[NB: As always with posts like this, I strongly urge you to read my note about posts covering politics and religion as well as my commenting policy before leaving a comment.]
Not too long ago, I (and pretty much the whole internet) wrote about the ridiculous and honestly offensive statements made by Representative Todd Akin (R-MO). His knowledge – or really, the profound lack thereof – of female anatomy made him the laughing stock of the planet. But I wasn’t laughing. I was, and still am, furious. And not just because of what he said, but also because he is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
That anyone could spew such obvious and awful nonsense about biology and anatomy and yet sit on the US Congress’s science committee is, simply put, an outrage.
I also pointed out he’s not alone. In that article I devoted just one line to Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), saying how he was a creationist and also sits on that same science committee… but I think it’s time we take a second look at Congressman Broun.
In late September, Rep. Broun made a speech at the Liberty Baptist Church’s Sportsman’s banquet in Hartwell, Georgia. In this speech he said many, many things, including this:
All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
[The whole talk is online at YouTube.]
Sadly, that kind of antiscientific nonsense is de rigueur for a lot of folks these days, even ones who sit in Congress. But then, to close the deal, he goes on:
And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.
Two points: one is that all Congresscritters, upon entering office, have to swear to uphold the Constitution, and the second is that this document is pretty clear about legislating religion. In fact, Supreme Court judge Hugo Black said about this topic, "Government must be neutral among religions and nonreligion: it cannot promote, endorse, or fund religion or religious institutions."
Rep. Broun’s words don’t sound terribly neutral to me.
You may disagree with me about the shaky ground (like Richter 10 shaky) Broun stands on Constitutionally, but there is no doubt – none – that he is 100% completely off the rails with his science. The Big Bang is "straight from the pit of hell"? It’s bad enough that anyone would actually believe something like that, let alone a Congressman, but I will remind you he sits on the House science committee!
These are the men whom the Republican majority placed on that committee. Men who think global warming is a fantasy. Men who think women have magic vaginas. Men who think the Earth is thousands, not billions, of years old.
I have my issues with Obama right now, which in truth are dwarfed by my issues with Romney. But remember that come November 6 of this year in the US we’ll be voting for members of Congress as well. And the majority party decides who sits on what committee, and those people will in turn decide what to legislate: reality, or fantasy.
The choice, quite literally, is yours. Choose well.
- Akin breakin’ science
- Followup: Rep. Ralph Hall’s unbelievable statement on science funding bill
- Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): on climate change, makes wrong even wronger
- Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity
My old friend and colleague Neil Tyson has long been an advocate for exploration, for basic investment in science, and for pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. In early March, he got a chance to make his stand official: he testified before the Senate.
Here’s what he said:
Not bad, not bad at all. His passion for this is clear, and his thinking true. There is a lot of room for the devil in the details — he and I agree that doubling NASA’s budget would be A Good Thing, but there would have to be a requisite increase in oversight, and many more administrative details. But that’s not the point when you’re talking to Congress about inspiration: you’re there to inspire. He’s trying to make a much larger point and not get bogged down in details.
And his main point, I think, rings true. After all, "How much would you pay for the Universe?"
By the time you read this, you have already heard or discovered that Mozilla, reddit, Wikipedia, and many others sites are going dark today to raise awareness about Congress’s highly regressive internet blocking legislation. The House’s version, SOPA, is making headlines, but the Senate version, PIPA, is pretty much the same.
I am not blacked out for two reasons. Since I am hosted on Discover’s site, I cannot take the whole thing down, and it would not be appropriate for me to ask. But also, simply blacking out raises awareness but doesn’t give information. I’m all about making sure people get good info, so below is a list of links where you’ll find why so many people hate this legislation so much.
- Google (!)
- Forbes (though it’s clearly not correct to say SOPA is dead, and I no longer trust Obama will do as he says after signing the NDAA)
And I’ll note: I have a friend in the film industry whom I like and respect very much. She and I talked about this; she had a film pirated so much she made no money on it, and couldn’t pursue the pirates because they were overseas. She is right that we need a better way to find and prosecute (or at least stop) that sort of thing, and as far as I can tell SOPA would in fact stop what happened to her. Unfortunately, it does far, far more. I do not and cannot trust this government — or any that may follow — to use this kind of power judiciously. The links above will show you why.
I am against these bills, and I urge you to contact your Congresscritters. I already know my Representative, Jared Polis, is against PIPA, since he’s been fighting it nonstop. Find out what yours thinks, and act appropriately.
[Update: I had inadvertently switched which bill went with which part of Congress, and it's now fixed. My apologies.]
I recently posted a lengthy analysis of the fiscal year 2012 budget Congress and the President approved for NASA. I didn’t mention it then because it was off-topic, but in the press release for the funding bill, they list bullet points of "Important Policy Items". I took a screen grab of the last item listed, and the note below it:
Perhaps I’m the only one who sees irony in a bullet point saying Congress won’t appropriate $322M for an NOAA climate change service, while then immediately below it noting how the natural disasters that have befallen this country have required " historic levels of relief and recovery assistance", necessitating $2.3 billion in relief funds. Hmmm.
