From Distant Planets to the Deep Blue Sea

By Phil Plait | March 24, 2009 12:41 pm

I have long argued that not only should our government fund scientific research, we should demand it do so. I need not go into details — you can find my arguments here and here and here and especially here — but let me just say that science always pays off in the long run. Always. And many times in the short run as well.

Even in hard economic times, we have to fund research. If we don’t, we make things that much harder on ourselves later. Now please, don’t tell me we can’t afford anything for science, or that I’m asking too much. This argument is not so clearly black and white: I am not saying we can afford to fund everyone’s research at the levels we do during economic boom times, of course. But unless this country (and in fact the whole world) slides into a vast depression, then we certainly do need to keep some money flowing, even if only at a tighter level, into research. We don’t know what major advance will come out of some medical research, or engineering research, or even space research. So even if we restrict the flow, it’s important to keep at least some flow.

This does mean some research may get funded at the expense of something else, but the last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts. Doing that poisons the scientific community. And doing it in public is ugly and extremely bad form, since that cannot help but make the public turn against science in one form or another.

That’s why I am particularly unhappy with an editorial in the Huffington Post by Amitai Etzioni. It’s an attack on NASA, set up as a false dichotomy between space research and ocean research, and uses narrow-minded opinions that I don’t think reflect those of the American public.

To start off, Etzioni complains that the Kepler mission — designed to look for the signatures of Earth-like planets orbiting other stars — is essentially a waste of money:

NASA has a very effective propaganda machine. Whatever modest little mission it pursues, it frames as if it was of grand importance not merely to the United States but to the human race. The most recent example is the launch of a telescope which costs a ‘mere’ six hundred million dollars, the immodestly labeled ‘Kepler’ mission. For those who have not kept up with the philosophical implications of their astronomy lessons, Johannes Kepler revolutionized our view of the world by revealing that we are not the center of the universe, that we are among a bunch of other planets which are circling the Sun rather than Mother Earth.

Dr. Ed Weiler, Head of Science Missions at NASA, told NPR that Kepler “is a historical mission. I maintain it really attacks some very basic questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?”

[...]

One could say this is merely one overblown piece of PR, dished out by those who try to justify why they are spending hundred of millions of dollars on projects that will yield very little.

"Yield very little"? Dude. Seriously? The question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and even if there are other planets capable of sustaining life, is certainly deeply ingrained in our minds. This is one of the biggest remaining unanswered philosophical questions in science! For Etzioni to poopoo it is not only insulting, but so egregiously wrong-headed that it boggles my own mind.

What’s better, Kepler or ocean studies? Neither. They’re both important!

There are a lot of big questions in every field of science, but I think asking if there is life in space transcends any one field, if only because the question itself involves so many scientific disciplines: astronomy, geology, biology, physics, and more. And now, for the first time in history, we can make solid progress towards answering that question.

Not only that, but Kepler will yield vast amounts of data useful in a lot of astronomical subdisciplines. It’s not like all we’ll get out of it is a simple statistic like, "1 out of every 18 stars has planets". Any type of survey undertaken in astronomy is incredibly useful in cross-disciplinary work. Perhaps Etzioni should have talked to an astronomer before writing what he did.

His basic premise in the HuffPo piece is that we should be spending that money on deep sea research, and not space. This is the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Here’s a thought he doesn’t talk about: why not fund both? Yes, there is not as much money to go around as there used to be, but why suggest we cut off funds for one kind of research to feed another? Sure, oceanography is important, interesting, and could yield economic boons, but so does space exploration. His strawman argument of NASA helping create Teflon is pretty awful; he ignores the impacts of, say, weather satellites, communication satellites, solar weather prediction, the huge benefit computers got from Apollo, and the creation of the digital photography industry.

Just to give you some piffling examples.

You can read the links I provided at the top of this article for more. And if you think Etzioni is not really attacking NASA — and hurting all of scientific research — in his article, then read how he ends it:

Granted, Obama has more urgent priorities than worrying about either outer space or deep oceans. However, presidents have assistants, and they have assistants. Somebody, one cannot but hope, can bring some sense into setting priorities in spending those dollars dedicated to exploration. These may well be dedicated to discovering ways to fight disease and finding sustainable new sources of energy. But do not look for NASA for much help.

That is, to be blunt, ridiculous. Not the first part; he’s correct there. But that last part simply and baldly pits all of research against NASA, and that is grossly unfair. Not only that, it’s dead wrong. For example, the NOAA — which does the type of research Etzioni is suggesting we do instead of space exploration — got about an 8% increase in its budget from 2008 to 2009; NASA got about 5%. DOE science got 15%. In total numbers, NASA’s budget is much larger than NOAA, but that’s not surprising since, in general, it’s harder and more expensive to get into space than it is to explore the oceans. But we do spend quite a bit on the exploration Etzioni is supporting.

So.

To Mr. Etzioni: we’re all in this together. You may note that in this essay I am not saying we should ditch one kind of science to support NASA, or vice-versa. I am saying that to do this the right way, we need to support everyone. Scientific in-fighting, back biting, and narrow-minded territorial defensiveness will not help anyone, and in fact hurts everyone.

It is not only possible, but I believe mandated, that all of us who love science and want to further the knowledge of humanity support each other’s endeavors. The public does in fact have a great interest in many fields of science, including space exploration, ocean exploration, biological exploration…

The key word there is exploration, and there’s enough Universe out there for everybody.

Tip o’ the poisoned pen to Richard White.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Science

Comments (126)

  1. Brownian

    So, Etzioni’s gonna shut up and don a wetsuit then, is he? Good for him. Let’s see how much of the ocean he maps.

    After all, “[s]tudying the health of oceans and how they may be protected is much more urgent” than writing editorials.

  2. S Protsman
  3. Rather than “What are the benefits of funding science?” I think the real question should be, “Are you willing to kidnap and imprison people who refuse to fund it?” In my opinion, funding science through blood money (money gained through threatening tax payers with imprisonment) will always undermine whatever discoveries it may find.

  4. CS

    At least, so far there hasn’t been one Huffpost commenter that has agreed with him.

  5. Charles Boyer

    One thing that would advance knowledge of our oceans would be for the US Navy to further declassify more of its extremely extensive mappings of the ocean floors. Really now, do people think submarines having been running around blind for the past seventy years?

    Secondly, this is a false dichotomy but then again so is the manned vs. unmanned argument that some on this site go on and on and on and on about, all the while ignoring historical record and expert (such as lunar scientists) opinions that disagree with their point of view. There is more than enough space exploration to go around to have robust manned AND robotic programs, their assertions to contrary notwithstanding.

  6. Ian

    His basic premise in the HuffPo piece is that we should be spending that money on deep sea research, and not space. This is the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Here’s a thought he doesn’t talk about: why not fund both? Yes, there is not as much money to go around as there used to be, but why suggest we cut off funds for one kind of research to feed another?

    Hey BA, I suggest you read up on the basic economic idea of ‘opportunity cost’.

    Of course you could fund both these projects, but then you’d have even less money in the finite funding pool for any other projects you might want funded.

  7. Thank you, Phil. Maybe I’m biased, because I work for JPL and I know people who have worked very hard on the Kepler mission (okay, no maybe about it), but I agree with you that this is not an “either/or” scenario. It’s ridiculous to think that, even on a practical level, the Kepler telescope “will yield very little.” Who knows what technology that was developed for the telescope could be adapted for everyday use here on Earth?

    In addition, the data that we receive from Kepler could very well inspire even more people to follow the sciences. The Spitzer telescope has captured some amazing images that are truly breathtaking and have inflamed the imaginations of children to consider, “What is out there?” The same for the Hubble. So just imagine what Kepler could do. Not only the question of “What is out there?” but “Who is out there?”

    Who knows what child might grow up to do great things because they saw something truly awesome (in the original sense of the word) that was captured by Kepler.

  8. What’s more stupid is that compared to war and Wall Street, the dollars spent on useful things like science are negligible.

    What if we invested several hundred billion in science instead of in war profiteering and fiscal cronyism? That might be cool, yeah?

  9. OtherRob

    Aren’t there some satellites that are studying the oceans?

  10. IVAN3MAN

    Etzioni = Philistine.

  11. Isn’t the complaint about Kepler a bit late? I mean, the project has been in the works for years and was fully funded prior to the current financial crisis, was it not? So, basically he’s chasing after money that is long since spent…

  12. OtherRob, yes, there are. And guess what? NASA is part of the effort.

  13. Glenn

    Hey Ian, I suggest you read up on the basic economic idea of ‘diversified portfolio’.

  14. Having just finished listening to the audiobook for Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, I see that nothing has changed in the arguments against us going into outer space.

  15. TechnoMage

    I had really hoped that we’d seen and end to short term scientific thinking when the Bush administration left. Guess not.

  16. Kevin

    @TechnoMage…

    There are cretins everywhere. Doesn’t matter what administration, business, etc.

  17. Vernon Balbert

    OtherRob: Yes, and GOCE is the latest.

  18. Something related to this that I hear on occasion is that we shouldn’t study or build something if it has no practical application, which I always find a bit strange. Recently a webcomic I read had an interesting footnote (click my name for the page), which talked a bit about how cience and scientific discovery has occurred in history. There is a really nice comment in the middle of the footnote:

    … these discoveries all cascade off other discoveries and technologies recently invented. Much of science is this way. There are simply things we cannot discover until we have a certain level of technology. Technology enables the expansion of scientific investigation into fields previously unfathomable or unknown. Nobody could possibly have predicted that photography and electricity technology would lead to the things about to be described in the next paragraphs. This is why science needs access to new technology, even if nobody can think of any possible reason for it. The discoveries still waiting to be made could be … profound and world-changing…

    So by spending money on both space and ocean exploration you may find that a technology developed for one area of research that, while seems to have no use for one field, has a pratical application for the other.

    Plus there is the fact that while NASA is primarily concerned about space research it does have a lot of problems that it overcomes that lead to technologies that have pratical earth bound applications.

  19. Kyle

    Well said BA, well said.

  20. Mike

    Excellent retort, Phil. The comments section on that page is full of people who feel the same way. I always have been upset by people accusing NASA of spending too much money or exploration. And to constantly pander with claims of how the money NASA gets could “CURE AIDS, HOUSE THE HOMELESS, AND MAKE LITTLE BABIES NEVAR CRY AGAIN” is sad, pathetic, and embarassing. If we don’t explore, what’s the point to anything we do as a species? That includes exploring the ocean. Don’t move money from NASA to ocean exploration, both should receive adequate funding to do what they need to do.

  21. bjn

    Etzioni picked a bad target with Kepler. We’re potentially at the threshold of getting our first data on the Earthlike planets, and like the first view of the Earthrise from the Moon, that perspective can serve to humble us into better stewardship of this planet. And the robotics innovations for space missions almost certainly can be useful for sea exploration.

    If he had criticized the rudderless manned space program that should be throttled back in favor of the robotic space missions, I’d have been much more sympathetic. Most deep sea exploration is robotic, and that’s rightly so. The same holds true for this stage in our exploration of the solar system. NASA has killed or sidelined too much valuable science to keep the manned space program zombie going.

