that has never been its by inspiring people with writing [00:45:00] and then you change track completely and well not completely but you figured out that engineering was sort of the best the best way to do that.
Now, what what do you think? Do you still think that what you think the best way to enable the world that has never been? In today's here. And now
Mason: I like the way you're asking that question it recalls that quote from Theodore Von Karman, right distinction between science engineering scientists create the world's or huh, scientists discover the world that is Engineers create the world that never was it's not exactly a way of claiming that Engineers are better than scientist.
Is that really what it's about is about distinguishing between these two impulses. We have discovering the unknown and creating. What doesn't exist in my opinion both contribute to improving our lot as humans, so there's a place for both in a reason to have both let's not confuse one with the other.
I have always been about creating things. I [00:46:00] suppose I get this from my parents. My dad's a writer. My mom has created many things over the years. She was an artist. She has been a an actress and a brilliant Coco to restaurant. She's a very much a polymath when it comes to things of all. So I probably get this from them at some level but I've always taken not to be one of the the Essential Elements of what it is to be human is to create to lie.
If your impact on the world in a positive way at least an impact at all and positive is my choice. Okay suppose people choose to do negative things. So what I'm saying is that that impulse is always been part of what matters to me. When I was a young naive person, I thought I could have that impact through English literature.
I still interested in this I still interested in writing and reading and I respect people who can make a career out us for a thing, but it wasn't what I was good at. So instead I felt like aerospace engineering particularly offered me the opportunity to [00:47:00] solve problems that haven't been solved and to make an impact that I felt like making.
So I guess over the years I've discovered there are definitely different ways of looking at the world one of the most the way that I look at it another one of the ways that people get the world is what's the safest way I can keep my job and not get fired. And those are very different impulses and and look I recognize that my perspective here maybe comes across as I don't know what to elitist or entitled or first world or something where I'm saying that it's great to have the freedom to create and make an impact on the world.
I see I clearly tightly to that value. At the same time, I recognize that not everybody has that opportunity. Sometimes you just gotta make do you got to do what you can keep your family fed? Keep your shoes on your feet and you don't have the freedom the luxury of being able to do everything exactly the way you want it.
So I recognize I'm very fortunate in my career my life. So I do not in any way put down people who haven't got the bandwidth simply to set assignments sided set aside time to create. [00:48:00] But that is what matters to me and I'm very fortunate that I have a job that allows me to do that. Yeah, well said.
Ben: So I do realize we're over time this was amazing by the way, so I just want to make sure that I there's any points that I didn't hit on absolutely want to give you a chance to talk about that.
Mason: Well, I'm so glad that your interest in this question. How do we innovate?
I will offer that when government works. Well, it enables people whatever works while it enables people to do their best in the service of our nation. Let's say when it doesn't work. Well it tries to prescribe to micro manage to get in the way so I am far from being an anti. It's very kind of person that I hope it doesn't come across.
I think the right policies are essential. I mean policy you can look at is the software of our [00:49:00] lives here in an innovation when that software is written correctly the rules that we follow and we choose to follow they enable us to be successful when the software is not right everything falls apart.
So, you know, I actually would not be averse to turning over some policy making the software Engineers because I think they have a sense of how to write good software and lawyers when they do their job. Well, you know that works out well too. Yeah, but unfortunately to be a software engineer and to affect society requires some additional kind of tranny.
So if I want to close with a comment, it would be something along the lines of that. I don't see that much of a distinction in what people are capable of whether it's mathematics. Or history or philosophy or art or technology or science? These are all in my mind forms of the same thing. There are things of which we are all capable.
I suppose there's some sabanci there who can do multi-digit multiplication in their heads, but I'm not interested in that because I have a computer. [00:50:00] So instead I take that multidisciplinary capability. We all have and my opinion were born with as a sign that. We shouldn't feel limited by what we think we're good at or not.
And so those of you interested in creating an innovating don't feel that you are limited by what your label is if you're labeled as a software engineer, maybe policy is the right thing for you if your if your label Les a lawyer maybe you should think about going into space technology. I don't know.
What I'm trying to say is that there's there's a lot of freedom that we all have for pursuing good ideas and we should take. Advantage of our rare position here at the beginning of the 21st century where we have these tools. We still have the resources. We wish to create we have this one chance. I think to make make our work right?
We got a lot out of this conversation. Here are some of my top takeaways. If you have an organization full of smart motivated people that doesn't produce great results. If all the incentives are set up to avoid [00:51:00] risk, there's been a shift in where different parts of the Innovation pipeline happen more is shifted to universities and startups away from larger companies and government but the systems of support having caught up to that change.
Finally taking a portfolio approach to technology and Innovation is a powerful concept that we don't think about it enough. I hope you enjoyed that you'd like to reach out. You can find me on Twitter under app and Reinhart and I deeply appreciate any feedback you might have. Thank you.