[Note: While it can be hard to pin any one natural disaster like a hurricane, heat wave, or snow storm on climate change, as we warm up we will see more things like those. I want my tax dollars to go to more scientific investigation by NOAA and other agencies. But then, I'm not funded in any way by the oil industry, and my only motivation is the open and honest investigation of the world around us since it might just save our species.]
[Note II: DeSmogBlog digs a bit deeper into this, and has some curious comments about climate-contrarian Congresscritters who kaboshed this.]
A few days ago, the US House and Senate compromised on a (partial) federal budget, and President Obama signed it into reality. Among many other things, NASA’s budget was in there. Congress has posted an overview of the bill, which I recommend perusing. Space News has an excellent overview of the budget, as does The Planetary Society blog.
The big picture: NASA will get a total of $17.8 billion for fiscal year 2012, which is about $600M less than last year, and over $900M less than what President Obama wanted.
But totals aren’t necessarily as important as specifics. What are the details?
James Webb Space Telescope
As you may recall, the House wanted to ax the James Webb Space Telescope, literally giving it 0 dollars. The Senate wanted to save it. The new funding just passed gives NASA’s Science Directorate a total of $5.1 billion, which is an increase over last year by about $150 million. That sounds great, but this total includes $530 million for JWST to keep it going.
I’m glad that the project won’t be canceled, but I’m very concerned about the source of that money. I can do that math. All things being equal, a $150M increase with $530M dedicated to JWST means NASA will have to cut other programs to the tune of $380 million. The Congressional summary even says this explicitly:
The agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs, and institutes several new oversight measures for JWST’s continuing development.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble. Over budget and behind schedule, it’s in serious trouble. The House side of Congress essentially canceled it in their version of the Federal budget, but in the Senate version they put enough money in the budget to keep JWST alive. The two different budget versions will have to be reconciled before they go to Obama to sign. As I said in that article above, I wasn’t clear on where the money the Senate put in the budget was going to come from.
I’m not the only one: Frank Wolf (R-VA), who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing JWST’s budget (through NASA), has publicly asked the same question. As I read this, he is doubling-down on the House threat to cancel JWST:
For us to make a truly informed decision that takes into account both the value of JWST and the value of opportunities that may be precluded by the JWST replan, we must have the [budget] offset information. If such information is not provided by the time that conference negotiations begin, I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity.
In other words, he wants to know what other programs will be cut to fund JWST. This information was not in the press release by the Senate when they announced they were funding the observatory, and it’s critical. Will NASA have to take this blow, or will it come from outside NASA, from other agencies or departments?
I have long supported JWST — I was marginally involved with the mission back when it was still unnamed and the instruments hadn’t even been proposed yet — but that support is contingent on the idea that it will be built with minimal impact to other important (I dare say vital) NASA missions. My fervent desire is for NASA to get enough money to fund everything they are doing and want to do; we’re talking exploration of our Universe here, something I have in one way or another dedicated my life to supporting. But that sometimes means making hard decisions, and we’re facing one right now.
Republicans hold the House majority, and they are in turn being pushed by the Tea Party, who want to cut huge amounts of government spending (well beyond what’s safe or wise, in my opinion). In that sort of environment, the odds that NASA will actually get more money seem slim. And that means JWST, which is a huge chunk of NASA’s budget, is in a very precarious position.
The House and Senate will have to hammer out their reconciliation very soon, and I’m hoping the Senate will have more details on where this money to fund JWST will come from. With other critical government expenditures facing the ax, there’s going to have to be some very serious negotiations over very serious matters. Which side of the line will JWST fall?
Image credit: NASA
Yesterday, the Senate subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science — the group that initially sets the budget for NASA, among other agencies — issued a press release stating that they had produced a draft bill for the fiscal year 2012 appropriations. In the section on NASA, this release stated simply:
The bill provides funds to enable a 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.
That sounds great, but what does it mean? A lot of people (judging from reading some blogs, and the tweets and emails I got) seem to think this means JWST is saved and all is well. I’m not so sure. What the press release doesn’t say is where that money will come from. Does this statement mean that the Senate is proposing extra money go to NASA to make sure JWST doesn’t eat into other missions, a scenario that is very likely if that money isn’t found, but instead comes from inside NASA’s budget? I have to wonder, because another statement in the press release says:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $17.9 billion, a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the FY2011 enacted level.
I’m never a fan of reducing NASA’s budget, but this is actually less of a loss than I was expecting, so in a sense that’s good to hear. But, again, I must point out that if NASA has less money, how can they afford to finish, launch, and maintain JWST? Especially when they just yesterday announced the design of the new heavy-lift launch system that will, if it goes ahead, become NASA’s main (and most expensive) project?