  22. Hmmm, interesting about the HuffPo commenters. I purposely didn’t read any of them, since I wanted his piece to be unbiased by others’ thoughts (though I did ask Mrs. BA to proof it). You never know with HuffPo: they have several antivax writers, which is one reason I don’t write there any more. Unfettered nonsense by Deepak Chopra is another.

    Ian, of course I understand limited funding. I made that point at least twice in the article. And I worked as a NASA contractor for many years, so I’ve actually lived the limited funding lifestyle. It stinks, but that’s the hand we’re dealt. One project fighting another for limited funding dooms them both.

  23. Charles Boyer

    @bjn: “If he had criticized the rudderless manned space program that should be throttled back in favor of the robotic space missions, I’d have been much more sympathetic. Most deep sea exploration is robotic, and that’s rightly so. The same holds true for this stage in our exploration of the solar system. NASA has killed or sidelined too much valuable science to keep the manned space program zombie going.”

    From above:

    “this is a false dichotomy but then again so is the manned vs. unmanned argument that some on this site go on and on and on and on about, all the while ignoring historical record and expert (such as lunar scientists) opinions that disagree with their point of view. There is more than enough space exploration to go around to have robust manned AND robotic programs, their assertions to contrary notwithstanding.”

  24. Ja Muller

    I disagree with pretty much everything. The notion that scientists should not speak out against publically funded science that they feel is not worth funding or has been misrepresented to the public is ludicrous. Even if you disagree with Etzioni specifically on Kepler (I’m pretty sure I do) you should not disagree with the concept of scientists in other disciplines auditing publically funded science to help maintain that money is not wasted. (Obv in this case Etzioni has a conflict of interest but the public is capable of factoring that in with his arguments and making up their own mind)

    BA wrote
    “The key word there is exploration, and there’s enough Universe out there for everybody.”

    No, the key word is money and we KNOW that there’s not enough of that for everybody.

  25. Charles Boyer

    “No, the key word is money and we KNOW that there’s not enough of that for everybody.”

    Do you realize that we gave AIG alone more money since last October than we spent on the entire Apollo program, adjusted for inflation?

    AIG: 180 billion dollars.
    Apollo: 25.4 billion dollars from 1965-1969.
    Adjusted for inflation in 2007 dollars: $156.13 billion

    There is enough money, we simply waste it on the wrong things.

  26. Ja Muller

    “Do you realize that we gave AIG alone more money since last October than we spent on the entire Apollo program, adjusted for inflation?”

    I am a scientist and I am honestly not qaulified to judge the merits of the AIG bailout. People have argued that letting AIG fail would have led to a massive meltdown effecting millions of people. Right or wrong, I don’t think the situation is analgous to funding or not funding Kepler.

    I’m not a fan of arguing that something is perhaps a better use of funds than something that the speaker considers to be a monumental waste. I don’t think arguments like that make the public feel good about funding science.

  27. Ian

    Well BA, the point stands that there are way more worthy projects out there than there are funds available, so most projects will be out of luck. It’s a zero-sum game. It’s therefore unavoidable that judgment calls must be made on the relative merits of every single research proposal in every area of publicly-funded science. Etzioni makes his, you make yours, I make mine. So don’t try and claim that we could or should just fund everything, because we can’t (and, in fact, we shouldn’t).

  28. Corey S.

    Hey BA- Have you read (and if you have, have you commented on) the debate between Tim Sandefur and Mike Dunford on the public funding of science? As a libertarian who loves science, I think it’s a fascinating debate. I’d love to read what you have to say about the debate.

  29. Aren’t most of the technologies that deep sea explorers using today derived from space-based technologies?

  30. Brian Schlosser, Lurker

    In addition to the philosophic aspects to the search for extra-solar earths, there IS a very important practical reason to do so: One of these days, we may have to move there. If we are still here in a few centuries/millenia, the question of what planets in the neighborhood can sustain earthly life might not be an academic one.

    In reference to the statements about funding, yeah, of course, there is a finite pool of lucre to spend on research. But I agree with Dr. Plait 100% that to simply say “Space science bad! Earth science ++good!” is a foolish argument.

  31. Phil,

    Knowing that no matter what, boom or bust, AIG bailout or not, there is a finite amount of money available for research, what criteria would you suggest is used to determine who gets what and how much?

    Does all science pay off equally? In the examples in your post, can you be sure that ocean research wouldn’t pay off more than space exploration, or even the other way around? With finite funds, should we prioritize?

    I agree that it’s a false dichotomy to pit the ocean against space, but I don’t think it’s false to look at the returns we’ve been getting from the current NASA direction.

  32. Phil: to dismiss out-of-hand even the notion of debating which scientific research would be most valuable to mankind is insane. NASA getting more funding than oceanographers is not justified because getting into space is pricier than getting to the sea: we should be funding whatever gives us the most bang for our buck (by which we mean long-term increase in human wellbeing per dollar invested), and if something is more expensive you have to justify this additional expense with evidence of direct benefits and spin-offs.

    You utterly fail to justify why Kepler is vital to humankind: it does attack a fundamental philosophical question, but it’s really not clear that the answer to that question will improve mankind’s health and wellbeing in the short or medium term, so we could put off asking it whilst we solve more pressing problems. To stifle this debate due to your idea that space is best a priori is just silly.

    Yes, space exploration has had loads of brilliant spin-outs, but you have to contrast that with the number of benefits per dollar invested to make a meaningful comparison; you totally ignore the bang per buck of oceanography.

    We do have a limited pot of cash for research, and it’s vital that we direct that money where it will work hardest. It is also vital that we fight to expand that research pot so more projects can be funded, but that’s a separate issue.

    I agree that this public dissent does damage the public image of science, but it is not inherently wrong to question how we allocate research budgets. Your counter-argument that ‘one project fighting another for limited funding dooms them both’ is a rhetorical, anecdotal point for someone who claims to be rigorously evidence-based.

  33. As much as I like HuffPo for political news, I find that their science and health writers are underwhelming at best, criminally uniformed at worst.

    That’s why I come here for some of my science news! It’s all about the quality.

  34. James

    The point is that scientists calling out other scientists in public and attacking the other’s work as “not worth the money” has a good chance of decreasing the total funding pool for science. Even if your own project gets a short-term funding boost, it completely destroys your long-term gain.

    It’s like the iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

  35. Scott Belyea

    “let me just say that science always pays off in the long run. Always.”

    I distrust this sort of absolutist statement. Always.

    “the last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts. ”

    Again, an absolutist statement. If you have a way to avoid that squabbling, speak up. Scientists all over the world would be grateful.

    Squabbling over funding is a basic reality of science, the arts, public projects such as highways, policing, health care, and on and on and on. Always has been, always will be. Get real.

    I agree with the basic premise of your piece, but I suggest that you’re way over the line on a number of specific points.

  36. Caleb

    I listened to an NPR Science Friday interview with Harry Kroto, who received Nobel Peace Prize for his work which lead to the discovery of fullerene (C60). He, Dr. Kroto, argued that though science is often funded short-term, many of the advancements in science that have had a profound impact on society and quality of life have come from “fundamentals” research (ie: research for research’s sake), and that the federal government (and industry when possible) should keep science funding high.

    He gave a really good interview for anyone interested:
    podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/510221/102195718/npr_102195718.mp3

  37. Phil, you are right on with your rant.

    Unfortunately what I see happening with this debate is that it is turning into a Right vs. left. The Conservative Right is for space exploration and increased science, where as the liberal left is for keeping the space program in low earth orbit at the most, and all if any research funding going towards global warming.

  38. Old Geezer

    “…and a puppy and a bicycle and a pony and a Barbie doll and a swing set and a…” while Mom and Dad stand to the side and wonder if they have enough money to fill next month’s prescriptions. The question shouldn’t be whether one or another scientific endeavor is worthwhile, but whether we can properly prioritize the spending of a limited number of dollars.

    Of course you want to know if there are other Earth-like planets out there. You’re an astronomer! I would be disappointed if you didn’t. But in setting priorities you should ask the same question I asked my kids when they came up with abstract questions (Can the dog read the newspaper?) and that is, “What will you do with the answer?” Other than fulfilling a philosophical yearning, will it deeply enrich your scientific life to know that there are precisely 17 Earth-like planets only two thousand light years away from us? What will you do with the answer? Since you disagree with Etzioni, don’t tell him (in so many words) to shut up. Tell him and us why knowing this is important. Then balance you answer against what a qualified ocean scientist can tell us about what can be learned by spend an equivalent amount of money exploring the sea.

    Probably 99% of those living today did not experience the Great Depression first hand. We really don’t have the experience to fall back on to figure out how we should be behaving. We are emerging from eight years of scientific dark ages into several years of economic dark ages. Just when we have greater scientific opportunity we find ourselves with greatly diminished economic opportunity. This not a time to APPEAR to be running amok with that new opportunity. Far from preventing those with differing opinions from expressing them, we should be encouraging them, lest we find ourselves the example of some troglodyte Senator in 2012 bemoaning that we could have stopped the Depression from coming if only we had cut off all scientific spending in favor of an expanded National Day of Prayer. If we keep the discussion going, however divisive some of it may be, at least the concept of scientific spending will stay alive.

    BTW, the answer to the dog-reading-the-newspaper question is, “Not if it’s the Rocky Mountain News.”

  39. QUASAR

    ‘I have long argued that not only should our government fund scientific research, we should demand it do so.’

    Screw the arguments, pal! Scientific research is vital!

    It’s just that we’re being governed by some scumbrains who just don’t get it! How much did you americans spend in scientific research last year?

  40. I can’t recall if I ever saw this linked here, but Brian Cox has some great points about science funding in his (hour-long) video at:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/cox09/cox09_index.html

    It also has a transcript, which is very handy.

  41. Badrx

    Etzioni’s piece is a bit inflammatory and cites poor examples but hiding in this ham handed article is a grain of truth about NASA. NASA is at it’s best with missions like Kepler, Spirit, Opportunity. These unmanned missions have done or will do incredible science. Contrast this with the 100 billion dollar “bloat” of the manned International Space Station.

    The overaraching question of this piece “How should be allocate research dollars?” is a good one and not one that should be mischaracterized as a false dichotomy or backbiting. I think the idea of “why not fund both?” is a bit simplistic. The opportunity cost of different projects needs to be considered and criticism of weak projects is essential.

  42. QUASAR

    By the way,

    If you have the power of science with you can claim dominion over anyone!

  43. MadScientist

    This is typical of an idiot’s attitude towards science: “my interests are superior to yours” and, for the Harvard MBAs, “we will only fund this project or that – we’ll lock you guys in a room and whoever’s still alive when we open the doors will get the money”.