We need to see the budget breakdown to understand this, but the Senate subcommittee press release is maddeningly vague. Another press release by Senator Mikluski, head of the subcommittee, said:
The bill includes… $5.1 billion for National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science, which includes the full $530 million needed for the James Webb Space Telescope to achieve a 2018 launch.
I’m still not clear on where that $530 million comes from, though; inside or outside NASA. $5.1 billion is more than the FY11 budget (PDF), which is a good sign, but it’s not $530 million more, so unless I’m missing something it looks like the extra money has to come from inside NASA. So on the surface it appears that JWST might be saved in the bill, but it also sounds like it may be at the expense of other missions which might have to take a hit to fund JWST. Until we see the actual bill — which has not yet been released to the public — we can’t be sure.
Apparently there will be more detailed news coming from the Senate possibly later today, and until then I will reserve judgment. Perhaps all is well, and perhaps not. I don’t like basing conclusions on press releases, and hopefully the bill itself will clear this up. I only point all this out because I don’t want to see people saying JWST is saved and everything’s great until we get the actual proof.
Remember too, that this is just a proposed budget. The Senate must vote on it, and then it has to be reconciled with the House bill, and then the President has to sign it. There’s still a very long way to go here.
[UPDATE: Nature News blog makes a very similar point in a post on this.]
[I want to start off this article with the conclusion, because the post is somewhat long and I want to avoid at least some of the slings and arrows that will inevitably turn up in the comments. Bottom line: I don't want to see JWST canceled, but neither do I want it to hurt other NASA missions. However, the reality of the situation is that unless Congress fully and independently funds JWST, it is very likely it will siphon funds from other missions and could do a lot of damage to them. Both the people supporting and attacking JWST make excellent points, but they also assume that extra money will not be found to fund it. I cannot say if that's a good assumption or not, but if it turns out to be true, JWST and NASA are in for an extremely distressing future.]
The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to Hubble, may be reaching the most critical juncture in its life: a vote by a U. S. Senate subcommittee on whether to fund it or not. The House version of the funding bill has the budget for JWST zeroed out. In other words, the House wants to kill it. The Senate has to vote on their version of the budget, and then the two chambers must reconcile the two versions. If the Senate votes to defund JWST, it’s essentially dead. The first version of that process may begin today.
What’s at stake
Here’s the thing: I don’t know how I feel about this.
On the one hand, JWST promises huge, huge science. Every time we’ve built a bigger telescope with new capabilities, we’ve learned things we didn’t even know we didn’t know. Hubble did that in spades, and JWST’s mirror will be far larger — and it will be the most sensitive telescope in the infrared ever built, allowing us to see deeper and more clearly in that wavelength range than ever before. It has and will provide new advances in technology and engineering, and will be a workhorse for science, used by hundreds of researchers for years to come. It will, quite literally, be the Hubble of its age.
On the other hand, cost overruns and mismanagement have been really bad (at the blog Starts With A Bang!, Ethan Siegel argues that this is both NASA’s fault and that of Congress, and I’m inclined to agree). A month or two ago I would’ve argued that this, though, was all behind us, and the cost to launch JWST would be small compared to canceling it. In fact, I did argue exactly this. However, things have changed. As I pointed out recently, an independent committee put together by Senator Barbara Mikluski found that the actual cost to launch JWST and run it for five years adds several billion dollars to the NASA estimate. Again, Ethan Siegel’s post describes this is all-too-painful detail, and the L. A. Times has an OpEd on this as well.
The impact of funding JWST
And there’s the heart of the issue. Read More
The James Webb Space Telescope is planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It will have a 6.5 meter (21 foot) mirror (Hubble’s is 2.4 meters, or 8 feet), and will look at the Universe in the near- to mid-infrared, where cooler objects like planets, dust clouds, and ancient galaxies glow brightly.
Its fate also hangs by a thread.
Originally planned to cost under a billion dollars and already be launched by now — NASA has currently spent about $3.5B on the mission with a launch date no sooner than 2018 — delays and cost overruns have hit the project hard, prompting the US House of Representatives to axe the budget for JWST, essentially killing the entire project in their proposed 2012 Federal budget. I wrote about this when the news broke, basically saying this was a dumb idea. The JWST cost overruns have been widely claimed to be from administrative mismanagement. Even if true, as Julianne Dalcanton at Cosmic Variance has eloquently argued, those errors are behind us. The components of the telescope are mostly built, being tested now, and it would make more sense to spend the money it’ll take to assemble and launch the ‘scope than to cancel the project and throw away the investment already made.
Now two bits of news have come up which confuse the issue.
One is that, according to Aviation Week, a cost analysis ordered by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) shows that the current price tag of the telescope will actually be $8.7 billion, an increase of more than $3B over an earlier NASA estimate.
Ouch. Bluntly put, that’s a huge blow to any campaign to save the telescope, and will make convincing this current Congress to fund the mission once again much, much harder.