    People with little capacity for thought cannot understand that it is important for people in diverse fields to explore and learn as much as they can; all this contributes to our society. Funds may be limited, but only the dumbest of the imbeciles could ever parrot that nonsense about “targeted research”. Many people are probably familiar with such managementspeak as “we will only fund research which will have a large impact on ” – that is an imbecile’s view of the world because history has shown that science and progress do not work that way. As an example, have a look at IBM – over the years they have invested many billions in semiconductor-related research; for the most part there is no economic return on any particular project but many projects contribute to the general knowledge which can later be applied to one successful (in economic terms) project. An imbecile manager would have this notion that the one big successful project can somehow be identified beforehand and funded while the other 50+ projects whose budget amounted to over 200 times that of the successful project could also be identified and never funded. The obvious dilemna here is that without the numerous small projects which made a small contribution, the successful project could not exist. Unfortunately I see (political) ministers and idiot managers around the world squawking about ‘targeted research’.

    Everyone needs to develop their own fields of research; this is why I don’t even say things like “cut funding in the arts and sociological studies; let those people get a real job and give more money to science”. Anthropology, for example, has improved an awful lot in the past 50 years, evolving from a culture of hearsay to a genuine quest for facts and understanding (you will commonly find a mix of both today). I have absolutely no interest in anthropology, but I certainly wouldn’t cut a department’s budget because of that – although I would gladly get rid of the department if I did not see them as making progress in learning.

  44. It does not help that Robert Ballard was recently on The Colbert Report, bemoaning how much money NASA receives compared to NOAA. He claims that if NOAA got the same amount as NASA receives per year, it would fund oceanographic research for 1,000 years. Shortly after Ballard was on, the assistant director (?) of NASA made an appearance talking about Kepler. I have to say that interview was about as interesting as watching mold grow in a Petri dish. This guy had a perfect oppportunity to talk about Kepler and the search for ETI, and when asked the question, “Do you believe in aliens?”, his response? “Uhh, NO, I do not.” So, why go on a very popular TV show to promote a mission (Kepler) designed to look for planets that may be capable of supporting alien life? It would have been a perfect opportunity to educate the public about SETI, the fact that there probably is life out there, and that, no, they are not coming to probe your butt at 3AM. NASA has a serious image problem, and dolts like this do not help. I must say, kidos to Colbert, as he has Neil deGrasse Tyson on, and I have seen eminent physicists and biologists on as well.

  45. Thanny

    “In my opinion, funding science through blood money (money gained through threatening tax payers with imprisonment) will always undermine whatever discoveries it may find.”

    This kills me. Taxes are blood money? Everything paid for by them is undermined?

    That includes pretty much everything you take for granted, including the computer you used to post your rather strange opinion on.

    Hope you never get sick, because every shred of healthcare available to you is undermined, according to your philosophy.

  46. SLC

    I’m sorry that Mr. Charles Boyer doesn’t like commentors who criticize the manned space program. My reaction is tough noogies. I have more confidence in the scientific judgment of Prof. Bob Park and Prof. Steven Weinberg then I do with that of Mr. Boyer. But of course, Bob Park and Steven Weinberg don’t know what they are talking about according to some here.

  47. Here’s the link from Colbert’s interview with Ballard: (It’s from Canada’s Comedy Network, as we cannot view Comedy Central vids here, so you may not be able to see it)

    http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/#clip142086

  48. I dunno Phil. I understand why you wouldn’t want to condone the crankery that is HuffPo’s science and health articles, but to stop writing there? I wasn’t aware you ever did, to be honest, and maybe now it’s moot since I guess you probably no longer have the time anyway (all those hats you wear).

    The thing is, by withdrawing, don’t you worsen the situation by removing what little good science was in there? You don’t have to justify anything to me, but to my mind it speaks to a larger issue. Scientists complain that X-media perpetuates nonsense, but when given the opportunity to speak their piece on X-media, they refuse because it perpetuates nonsense. It seems a little catch-22-ish to me. I’ve meandered completely off topic, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

  49. Adrian Burd

    Phil,

    Well said. However, semi-tangentially, studying the deep sea is harder, more expensive and hazardous to equipment than one might at first think. As an astronomer who turned oceanographer in mid career, I was quite surprised at how hostile an environment the ocean is and how expensive it is to operate out there. Technologically, oceanographers are far behind astronomers, but catching up rapidly with autonomous gliders and AUVs and the like. The biggest issue is the corrosive environment. Another is the fact that it’s very easy to lose stuff out there. Sure, losing a 1-2 million dollar piece of gear is not the same as losing a 100 million dollar probe, but the technologies are not the same. The total operating cost of the UNOLS fleet (that’s the US oceanographic research fleet operated jointly by NSF, NOAA, the Navy and a couple of other organizations) is, when it’s fully operational, of the order of $70 million a year – which amounts to about 5400 operational days on something like 23 ships. This doesn’t include the cost of ice-breakers like the Gould or the Palmer which are leased. It also doesn’t include the cost of the science done on those cruises. It also, as far as I know, doe not include ships the Ocean Drilling Program’s Joides Resolution.

    So, I’m not arguing against your points -I fully agree with them – just pointing out that ocean research is often more expensive and more risky that one at first thinks.

    IMForeman – I know of hardly any deep ocean research done with technology derived from space-based technology. There maybe some used in deep sea subs, but maybe not – Alvin was built in 1964 and is still being used, the Johnson-Sealink was built in 1971. Most deep sea research is pretty low tech, mostly because of the extreme environment (corrosive fluid, organism biofouling, pressures of several hundred atmospheres). I’d be happy to know of some technology transfer if you have examples.

    Adrian

  50. Ja Muller

    Thanny,

    I have no idea where you live, but many people use computers and have medical care (insurance) that they pay for with their own money and not from taking money from somebody else.

  51. coolstar

    SLC: be careful to whom you listen: Weinberg argued in front of Congress that the SSC was needed to promote cancer treatment in the U.S.! As dishonest a piece of BS in support of science as I’ve seen in my lifetime. Similarly, I had senior astronomers tell me, with straight faces, in the 80′s that we all needed to support the ISS because NASA would kill our astronomy funding if we didn’t. It’s for these reasons that, as usual, I have to disagree with our Bald Astronomer. I was very happy to tell everyone I knew what complete nonsense the above two arguments were.
    Having said that, there IS a lot of anti-science and anti-intellectual crap on the Huffington Post, which is why Phil’s rant should have been posted THERE, rather than preaching to the (often disagreeing) converted here.
    Oh, and quoting that ass-******* Weiler, whom I distinctly remember lying about HST on Nightline years ago, didn’t do much for BA’s case. Personally, I’d be ashamed to be seen in public with him. (was it him on Colbert doing a crappy job of supporting Kepler? IMNSHO one of the best and most cost effective space observatories of the last several decades: disclaimer as I do work in a related field)

  52. mk

    @Charles…

    Secondly, this is a false dichotomy but then again so is the manned vs. unmanned argument that some on this site go on and on and on and on about, all the while ignoring historical record and expert (such as lunar scientists) opinions that disagree with their point of view. There is more than enough space exploration to go around to have robust manned AND robotic programs, their assertions to contrary notwithstanding.

    I ask this sincerely, I swear. Could you please give me some of the names of those lunar scientists who disagree with the point of view of some of these manned space flight critics? Maybe a link or two to their best defense? I am genuinely curious.

    Thanks.

    MK

  53. @Caleb
    Harry Kroto won the Nobel for Chemistry.

  54. KC

    “You utterly fail to justify why Kepler is vital to humankind: it does attack a fundamental philosophical question, but it’s really not clear that the answer to that question will improve mankind’s health and wellbeing in the short or medium term, so we could put off asking it whilst we solve more pressing problems.”

    I’m sorry that your view of discovery and exploration is so narrow – only that which benefits/has value to *ME* is important.

    The phrase penny-wise but pound-foolish comes to mind.

  55. Cairnos

    OK, I’m just going to brush the surface here but…

    All attempts to map the seabed require that the mapper KNOWS WHERE HE IS. Oddly enough the ocean is a tad short of useful landmarks so this entire field has been vastly advanced by the existence of GPS (hat of to the US DOD on this one) which apparently stands for Global Positioning Something or other.

    Algal blooms are found, tracked and studied by these big chunks of equipment falling around the planet looking down…I think they’re called satellins or something.

    These same satellin thingies are also used to map ocean currents, temperatures etc.

    For the purposes of managing fisheries many nations require that the larger vessels that fish on the high seas have an Automatic Location Communicator which every so often finds out where the boat is from the GPS and then automatically tells the relevant nation so they can tell that the vessel is being a good boy. Advances in technology means that they no longer have to send the message by well trained albatrosses but instead bounce it of yet another satllin thingy somehow.

    One way of studying ocean species (esp endangered ones) is to put a tag on some which regularly records things like depth, position, water temp, etc and then after a set amount of time pops off to the surface and tell the researchers all about it via …ok three guesses and the first two don’t count. BTW white pointers (or great whites if you want to jazz up a headline) do some serious travelling.

    Ok I’m gonna stop now. I know some others have mentioned this point but I thought I’d throw in some specifics

  56. mk

    Well said, Cairnos!

  57. Tom

    “I’m sorry that your view of discovery and exploration is so narrow – only that which benefits/has value to *ME* is important.”

    The quote you mentioned just does not merit your response.
    Personally, I applaud most science, even if just for science’s sake.
    But the quote you provide is dead on.
    Are all NASA projects created equally? Not a chance. And there needs to be (and I think there is) a reasonable balance between science that has a knowable payoff, and science for the sake of knowledge.

    Now, maybe I am mis-representing facts… but it seems that I have been told, again and again, that the existence of life outside of meager planet earth is not just a probability, but as near to a certainty as we can give without “proof”. So WHEN, not if, we discover life somewhere else, it will be a huge milestone, but certainly not anything that should surprise any intelligent person.

    So the quote is completely correct. If we focus on that piece of knowledge as the ultimate goal, then no, it has little benefit we don’t already own. That being said, we are bound to discover tons of other useful and unexpected things along this path of discovery. Most scientific pursuits are of that nature.

  58. Keith Thompson

    So say we all.

  59. Jean-Denis

    Manned vs robotic space exploration missions is indeed a false dichotomy. But:

    I was involved with a passionate arguments with scientifically literate people who argue that manned mission cost a lot more than equivalent robotic missions, for no additional benefit whatsoever.

    I was not sure, so I asked this question of the BA forum: how would you argue in favor of manned missions?

    The best points I got were:
    1- manned missions are better and more effective at collecting samples.
    2- PR: it makes a very nice newsworthy story, which can help bring more funding to space exploration, and entice students to embrace science careers rather than wall street.

    It seems to me the case for manned space exploration missions is rather weak. But it’s not a question of dichotomy.

    I’d welcome other reasons why it’s a good idea to fund manned space exploration missions.

  60. Na

    Another reason for manned space exploration missions: if we ever have to get off this planet because we killed everything, wouldn’t it be nice to know that
    a) we know how to do it
    b) we know our limitations of what we can do/can’t do in getting people into space
    c) we know how it will affect our bodies and minds
    d) we know how long it would take to reasonably get somewhere/land somewhere/establish a base
    e) we know how best to land
    f) we know what we can/can’t take with us, not just resources to get there but to survive when we do arrive… etc.

    I thought that’s kind of the point? And ISS makes headway in that sense, because we can see for ourselves how difficult it is just to make repairs, let alone get a whole generation of people up there.

  61. Craig

    @Na: The “we might have to emigrate” thing is a spectacularly weak argument for manned space flight.

    Unless we stumble across some sort of Star-Trek miracle warp technology (vanishingly unlikely), we’re restricted to (much) slower-than-light travel, which means that we’re essentially limited to this solar system.

    And, as we know, there is only one human habitable planet in this solar system, which means that moving to another planet on a large scale would require massive terraforming…which makes the whole emigration idea kind of pointless. If we’ve got the tech to make Mars (for example) human-habitable, then we’d be better off just staying on Earth and applying the same terraforming technology to cleaning up whatever mess it is that we’re running away from.

    Manned space flight is very, very cool, and I would love to have the chance to do it myself…but that’s about all that it has going for it.

  62. Also, manned space missions should be classified as biological research.

    As far as conducting zero-G experiments in shuttles are concerned, it’ll be a while before cybernetics research enables machines to match our dexterity.

  63. T_U_T

    we’re restricted to (much) slower-than-light travel, which means that we’re essentially limited to this solar system.

    bs. We could still reach the nearest stars with a few decades travel time. Maybe long for an individual (not geneticaly enhanced, not hibernated). But long enough to make colonization impossible

  64. T_U_T

    Errata…But DEFINITELY NOT long enough to make colonization impossible…

  65. Jean-Denis

    Well, if you really have to resort to emigration, then the case for manned missions is indeed very weak. As realistically, there is no reachable place outside the stratosphere where mankind could settle.

    The full topic on the BA-UT forum is at http://www.bautforum.com/space-exploration/85298-arguments-manned-missions.html.

  66. Nigel Depledge

    Ian said:

    Well BA, the point stands that there are way more worthy projects out there than there are funds available, so most projects will be out of luck. It’s a zero-sum game. It’s therefore unavoidable that judgment calls must be made on the relative merits of every single research proposal in every area of publicly-funded science. Etzioni makes his, you make yours, I make mine. So don’t try and claim that we could or should just fund everything, because we can’t (and, in fact, we shouldn’t).

    No, we should not fund everything, even if we could. But what we should do is fund all of the high-quality proposals that promise to return significant new science, whichever field of science they are in.

  67. Etzioni is just plain uninformed and wrong. One of the secondary uses of the information Kepler will send back is to learn about the internal structure and evolution of extrasolar stars, through sonic oscillations that result in minute periodic light fluctuations. This could tell us a lot about the behaviour of our own sun, which might help us predict coronal mass ejections that could wipe out our power grid and destroy our civilisation (I didn’t say it, New Scientist did). I interview a scientist involved on my blog, http://www.cogandhelix.wordpress.com. If that’s not a practical application, I don’t know what is!

  68. Nigel Depledge

    Statto said:

    Phil: to dismiss out-of-hand even the notion of debating which scientific research would be most valuable to mankind is insane. NASA getting more funding than oceanographers is not justified because getting into space is pricier than getting to the sea: we should be funding whatever gives us the most bang for our buck (by which we mean long-term increase in human wellbeing per dollar invested), and if something is more expensive you have to justify this additional expense with evidence of direct benefits and spin-offs.

    No. Because we have no way to predict what indirect benefit a particular science project may uncover. And you don’t get evidence of the benefits of science until after you’ve done it. C’mon, the whole point of doing experiments and setting up observatories (whether in space or under the sea) is to answer questions.

    You utterly fail to justify why Kepler is vital to humankind: it does attack a fundamental philosophical question, but it’s really not clear that the answer to that question will improve mankind’s health and wellbeing in the short or medium term, so we could put off asking it whilst we solve more pressing problems. To stifle this debate due to your idea that space is best a priori is just silly.

    And you have utterly failed to get the point of scientific exploration.

    Science is often divided into “applied” research (e.g. pharmaceuticals, that have an immediate and obvious benefit) and “blue-sky” research, which has no obvious immediate benefit other than increasing our understanding of the universe and how it works. Guess which one provides us with more long-term benefits, and guess which one is more able to inspire people, to make them wonder, to make them think, and to expand their horizons.

    I work in an applied science field, and I am pretty sure that nothing I do has the power to truly inspire people. Save lives (or substantially improve the quality of someone’s life), sure, but not inspire.

  69. Craig

    We could still reach the nearest stars with a few decades travel time.

    As far as we know, the nearest star doesn’t have any planets, let alone any Earthlike planets worth colonising.

    And, as for the “few decades” thing: the Apollo project currently represents the fastest travel undertaken by a human. According to Wiki (feel free to correct here, Phil) Apollo topped out at about 40,320 km/h, which translates to 0.00000003736 light years/year. At that speed, even assuming that the target is the (quite likely planet-less) Alpha Centauri 4.37ly away, the journey would take roughly 116,970,021 years.

    To be generous, I’ll interpret “a few decades” as 50 years. So, in order to get to Alpha Centauri in “a few decades” (assuming that there’s something there to make the trip worthwhile), we would need to get our (presumably very large and heavy, since we’re talking about a manned colony ship rather than a probe) spaceship up to about 2,339,400 times faster than the current human-occupied spacecraft speed record. While this is theoretically possible, thanks to the near-zero friction environment of space, it’s a long way from practical and the energy requirement would be (literally) astronomical.

    We would also need to figure out a way to manuever this record breaker in order to avoid the hazards of previously unexplored interstellar space, and somehow carry or acquire sufficient fuel to allow us to decelerate back down from roughly 94,324,608,000 km/h in order to make a landing.

    All without any possibility of material assistance from Earth in case of the (near certainty) of something going wrong. And that’s just in order to get to Alpha Centauri. Most stars are a lot farther away than that.

    Just because our theoretical maximum top speed is the same as the speed of light in vacuum doesn’t mean that we’re ever going to get anywhere close to breaking that limit.

    DEFINITELY NOT long enough to make colonization impossible…

    Theoretically impossible? No.

    Massively impractical and largely pointless? Yes.

    If we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel feasible (and it is almost certain that we never will), then we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel unnecessary.

  70. mk

    “If we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel feasible (and it is almost certain that we never will), then we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel unnecessary.”

    Beautiful comment. I will be using it–or some form of it–in the future. Thanks!

  71. If we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel feasible (and it is almost certain that we never will), then we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel unnecessary.

    Since when has stopped the human race doing anything. Sense of wonder man, you’re missing it.

  72. conformal group

    It seems Etzioni is a sociologist.

  73. Craig

    @Shane: Hey, if we ever get to the (almost certainly never going to happen) point of having sufficient tech to travel interstellar, then I’d be all for it. But only as an exploratory/sensawunda/”because it was there” exercise.

    Fantasising about interstellar emigration is not a practical or sensible response to environmental catastrophe, and pretending that it is doesn’t help anybody.

    Incidentally, George Mallory once explained in more detail what he’d meant by the “because it was there” quote:

    The first question you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘what is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer at once must be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.

    To my mind, the long version is much more inspiring than the original soundbite.

  74. Charles Boyer

    @SLAC: ” I’m sorry that Mr. Charles Boyer doesn’t like commentors who criticize the manned space program. My reaction is tough noogies. I have more confidence in the scientific judgment of Prof. Bob Park and Prof. Steven Weinberg then I do with that of Mr. Boyer.”

    And if you think that my viewpoint on that issue is solely my own you are woefully uninformed or are being much more than slightly disingenuous.

    Belittle me all you like, but you cannot impeach the likes of the late Richard Feynman, among others.

    And good luck finding the political support to back your goals.

  75. Adrian Burd

    Cairnos,

    “Brushing the surface” is precisely what you did. Yes, GPS is used a great deal, but again, not that much for studying the deep ocean. Satellites only detect chlorophyll in the very surface of the ocean, thereby missing vast amounts of algal production in subsurface production maxima (on an annual basis, this is arguably where most of the action is – globally we have no idea). Also, satellites measure sea surface height which gives only limited information about currents, almost all of it being again at the surface. By combining sea surface data from TOPEX with data from GRACE it is hoped that some information about deep currents can be obtained, but I’ve not seen results from this yet. A satellite cannot measure the temperature below the surface.
    Most deep sea (well, anything below a few tens of meters really) oceanographic data is collected using moorings and these tend not transmit data back to land. Gliders, which are still quite rare, do transmit data via satellite, and some ocean buoys (such as NOAAs Coastal Buoy system) also do (when they are working). But satellite instruments themselves only see the top few meters of the ocean, whose average depth is 4,000 m. And, one should also state that the determination of chlorophyll biomass using satellites is based on empirical correlations. There is still considerable uncertainty in their results. Yes, they give nice pretty pictures, but getting hard numbers out is
    another matter entirely.

    Yes, Earth orbiting satellites are important for oceanography, as oceanography and related fields (the biology of extremophiles for example) are important for studying astrobiology. Geophysical fluid dynamics, a crucial part of oceanography and atmospheric sciences, is also used in planetary studies. As Phil stated, all these fields are interconnected and it is nonsense to state one is intrinsically more important than another. This is presumably why there are different funding agencies for different disciplines.

    I’m not arguing that satellites do not play a crucial role in oceanography, as they do in many aspects of our daily lives. IMForeman talked specifically about “deep sea explorers”, so unless your definition of “deep sea” is 200 m depth, then there are very, very few examples of the use of space-based technologies used to explore the deep ocean. In fact, we know more about the surface of the Moon and Mars than we do about the bottom of the deep ocean. We’ve explored less than about 1% of the surface of the abyssal plain (i.e. most of the hard surface of the planet) through subs, landers etc.

    So I would still contend that hardly any deep ocean research is done using space-based technology.

    Adrian

  76. Gonzo

    NASA is everybody’s whipping boy these days huh?

    No one ever complains about the massive wastes of money in the Defense Department before they whine about NASA. It’s only because NASA is so awesomely visible. No one would care otherwise.

    I have trouble taking these folks very seriously.

  77. Charles Boyer

    “I’d welcome other reasons why it’s a good idea to fund manned space exploration missions.”

    I would recommend you to go to http://www.nss.org for more information, the arguments they present (I am not a member, for the record) are far more detailed and nuanced that any I can offer given the time and space constraints of a blog commentarium. My little upcoming dissertation on the technical heritage of the Apollo program may provide a bit of insight, but that is neither now nor here. NSS is a better source.

    Take the time to watch Hawking’s presentation there. Though Dr. Hawking has his head far above the clouds through much of it, he does make a compelling argument.

  78. papageno

    Statto:
    we should be funding whatever gives us the most bang for our buck (by which we mean long-term increase in human wellbeing per dollar invested), and if something is more expensive you have to justify this additional expense with evidence of direct benefits and spin-offs.

    Where do we get the crystal ball to foresee which research gives the most long-term benefits?

  79. Na

    # Craig Says:
    March 24th, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    “@Na: The “we might have to emigrate” thing is a spectacularly weak argument for manned space flight.

    Unless we stumble across some sort of Star-Trek miracle warp technology (vanishingly unlikely), we’re restricted to (much) slower-than-light travel, which means that we’re essentially limited to this solar system.”

    I take your point, but will counter/add with: Returning to the original topic of the post, if we can’t foresee where science will take us, isn’t it better to understand the issues I mentioned just in case? And that the actions taken on ISS by astronauts could indeed impact us here – like figuring out energy saving devices and reducing waste for instance? I’m not saying space flight is practical for the human race – especially since I know nothing of this stuff – just that it does indeed offer us some sort of benefit in the long run.

    … Slightly off topic, but actually a link from this blog sent me reading a blog post from one of the people on ISS. It inspired me; I work in theatre and am hoping to write a script for a children’s puppetry show that is all about space. (And here I add: not sci fi, but an educational script) If I can manage to produce it, I will tour it to local schools… so maybe the ‘inspire’ thing is relevant, because it can also inspire us to *teach* science as well as to learn.

  80. Al Viro

    @T_U_T: you do realize that “somehow nothing among the wide-spread catalyzers involved in local biochemistry manages to screw yours and vice versa” is extremely unlikely, don’t you? It’s not about local bugs being able to infect you – it’s about what happens when local analog of strep crawls up your nose and dies there, releasing the normal local ferments… And without existing biosphere you are looking for terraforming a planet with no free oxygen – good luck cramming that into a few decades…

  81. Nigel Depledge and papageno both say that the outcomes of fundamental science are impossible to predict. You’re both right—but it is not a particularly useful contribution to the debate. I agree that we don’t know what discoveries may be made in any given research project, but to use that argument in its absolutist form can justify totally pointless research into the properties of belly-button fluff over NASA, because the outcome of all research is inherently unknowable! If the outcomes are impossible to second-guess, surely we should pile all our cash into oceanography, or indeed belly-button fluff studies, because we can do more research for less money, and have more chance of a brilliant spin-out?!

    Clearly quantity of research isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to benefit. We have to use our best judgement, with the caveat that our data are inherently flawed, and the future is inherently unpredictable. This is the scientific method, and applies equally to picking which disciplines we research in the first place. We should do all we can to identify which areas of science, and which projects, expose us most to the possibility of positive unexpected discovery. For example, a space probe answering a question about distant galaxies using a slightly novel arrangement of largely already-developed technology strikes me as the kind of thing which would be unlikely to produce a spin-out, whilst one which required creation of an entirely new detection system and studied weather systems might be more likely to produce relevant results. I am not accusing any specific project of being either of those things, just suggesting that there may be factors which we can identify about types of research which correlate with an improved chance of making exciting discoveries.

    Nigel asks me about the outreach benefits of big science. The power of fundamental research to inspire was not mentioned by Phil, which is why my response didn’t address it. I agree that big science has an inspirational element, but it could also be argued that it projects an image of scientists isolated in their ivory towers doing bizarre, incomprehensible, enormously expensive pet projects. I am not saying which is the more prevalent attitude, just that your rhetorical appeal to the irrefutable benefits of inspiration is empty. We are scientists, so we should collect some data on public opinion, collect some more to work out how important public perception is, and try to account for this when deciding upon research topics.

    I am not saying that all pure research is useless (whatever ‘pure’ research means anyway). Space exploration, for example, self-evidently does have a random spin-off element that I do not feel qualified to quantify. What I am saying is that we should not, as you guys and Phil are doing, say ‘astronomy is brilliant, there is no scope for debate about allocation of research budgets between disciplines’.

  82. mk

    Just came from reading Hawking’s speech.

    So this is it? At long last, this is the best argument out there? Sad. Deeply depressing.

    Charles said: “Though Dr. Hawking has his head far above the clouds through much of it, he does make a compelling argument.”

    Strongly agree with the first half of your comment, strongly disagree with last half.

    It is no more than the same silliness about survival of the species. Forget earth, look to the heavens!

    Thanks, but no thanks.

  83. @MK-

    If you didn’t agree with what Dr. Hawking had to say you could try this link below (or click my name). It’s a fairly short speech that Bob Park gave that (in my opinion) makes a lot of sense. I want NASA to be guided by science and exploration and I think it’s squandering some great achievement by focusing on the wrong kinds of projects.

    worldwideweb(dot)thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-virtual-astronaut

    @Craig – Another round of cheer to your “If we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel feasible (and it is almost certain that we never will), then we have sufficiently advanced tech to make interstellar travel unnecessary.”

  84. Ami Silberman

    Regarding manned space exploration vs. unmanned: Given the data points which we have (lunar exploration), the cost of manned exploration is arguably less than that of unmanned by a large factor. A couple of years ago I discussed this on sci.space.history, but essentially, if you looked at the total samples returned from Apollo, and the total distance traversed, and the total number of stations visited on the traverses, and then compared that to what could have been accomplished with a hypothetical unmanned craft with the full capabilities of both the best US and Soviet probes (such as the Soviet rovers), and gave it a miraculous sample-return capability, you still got more photos, rocks, observations, and kilometers per dollar with Apollo. The two, manned and unmanned, are both useful for surface exploration.

  85. papageno

    Statto:

    Statto:
    Nigel Depledge and papageno both say that the outcomes of fundamental science are impossible to predict. You’re both right—but it is not a particularly useful contribution to the debate.

    Neither is putting words into other people’s mouth.

    You are the one advocating “funding whatever gives us the most bang for our buck”, so it is up to you to give a sensible method to determine which research would “gives us the most bang for our buck”.

    Statto:
    I agree that we don’t know what discoveries may be made in any given research project, but to use that argument in its absolutist form can justify totally pointless research into the properties of belly-button fluff over NASA, because the outcome of all research is inherently unknowable!

    You are the only one making absolutists statement.
    But I see that you concede that you cannot determine which “gives us the most bang for our buck”

    Statto:
    If the outcomes are impossible to second-guess, surely we should pile all our cash into oceanography, or indeed belly-button fluff studies, because we can do more research for less money, and have more chance of a brilliant spin-out?!

    Have you considered not using strawmen? Why are you going from one extreme to the other?

  86. curious

    +1 to Adrian.

    not to make this into a pissing contest, but it’s not as simple as assuming that because most of “space” is far, far, away, it must be more difficult to study than the deep sea.

    equipment-killing salt, critters, and devastating pressures are not to be pooh-poohed. neptune loves to eat science for breakfast…

  87. Oh come on papageno, address the substance of my argument where I do detail how we might go about estimating the usefulness of research based on evidence, rather than picking apart the flippant opening paragraph.

    And please explain how your methodology allows us to make any useful inroads into the question—I’m sorry if I was ‘putting words into other people’s mouth’, but if that is not your position I have genuinely misunderstood your point.

  88. AJ

    # Jacob Spinney Says:
    March 24th, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    “Rather than “What are the benefits of funding science?” I think the real question should be, “Are you willing to kidnap and imprison people who refuse to fund it?” In my opinion, funding science through blood money (money gained through threatening tax payers with imprisonment) will always undermine whatever discoveries it may find.”

    Kidnapping people? Blood money?

    What on Earth are you on about? :-S

    # Demodain Says:
    March 24th, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    “Phil, you are right on with your rant.

    Unfortunately what I see happening with this debate is that it is turning into a Right vs. left. The Conservative Right is for space exploration and increased science, where as the liberal left is for keeping the space program in low earth orbit at the most, and all if any research funding going towards global warming.”

    Hmm… I’d definitely put myself on the “liberal Left”, and I’m for increased space exploration AND more funding for anti-warming measures.

    I doubt I’m the only one…

  89. Marko Germani

    Nobody making a comparison with Iraqi war expenses? Comes out Kepler is worth one day of it or so…

  90. papageno

    Statto:
    Oh come on papageno, address the substance of my argument where I do detail how we might go about estimating the usefulness of research based on evidence, rather than picking apart the flippant opening paragraph.

    Considering what you have written about the imoprtance of taking into account public perception, maybe you should have thought twice before writing that paragraph.

    Statto:
    And please explain how your methodology allows us to make any useful inroads into the question—I’m sorry if I was ‘putting words into other people’s mouth’, but if that is not your position I have genuinely misunderstood your point.

    The methodology of “not using strawmen” seems to be quite clear.

    Can you explain how you understood “we should pile all our cash into oceanography, or indeed belly-button fluff studies, because we can do more research for less money, and have more chance of a brilliant spin-out”, from my point that the long-term benefits of research are not exactly foreseeable?

  91. Ian

    Nobody making a comparison with Iraqi war expenses? Comes out Kepler is worth one day of it or so…

    Yeah, and murderers should make the point that they’re much less evil that Pol Pot. I’m sure that logic would be effective.

  92. mk

    @Cheyenne…

    Thanks. Very thoughtful, well argued piece.

    And I love his bit about terraforming! Priceless.

  93. papageno: If the long-term benefits of research are entirely, completely unforeseeable, how do you choose the types of research which will give the most benefit? I could suggest ridiculous research project x, and you would rightly criticise it for being stupid, and I could then take your current position and say ‘aaah, where’s your crystal ball, how do you know it will be useless?’

    How do you propose we allocate limited money between blue-skies and applied research using this principle?

  94. T_U_T

    Craig, Alviro, with that attitude, our ancestors would never leave Africa and we would never build anything like a civilization.

    Look and learn that it could be done. Not only theoretically, but right now. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_salt-water_rocket
    .

  95. T_U_T

    it’s about what happens when local analog of strep crawls up your nose and dies there, releasing the normal local ferments…

    Nothing happens at all. random alien peptides would be most likely completely harmless.

  96. Jeff

    The rub here is “our government”, who are they? Who are making the decisions specifically? The fact is, mostly DC is full of bureaucrats who blindly follow rules, don’t use common sense/critical thinking, and that is why there is so much waste. I don’t trust the govt. in general, only certain individuals in it. But the system hasn’t worked efficently in past, won’t in future.

    Phil, you are an idealist. I like your books/forum, but I no longer share your optimism.

  97. amphiox

    craig: In your arguments you are erroneously assuming that habitable planets, or planets of any kind, are required, or even desired, for interstellar travel, colonization and exploration.

    In my mind it is far more likely that we will achieve the technological and economic means to build self-sustaining orbital extraterrestrial habitats (ala Biosphere II, except it would work and it would be in space) before we achieve the same for a high sublight exploration megaproject to a nearby star.

    Its progression will be a natural one, from small expensive tourist space hotels in low earth orbit to ever larger and cheaper tourist space hotels to small colonies at Lagrange points, etc, requiring progressively less frequent refueling/restocking from earth.

    Eventually these colonies will become self-sufficient. They will be big enough to house a genetical self-sustaining population (not requiring regular influx of immigrants from earth) and they will start obtaining all their needed raw materials not from earth, but from space (water and minerals from near-earth asteroids and comets, energy from the sun or fusion, etc). Some of these colonies will choose to become mobile. They will have engines and be able to move around the solar system to gather the resources they want.

    Some time after that they will become self-replicating. That is, they will be capable of gathering the resources and have the manufacturing capability necessary to build another colony structure like themselves, into which some of their population could move once population growth reaches a certain threshold. The two colonies might then go their separate ways after that.

    After that, we will simply gradually fill up the solar system with our habitats, out to the Oort Cloud, and then into the comet could of the next star system, then the next, and so on. We probably wouldn’t bother with habitable earth-like planets at all except as places to visit to look for exotic alien lifeforms, as we wouldn’t need them. All the resources we’d need, water, metals, carbon, energy (starlight or hydrogen for fusion, etc) would be more common and more easily obtainable from asteroid and comet belts.

    The advantage of this scenario is that it relies on nothing more than human nature – our tendency to want to make babies and spread out to seek new resources as our populations grow. It won’t require any specific government or private megaproject that could be thwarted by economic or political issues.

    Granted, it will take a long time, and our current civilization could easily collapse before getting that far, but because it occurs through a natural growth progression, so long as we don’t exterminate ourselves entirely, eventually civilization will re-establish itself, and sooner or later, some civilization will make it to that point. And once it gets there, it will become immune from the collapse of the home civilization.

  98. amphiox

    If we’re talking about pure science and exploration, then robotics will always be easier, safer, faster, and get more done, than manned space travel. You might argue that there are things (say in exploring Mars for signs of past life) that will always require a human’s judgement and cannot be done with a machine, but I don’t buy that argument. It will always be easier, safer, and cheaper to develop some automated system that an operator safely back on earth could use to perform the same tasks equally well, than it would be to develop the means to send that operator into space to perform the same task.

    In my opinion, the manned space program has only one goal, and only one reason to exist – to ensure the continued longterm survival of the human species. Everything should be aimed at the eventual development of self-sufficient habitats in space, either wholly artifical like the colonies I described in my prior post, or outposts on the Moon, Mars, or a near-earth asteroid, or an earth-like exoplanet around a nearby star, and preferably a combination of all conceivable options and configurations. We want to establish new branches of human civilization completely independent of earth, requiring no resources in material or people, from the home planet (of course they would ideally get such things regularly from earth and other outposts, but, in the event of a crisis, they wouldn’t need it to survive).

    Because space is filled with dangerous things, and even if we are lucky and avoid them, or develop the technology to protect ourselves from them, we will never be smart enough, or wise enough, or rich enough, or prescient enough, or careful enough to guarantee, absolutely, that we will never, ever encounter or create through accident, foolishness, or malice, a situation where humans will be at risk of extinction on earth, or any other place. Our survival will depend on spreading ourselves far and wide, so that no matter what happens to any individual branch of our family tree, there will be others, elsewhere, that remain safe and ready to pick up the pieces and go on.

  99. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Nice reply. A discussion on strategies and resources in any area is both necessary and expected, but mischaracterizing one part for another is harmful.

    And I do believe Etzioni is mischaracterizing space exploration, for example implying that Kepler was expensive. You don’t compare absolute costs in dissimilar ventures but ROI. Financing is a separate discussion.

    And I believe the return data on Kepler is extensive, IIRC commenters here was celebrating its launch since it would contribute much on other stars atmospheres and their dynamics.

    Though I will give Etzioni that Weiler overstated the significance. It’s very hard to argue that our agency detector in our brain is a major factor behind asking “Are we alone?”, and what other responsible factor would be imprinted in our genes? This is indeed an old question in many cultures, and in modern days an answer would help sciences such as abiogenesis a lot.

    [Then again Etzioni answers with a larger stupidity, asking after gene studies on Adam and Eve. Duh, that is exactly what anthropologists are doing when they track latest common ancestor for different genes with the help of genetic analyzes. Specifically they know a lot about the Y-chromosome "Adam" and mitochondrial "Eve", or rather the small population they belonged to. It is IMO a shame when scientists and educators misstate science in the name of narrow interests.]

    @ Jacob Spinney:

    In my opinion, funding science through blood money (money gained through threatening tax payers with imprisonment) will always undermine whatever discoveries it may find.

    I have never heard that argument before, so I must assume you are somehow serious and not trying to troll.

    Well, many of us have this thing called democracy. It is very successful in for example pushing down the number of conflicts and wars, at least when combined with free markets to promote prosperity. Unfortunately having a state means having some taxes to finance it; the upside is that you decide upper limits by electing your representatives.

    In such a system your characterization simply can’t apply. It could fit to describe dictatorships or mob rule though. I hope that isn’t your current living conditions or that you have paranoid delusions; either must suck.

  100. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Amphiox, what you describe strikes me as analogous to the vent theory for abiogenesis. There life metabolic processes started out in inorganic compartments of deposited iron-sulfur “sponges” before acquiring organic cell membranes and later cell division to be set free to disperse. I wouldn’t call it a proof of principle concept :-o , but it seems it is possible provided the free resources fit the process. [See - it's to understand these things we need Kepler!]

    Beside the technological and sociological aspect, it is also the only concept that makes economical sense. We will never get to the stars for trading knowledge or other resources back as some kind of glorified beehive, it is too expensive and we don’t have the political stability of a queen bee ruler – we will get there because we can adapt to local resources, in the time-honored tradition of most life forms.

    Which is why I think we will actually populate habitable planets as well. Why not? It isn’t as if such populations will have to move on. (But I expect they will get back up there sooner or later. Never underestimate human (well, the future species) curiousness. [Plus, on these threads the space elevator people tend to pop up and will certainly claim that the transport cost will be minuscule compared to other costs of mining or habiting.])

  101. Al Viro

    @T_U_T: (a) what makes you think that it’d be (poly)peptides, anyway? (b) I would not recommend to snort random polypeptide mix, actually. The fact that we can deal with commonly occuring stuff (except when we can’t) has a lot to do with several billions years worth of selection.

    Again, you are talking about dropping a bunch of reagents into a working chemical reactor that had never been tested for such treatment. And assuming that somehow existing processes will take care of those and not produce something really nasty instead. Oddly enough, there’s a lot of organic compounds that lead to rather different outcomes, but we’ll assume for the sake of plot that nothing so inconvenient would happen…

    And that’s what this assumption is – a plot device. Common one, since removing it tends to exclude a whole lot of conventional plots, but that’s it.

  102. papageno

    Statto:
    If the long-term benefits of research are entirely, completely unforeseeable,…

    And what does this have to do with what I wrote?
    I never said that the long-term benefits are “entirely, completely unforeseeable”.
    I implied that your initial post showed a very short-sighted attidude.

    Statto:
    … how do you choose the types of research which will give the most benefit? I could suggest ridiculous research project x, and you would rightly criticise it for being stupid, and I could then take your current position and say ‘aaah, where’s your crystal ball, how do you know it will be useless?’

    You might have a point if I said or implied that we should fund any research project, no matter how frivolous or ridiculous it may be. But I did not.
    Instead, I implied that your initial position: “we should be funding whatever gives us the most bang for our buck (by which we mean long-term increase in human wellbeing per dollar invested), and if something is more expensive you have to justify this additional expense with evidence of direct benefits and spin-offs.” is naive and short-sighted wishful thinking.

    Since then you back-pedaled and qualified your initial “absolutist” statement.

    Statto:
    How do you propose we allocate limited money between blue-skies and applied research using this principle?

    Have you reason to think that scientists are not already using a method similar to what you described?

  103. papageno

    amphiox:
    It will always be easier, safer, and cheaper to develop some automated system that an operator safely back on earth could use to perform the same tasks equally well, than it would be to develop the means to send that operator into space to perform the same task.

    Sounds a lot like an appeal to magic.
    How can you tell that it is possible or practical to develop automated system that perform the same task as a manned mission?

  104. Have you reason to think that scientists are not already using a method similar to what you described?

    I am sure this is being done to an extent, but I would like to see more research on the topic. Also, since science budgets at the highest levels are determined by politicians, past spending plus inflation and general prejudice, I think that this is an area where greater evidence-based input would be a good thing.

    However, since I was countering the point of view expressed in Phil’s article rather than making a detailed critique of scientific resource allocation, you will forgive me for restricting the scope of my comments.

    To be quite honest, I think we probably pretty much agree, but you countered my possibly carelessly-phrased initial comment with something too simplistic to be a valid counter-argument, and a bit snide to boot. Can we call it quits?

  105. SLC

    Re Charles Boyer vis Richard Feynman

    Would Mr. Boyer care to provide a like to the source of his claim that the late Prof. Feynman supported manned space exploration. I did a Google search and found only his participation in the Challenger investigation where he apparently stated that manned space exploration was very dangerous.

    Re Ami Silberman

    Ms. Silbermans’ cost comparison of robotic space exploration vs manned space exploration is fallacious. There is no comparison of the technical capabilities relative to robotics in the 1960s vs todays technical capabilities. Its like comparing the costs of computing in the 1960s with todays costs. A $2000 Intel based dual core processor has more computing power then the most powerful multimillion dollar mainframe computer had in the 1960s.

  106. T_U_T

    I would not recommend to snort random polypeptide mix, actually.

    Most likely it would do no harm.

    The fact that we can deal with commonly occuring stuff (except when we can’t) has a lot to do with several billions years worth of selection.

    most of the part, a lot of the commonly occuring stuff tried to eat us from inside, and evolved with us.
    Something that did not specifically evolve to penetrate our defenses would most probably fail to do any damage.

    Again, you are talking about dropping a bunch of reagents into a working chemical reactor that had never been tested for such treatment. And assuming that somehow existing processes will take care of those and not produce something really nasty instead. Oddly enough, there’s a lot of organic compounds that lead to rather different outcomes, but we’ll assume for the sake of plot that nothing so inconvenient would happen…

    I am quite sure life is much more resilient and robust than you think.

  107. papageno

    Statto:
    I am sure this is being done to an extent, but I would like to see more research on the topic.

    Web of Science gives a few links for the last year:

    Allocative efficiency in public research funding: Can bibliometrics help?

    Why big science has trouble finding big money and small science has difficulties finding small money

    Risk management in public sector research: approach and lessons learned at a national research organization

    Business opportunity assessment with costly, imperfect information

    Strategic change of public research units in their scientific activity

    Universities as patent- and licensing income-generating institutions: a survey in Taiwan

    The effect of government contracting on academic research: Does the source of funding affect scientific output?

    Which research in converging technologies should taxpayers fund? Exploring societal aspects

    Statto:
    Also, since science budgets at the highest levels are determined by politicians, past spending plus inflation and general prejudice, I think that this is an area where greater evidence-based input would be a good thing.

    What is your experience of the current input public policy-makers receive?

    Statto:
    However, since I was countering the point of view expressed in Phil’s article rather than making a detailed critique of scientific resource allocation, you will forgive me for restricting the scope of my comments.

    Which view expressed by the BA would that be?
    This one: “Now please, don’t tell me we can’t afford anything for science, or that I’m asking too much. This argument is not so clearly black and white: I am not saying we can afford to fund everyone’s research at the levels we do during economic boom times, of course.” ?

    Or this one: “His basic premise in the HuffPo piece is that we should be spending that money on deep sea research, and not space. This is the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Here’s a thought he doesn’t talk about: why not fund both? Yes, there is not as much money to go around as there used to be, but why suggest we cut off funds for one kind of research to feed another? Sure, oceanography is important, interesting, and could yield economic boons, but so does space exploration.” ?

    None of this looks remotely to your version:
    “What I am saying is that we should not, as you guys and Phil are doing, say ‘astronomy is brilliant, there is no scope for debate about allocation of research budgets between disciplines’.”

    Statto:
    To be quite honest, I think we probably pretty much agree, but you countered my possibly carelessly-phrased initial comment with something too simplistic to be a valid counter-argument, and a bit snide to boot.

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  108. Al Viro

    @T_U_T: anyone who really tries to taste/smell unknown organic compound is seriously asking for Darwin Award. But feel free to experiment, it’s your burial… BTW, I’ve never heard of e.g. methylisocyanate evolving to penetrate anyone’s defenses. Or ADMH, for that matter…

    You are confusing “some species probably has adapted to given conditions” with “given species can cope with any conditions”. Life in general _is_ resilent – for just about any crap there are species that can deal with it. Usually bacterial ones. But then there are bacterial species that can live at pH 2 and 80C…

    BTW, remember what makes methanol so nasty? The pathway we use to dispose of ethanol is not selective enough and the alcohol dehydrogenase will cheerfully act on methanol, with lethal output. We had at least 30 millions of years of selection to deal with ethanol in food (thanks to fermented fruits; at 30mya catarrhyni definitely had been frugivorous). No such thing for methanol, so the lack of selectivity hadn’t been a problem. Apply the same to e.g. aminoacids we’d never had to deal with. There’s a lot more than standard 20 + naturally occuring derivatives. Want to bet that substrate won’t be close enough to go through one of the normal pathways, only with slightly different kynetics, getting a toxic intermediate in much higher concentration than (also toxic and rapidly disposed of) normal analog? All it takes is an enzyme halfway through being more selective than previous ones.

  109. T_U_T

    humans are not that chemically fragile. Look at the list of chemical weapons. Pretty short compared to the list of all other chemicals.
    Amino acids. Of all theoretically possible amino acids only a few are produced abiologically, and any life, even extraterrestrial would use only a subset of them, Different subset perhaps, but none of them is AFAIK actively toxic.

  110. In my original comment, the one aimed at Phil’s post, my point was simply that Phil ignored assessing the ‘bang per buck’ of research to assess its validity. Since I have now elaborated considerably on that notion, you presumably agree with this statement..? The parts I objected to specifically were not the largely even-handed bits you quote, but:

    • ‘The last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts’ is effectively saying ‘we should not debate whether it would be a good idea to cut stuff’.
    • ‘Why not fund both?’ is pretty naïve: there must come a point when it is better to drop one project than support all of them inadequately. To deny that is unjustified generalisation.
    • ‘In total numbers, NASA’s budget is much larger than NOAA, but that’s not surprising since, in general, it’s harder and more expensive to get into space than it is to explore the oceans.’ This is a ridiculous justification for why NASA gets more money. Something being expensive doesn’t make it worth investing in. I am not saying NASA isn’t worth investing in, of course, just that this isn’t one of the many good arguments for doing so.
    • Phil cannot justify research with ‘This is one of the biggest remaining unanswered philosophical questions in science!’ until humanity is so content and healthy that answering philosophical questions is all that remains to improve our wellbeing. I do not think knowledge itself has any intrinsic ethical worth, though the use you can put it to or the satisfaction gained from possessing certainly do. To take my position is certainly not ‘so egregiously wrong-headed that it boggles [the] mind.’ This certainly makes Phil sound like he has an a priori notion of the validity of space research.

    I confess ‘astronomy is brilliant, there is no scope for debate about allocation of research budgets between disciplines’ should perhaps come with a hyperbole warning, but you can see where this summary came from, surely?

    As for your Web of Science search: some of those articles do tangentially address the question, but they need drawing together. None of them as they stand would be much use to a policy-maker trying to decide whether to give the last 1% of the budget to NASA or the oceanographers. Some meta-analyses or review papers are needed. And that’s if the policy-makers even look at papers like these: their existence alone is not evidence that they are incorporated into high-level decision-making.

    On policy-making, I can only speak for the UK, but, briefly: I have never heard a politician utter anything other than bland platitudes about the importance of scientific research. I have spoken to several scientists who sit on panels which inform policy-makers; none I have spoken to has been confident that the social and economic impacts of science are adequately considered, or even understood. I directly asked the UK Science Minister, Lord Drayson, who told me that he was not able to justify the interdisciplinary balance of funding. This is obviously not an exhaustive survey, but the evidence certainly seems to lean one way.

    What evidence do you have that policymakers are making use of research about research, and allocating budgets in an evidence-based fashion? What country are you in? Who have you spoken to, and what have you seen? If you can give me some compelling basis to believe that this is done on a more rational basis than I currently believe, it would certainly help me sleep easier at night. I really am willing to be convinced.

  111. Al Viro

    @T_U_T: you, sir, have convinced me – of course there is no difference between hazmat and a chemical weapon; whatever have I been thinking? Here, drink that – no chemical weapons in the cocktail, just ethanol with a dash of antifreeze for sweetness. Nothing exotic, just plain ethylene glycol…

    [since this is supposed to be a family-friendly site: kids, do *not* try that at home]

  112. T_U_T

    That is exactly the point. You would have to eat the stuff. Otherwise, only the most powerful toxins can do harm to you. And they are rare. So, while alien flora and fauna would most likely be inedible for humans, we would not die of exposition to the alien air or water. And, even if some of the local bug crawls up your nose and leaves a sub microlitre droplet of stuff there, it would most likely not be enough to damage your health.

  113. papageno

    Statto:
    In my original comment, the one aimed at Phil’s post, my point was simply that Phil ignored assessing the ‘bang per buck’ of research to assess its validity. Since I have now elaborated considerably on that notion, you presumably agree with this statement..? The parts I objected to specifically were not the largely even-handed bits you quote, but: …

    But bits you cherry-picked quotes from the BA’s post, presenting a distorted view of his opinion.

    Statto:
    ‘The last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts’ is effectively saying ‘we should not debate whether it would be a good idea to cut stuff’.

    BA: “This does mean some research may get funded at the expense of something else, but the last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts. Doing that poisons the scientific community. And doing it in public is ugly and extremely bad form, since that cannot help but make the public turn against science in one form or another.”

    How do you interpret this as ‘we should not debate whether it would be a good idea to cut stuff’?

    Statto:
    ‘Why not fund both?’ is pretty naïve: there must come a point when it is better to drop one project than support all of them inadequately. To deny that is unjustified generalisation.

    Please don’t put words into other people’s words.
    BA: “This argument is not so clearly black and white: I am not saying we can afford to fund everyone’s research at the levels we do during economic boom times, of course.”, “This does mean some research may get funded at the expense of something else…” and “Why not fund both? Yes, there is not as much money to go around as there used to be, but why suggest we cut off funds for one kind of research to feed another? Sure, oceanography is important, interesting, and could yield economic boons, but so does space exploration.”

    Where does he say “support all of them inadequately”?

    What is really naive is your “bang for buck” comment about long-term benefits.

    Statto:
    ‘In total numbers, NASA’s budget is much larger than NOAA, but that’s not surprising since, in general, it’s harder and more expensive to get into space than it is to explore the oceans.’ This is a ridiculous justification for why NASA gets more money. Something being expensive doesn’t make it worth investing in. I am not saying NASA isn’t worth investing in, of course, just that this isn’t one of the many good arguments for doing so.

    That’s because you are ignoring the actual arguments of the BA to support NASA’s research.

    BA: “I have long argued that not only should our government fund scientific research, we should demand it do so. I need not go into details — you can find my arguments here and here and here and especially here — but let me just say that science always pays off in the long run. Always. And many times in the short run as well.”, “That’s why I am particularly unhappy with an editorial in the Huffington Post by Amitai Etzioni. It’s an attack on NASA, set up as a false dichotomy between space research and ocean research…”, and “His strawman argument of NASA helping create Teflon is pretty awful; he ignores the impacts of, say, weather satellites, communication satellites, solar weather prediction, the huge benefit computers got from Apollo, and the creation of the digital photography industry.”

    Statto:
    Phil cannot justify research with ‘This is one of the biggest remaining unanswered philosophical questions in science!’ until humanity is so content and healthy that answering philosophical questions is all that remains to improve our wellbeing.

    You should stop cherry-picking quotes.

    BA: “Not only that, but Kepler will yield vast amounts of data useful in a lot of astronomical subdisciplines. It’s not like all we’ll get out of it is a simple statistic like, “1 out of every 18 stars has planets”. Any type of survey undertaken in astronomy is incredibly useful in cross-disciplinary work.”

    The BA’s point is that the Kepler mission, and NASA’s research, does not have such a low bang-for-buck worth as Etzioni is claiming.

    Statto:
    I do not think knowledge itself has any intrinsic ethical worth, though the use you can put it to or the satisfaction gained from possessing certainly do.

    I am glad that Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz bothered to do some fundamental research just for the satisfaction of discovery and understanding.

    Statto:
    To take my position is certainly not ‘so egregiously wrong-headed that it boggles [the] mind.’ This certainly makes Phil sound like he has an a priori notion of the validity of space research.

    Except that the BA actually justified the validity of space research in the links he gave at the beginning of the post and by providing some examples. It is not an a priori assumption.

    Statto:
    I confess ‘astronomy is brilliant, there is no scope for debate about allocation of research budgets between disciplines’ should perhaps come with a hyperbole warning, but you can see where this summary came from, surely?

    Yes, I can see clearly that it comes from quote-mining and making a strawman of the BA’s post.

    Statto:
    As for your Web of Science search: some of those articles do tangentially address the question, but they need drawing together. None of them as they stand would be much use to a policy-maker trying to decide whether to give the last 1% of the budget to NASA or the oceanographers.

    You were talking about research, not reports aimed at policy-makers.

    Statto:
    Some meta-analyses or review papers are needed. And that’s if the policy-makers even look at papers like these: their existence alone is not evidence that they are incorporated into high-level decision-making.

    And how is that relevant to the point in the BA’s post?
    He is talking about arguments within the scientific community and how such arguments are not good for the public image of science.

    Statto:
    On policy-making, I can only speak for the UK, but, briefly: I have never heard a politician utter anything other than bland platitudes about the importance of scientific research. I have spoken to several scientists who sit on panels which inform policy-makers; none I have spoken to has been confident that the social and economic impacts of science are adequately considered, or even understood. I directly asked the UK Science Minister, Lord Drayson, who told me that he was not able to justify the interdisciplinary balance of funding. This is obviously not an exhaustive survey, but the evidence certainly seems to lean one way.

    It seem to lean towards a lack of understanding on the public’s and policy-makers’ part of the impact of science and research.
    This only supports the BA point, that the scientific community should not fight within itself about funding, especially if the arguments actually misrepresent the research and its effects.

    Statto:
    What evidence do you have that policymakers are making use of research about research, and allocating budgets in an evidence-based fashion? What country are you in? Who have you spoken to, and what have you seen? If you can give me some compelling basis to believe that this is done on a more rational basis than I currently believe, it would certainly help me sleep easier at night. I really am willing to be convinced.

    What do the policy-makers have to do with my original question: “Have you reason to think that scientists are not already using a method similar to what you described? “

  114. papageno:

    But bits you cherry-picked quotes from the BA’s post, presenting a distorted view of his opinion.

    In contrast to the bits you cherry-pick where he looks careful and considered..? His article isn’t all bad, but there are some points I disagree with. Querying those points specifically is not cherry-picking.

    How do you interpret this as ‘we should not debate whether it would be a good idea to cut stuff’?

    Because Phil explicitly says that to do so is to damage our public image, so we shouldn’t.

    ‘This does mean some research may get funded at the expense of something else…’ and ‘Why not fund both?’

    These statements are in direct contradiction, which is a logical flaw in the post. I disagree with the latter, not the former.

    That’s because you are ignoring the actual arguments of the BA to support NASA’s research.

    No, I’m not. I acknowledge that there are good arguments; I agree that Phil has made some of them. I am just saying that this isn’t one of them.

    What is really naive is your “bang for buck” comment about long-term benefits.

    I have outlined what is surely the only possible information we can use to try to make a necessarily flawed judgement about future benefits of research. Can you please outline how you would go about choosing which disciplines to fund over which others?

    You should stop cherry-picking quotes.

    Again, it is not cherry-picking to disagree with some of what someone has written but not all of it.

    I am glad that Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz bothered to do some fundamental research just for the satisfaction of discovery and understanding.

    Why are you glad? Surely the only reason to be is the increase in human wellbeing which this research has generated in the centuries which followed?

    You were talking about research, not reports aimed at policy-makers.

    I’m sorry for my careless wording, I did indeed say ‘research’ where perhaps ‘reports’ would have been better. Since our debate stems from Phil’s post and is therefore at the oceanography-vs-NASA level, we are clearly talking about the resource allocation appropriate to policy-makers rather than scientists. Do you have any evidence that this is done well?

  115. papageno

    Statto:
    In contrast to the bits you cherry-pick where he looks careful and considered..? In contrast to the bits you cherry-pick where he looks careful and considered..? His article isn’t all bad, but there are some points I disagree with. Querying those points specifically is not cherry-picking.

    It is when you take parts of sentences out of their context, instead of addressing the meaning they have within the whole paragraph.
    You have tried to present those points as if they were the only important parts of the BA’s opinion and effectively tried to put words into his (and other people’s mouth). That is intellectually dishonest.

    Please provide the evidence that the BA said that there should be no debate about the allocation of funds within scientific community, instead of “Scientific in-fighting, back biting, and narrow-minded territorial defensiveness will not help anyone, and in fact hurts everyone.”

    Statto:
    Because Phil explicitly says that to do so is to damage our public image, so we shouldn’t.

    Again putting words into other people’s mouth.
    The BA is not saying that the debate itself is hurting the scientific community, but that a bad debate hurts:
    “This does mean some research may get funded at the expense of something else, but the last thing we need is squabbling inside the fence of science between projects that are all facing cuts. Doing that poisons the scientific community. And doing it in public is ugly and extremely bad form, since that cannot help but make the public turn against science in one form or another.” (bolding mine)

    Statto:
    These statements are in direct contradiction, which is a logical flaw in the post. I disagree with the latter, not the former.

    They are in contradiction only if you take them out of context.
    The first statement refers to research in general, while the second refers specifically to Etzioni’s piece:
    “His basic premise in the HuffPo piece is that we should be spending that money on deep sea research, and not space. This is the false dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Here’s a thought he doesn’t talk about: why not fund both? Yes, there is not as much money to go around as there used to be, but why suggest we cut off funds for one kind of research to feed another? Sure, oceanography is important, interesting, and could yield economic boons, but so does space exploration. His strawman argument of NASA helping create Teflon is pretty awful; he ignores the impacts of, say, weather satellites, communication satellites, solar weather prediction, the huge benefit computers got from Apollo, and the creation of the digital photography industry.”

    By careful quote-mining you manufactured a deep contradiction in the BA’s post, which is not really there. This is intellectually dishonest. Now, answer my question: where does he say “support all of them inadequately”?

    Statto:
    No, I’m not. I acknowledge that there are good arguments; I agree that Phil has made some of them. I am just saying that this isn’t one of them.

    No, you cherry-picked the weakest argument and misrepresented it.
    The BA is not saying that NASA should be funded because it is expensive (Statto: “Something being expensive doesn’t make it worth investing in”). He is saying that there are good reasons to fund it, but it is expensive, and that’s why it gets a higher budget.

    You systematically put words into other people’s words, cherry-picking what they write and misrepresenting their position. That is utterly dishonest.

    Statto:
    I have outlined what is surely the only possible information we can use to try to make a necessarily flawed judgement about future benefits of research. Can you please outline how you would go about choosing which disciplines to fund over which others?

    Don’t shift the burden of proof. It is your claim that the method you described is not applied by the scientific community (because we are talking about how the scientific community is dealing with the allocation of funds, not the policy-makers). It is therefore your job to provide evidence for that.

    Statto:
    Again, it is not cherry-picking to disagree with some of what someone has written but not all of it.

    It is when you make strawmen with out-of-context quotes.
    Do you acknowledge that “The BA’s point is that the Kepler mission, and NASA’s research, does not have such a low bang-for-buck worth as Etzioni is claiming.”, or not?

    Statto:
    Why are you glad? Surely the only reason to be is the increase in human wellbeing which this research has generated in the centuries which followed?

    Increase in human well-being which had not been foreseen.
    If they had applied your bang-for-buck philosophy, they would not have bothered.

    Now, do you acknowledge that “Except that the BA actually justified the validity of space research in the links he gave at the beginning of the post and by providing some examples. It is not an a priori assumption.” ?

    Statto:
    I’m sorry for my careless wording, I did indeed say ‘research’ where perhaps ‘reports’ would have been better. Since our debate stems from Phil’s post and is therefore at the oceanography-vs-NASA level, we are clearly talking about the resource allocation appropriate to policy-makers rather than scientists. Do you have any evidence that this is done well?

    Why are you trying to change the subject?
    The BA’s post is clearly about how the scientific community should behave about fund-allocation.

    I already said this:
    “And how is that relevant to the point in the BA’s post?
    He is talking about arguments within the scientific community and how such arguments are not good for the public image of science.”

    and

    “It seem to lean towards a lack of understanding on the public’s and policy-makers’ part of the impact of science and research.
    This only supports the BA point, that the scientific community should not fight within itself about funding, especially if the arguments actually misrepresent the research and its effects.”

    Why do you keep cherry-picking other people’s writing’s?
    Let me repeat:
    What do the policy-makers have to do with my original question: “Have you reason to think that scientists are not already using a method similar to what you described? “

  116. This is getting silly. You are choosing bits of Phil’s argument, and I am choosing other bits, and we are then pitting our paraphrases against one-another: you call mine straw men, and I effectively call yours anti-straw-men because you’re ascribing an underlying logic which isn’t obvious from the original post.

    I am also at a loss as to why you are so eager that the burden of proof is all mine. It is, as I’m sure you’re aware, tremendously hard to prove a negative. If scientists and policymakers are taking an evidence-based approach to research, please present some evidence for it.

  117. papageno

    Statto:
    This is getting silly. You are choosing bits of Phil’s argument, and I am choosing other bits, and we are then pitting our paraphrases against one-another: you call mine straw men, and I effectively call yours anti-straw-men because you’re ascribing an underlying logic which isn’t obvious from the original post.

    What is silly is that you insist on putting words into other people’s mouths and expect to get away with it. I have pointed out where it happens, and you utterly failed to acknowledge that.

    If you don’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for the words you say in public, then maybe you should think twice before using systematically strawmen in a public discussion.

    Statto:
    I am also at a loss as to why you are so eager that the burden of proof is all mine. It is, as I’m sure you’re aware, tremendously hard to prove a negative. If scientists and policymakers are taking an evidence-based approach to research, please present some evidence for it.

    Your evidence-based approach, in your words:
    “We should do all we can to identify which areas of science, and which projects, expose us most to the possibility of positive unexpected discovery.”

    and

    “We are scientists, so we should collect some data on public opinion, collect some more to work out how important public perception is, and try to account for this when deciding upon research topics.”

    Your implied claim is that the scientific community is not doing this.

    Your claim, your burden of proof.

    I you don’t feel comfortable with that burden, then maybe you should think twice before making claims.

  118. I take full responsibility for everything I have said, including my assertion that this debate has become silly.

    Are you not counter-claiming that scientists and policy-makers do take these things into account? If not, you’re not arguing anything, just encouraging me to keep typing..?

  119. papageno

    Statto:
    I take full responsibility for everything I have said, including my assertion that this debate has become silly.

    Empty words, unless you explicitly acknowledge the many strawmen I pointed out in my comments.

    Statto:Are you not counter-claiming that scientists and policy-makers do take these things into account? If not, you’re not arguing anything, just encouraging me to keep typing..?

    No, just encouraging you to behave like a scientist.

  120. Well, I’m encouraging you to behave like a scientist, too then..? Given that we are clearly resigned over whether my arguments were selective criticism or straw man, all I can do is wait for your evidence for your counter-claim, if indeed you’re making one.

    To clarify this sprawling thread: I think that the question of budget allocation at the policy-makers’ level is the interesting one. Though we did refer to scientists, I do not wish to continue to frame this debate in terms of them because the oceanography–NASA dichotomy is where this started, and what I was interested in discussing. I have already presented my evidence that this is not done in the UK. If you wish to engage me on that topic and demonstrate that it is done better than I suggested, I am ready, even hoping, to be convinced. Really.

    If not, I don’t think this debate has anywhere useful left to go.

  121. papageno

    Statto:
    Well, I’m encouraging you to behave like a scientist, too then..? Given that we are clearly resigned over whether my arguments were selective criticism or straw man, all I can do is wait for your evidence for your counter-claim, if indeed you’re making one.

    I already presented my evidence of your strawmen.

    Statto:
    To clarify this sprawling thread: I think that the question of budget allocation at the policy-makers’ level is the interesting one.

    It is. But it is not what the BA’s blogpost is about.

    Statto:
    Though we did refer to scientists, I do not wish to continue to frame this debate in terms of them because the oceanography–NASA dichotomy is where this started, and what I was interested in discussing.

    So, you want to change the subject, instead of concluding the discussion you started.

    Statto:
    I have already presented my evidence that this is not done in the UK. If you wish to engage me on that topic and demonstrate that it is done better than I suggested, I am ready, even hoping, to be convinced. Really.

    And I really would like to see you take responsibility for your strawmen.

    Statto:
    If not, I don’t think this debate has anywhere useful left to go.

    I am not surprised.

  122. Jean-Denis

    Thank you all who responded to my query for arguments in favor of manned space missions, especially amphiox who described a *possible* long term path for humanity to settle outside the stratosphere.

    There are now three arguments in favor of manned missions that I can see, or variations thereof:

    1- For advancing science, manned missions are probably better when they involve collecting samples.
    2- Inspiration and related arguments: it’s far more inspiring to send real people to space. This has beneficial consequences on education among other things, and fits our “human” nature.
    3- Emigration: while it’s true that there is no reachable place outside the stratosphere where humanity could settle, the key point is that we might not need one. It could be possible with long term research and technological advance to set up self-sustaining artificial settlements, moving or not, in an incrementally evolving (!) path from our current modest ISS.

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