Decline of America, One in a Continuing Series

By Sean Carroll | July 6, 2011 11:59 am

Tidbits of news, depressing enough on their own and adding up to a bigger picture.

  • The James Webb Space Telescope, having gone so far over budget that large swathes of NASA’s science program has been shelved to make room for it, is now in danger of being cancelled.
  • Everyone knows that education is of paramount importance, especially for economically disadvantaged kids. Therefore, communities across the country are — cutting back on school time, especially for economically disadvantaged kids.
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon — the climactic conclusion to auteur Michael Bay’s explosive trilogy of awesome explodyness — grossed over $116 million over the holiday weekend.

On the other hand, Google+ was launched. So it’s not all bad.

  • Baris

    Future doesn’t look good in terms of Science. Maybe we should ask google / facebook if they have some extra $$$ to spend for science, seriously…

  • Joshua

    All four people who left my institution with a PhD in astrophysics got jobs in Germany next year. None of them could find work in the United States.

  • Dogg

    sadly, if google+ is even remotely like facebook- I guess we’re all doomed

  • Stephen Olander-Waters

    Regarding the shorter school time, I’m curious what you think, Sean, about unschooling.

    Secondly, the article talks about increasing year-round schooling but I thought the jury was still out on year-round being better than traditional…

  • Shecky R.

    What makes this most depressing is that you’re labeling it “one in a continuing series.”

  • Paul

    We’ve spent our future. No more conspicuous consumption to buff our collective vanity. Instead, there are creditors to be paid off for the next generation or two.

  • Doug

    Sounds like the conspiracy theorists might have gotten one correct regarding why NASA moved the JWST budget to a line item earlier this year.

  • dirk

    NASA still operates on more money per day than Transformers brought in per day of their opening weekend… so that’s probably a good sign.

  • TedL

    The only “big picture” I see is intellectual snobbery. That people can choose to spend their OWN money on silly entertainment is just how it should be. The managers of the JWST should be ashamed that they need more BILLIONS to do what they said they could do for much less. I applaud Michael Bay and his financial backers for creating a legal, profitable product. Besides, explodyness is a Fourth of July Weekend tradition.

    In the truest sense of the word, the future of science is awesome. Funding isn’t going to change that one bit. Now, if you mean “Science” as an employer, yeah, things are tough all over.

  • Paul


    It’s pretty bad here in the UK as well. Last week was the going away party of a uni friend who got a job, great one, in China’s Tsinghua university.

  • Dutch Railroader


    The future of astronomy is not awesome if JWST is cancelled. HST has pretty much hit the wall in terms of its ability to probe the early Universe. That is the job JWST was designed to do, and there is nothing else that can touch it. We scuttle JWST, then that’s the game.

  • TedL

    @ Dutch Railroader:

    No argument. But game not over, just delayed. If the situation is as you describe it, astronomy will still be there when we can afford it.

    And if that’s the “decline of America,” so be it.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Sad, but not surprising. SSC redux, in all the most discouraging ways, only this time the Congress is much more dysfunctional, and the national economy much worse.

  • tudza

    Google+ Where? I haven’t seen it, I can’t use it, I just hear other people talking about it. I’ve had a Google account for years, doesn’t seem to make a difference.

  • Dutch Railroader

    @ TedL

    We can afford JWST fine right now.

  • Neal J. King

    What have you got against Transformers?

  • Brian Too

    A different perspective for today.

    Imagine it was 1700+ years ago and we were Roman. Most likely, we would be proclaiming the end of the world. Certainly civilization was ending as none of those savage tribes on the periphery of the Empire’s greatness were any good. Powerful yes, but civilized? No way.

    My point is that science is not threatened, nor is civilization, nor is humankind. In fact I doubt that the current world order is ready to be upended either. Not just yet.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    For those with a “no big deal” reaction to this, I must say, I’m baffled. The JWST has no conceivable peer for the foreseeable future, and if it’s not launched it could be decades before a comparable telescope is operational. Losing it would do to astronomy and astrophysics about what not having the Hubble would do to the past 20 years of space science. No “science” won’t come to a screeching halt, but come on! Its absence would truly be devastating to the field, easily on the order of what not having the SSC did to high energy physics.

  • Lab Lemming

    re: #18
    In general, what should be the requirements for canning a NASA project that is going nowhere?
    Behind schedule?
    So over budget that it has cannibalized everything else in its field?

    JWST has already killed off just about every other cosmology mission for the decade. How much more damage do you want it to do?

  • Richard Scalzo

    Folks: Actually, part of ensuring that astronomy will still be there when we can afford it is making sure we don’t lose critical expertise, as astronomers and engineers are laid off on specific programs and nobody else is trained or hired to take their place. We may actually slide backwards in terms of highly skilled people available to undertake big projects. And of course we’ve mentioned the inevitable human suffering of displacing a lot of highly qualified and specialized people… I’ve been trying to find numbers on the web that say how many jobs (grad student, postdoc, faculty, staff, technicians) will disappear if JWST dies, but maybe I’m not looking in the right place.

    This isn’t even counting the science that’s not going to get done (by us or our international partners) and other indirect costs to education and the public’s engagement in science as a result. We don’t need to denigrate entertainment, nor do we need to praise waste and mismanagement on big projects or the culture that enables such mismanagement, to know that US astronomy will be much worse off if JWST doesn’t fly. Things definitely need to tighten up at NASA, but the technology side of JWST is totally feasible and on track. They just finished polishing the mirrors, even.

    NASA’s not the only one suffering, either — NSF, NOAA and NIST are all funded hundreds of millions of dollars below Obama’s request in that bill. We can’t keep under-funding our scientists and expect our economy, education, and culture not to decline.

  • Sarah

    @Lab Lemming: what you’re missing is the fact that the money NASA allocated to JWST, the money that was taken away from other parts of NASA’s budget, is also gone. So at the end of the day, they’re left with less money than they had before, *and* with no clear successor to HST. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was part of someone’s master plan… get NASA to put all its eggs in one basket, and then throw out the basket.

  • Charon

    “astronomy will still be there when we can afford it.”

    The Universe will still be, yeah. But as Richard Scalzo said, astronomy as a discipline will suffer terribly if there are no space observatories. The brainpower that leaves the field doesn’t come back in when the funding returns.

    And this is a huge waste, given all the instruments for JWST that are already built. The major cost for the next several years was to be keeping it in a vacuum while undergoing testing. Ending it now, after we’ve spent so much money on it, means we’ve lost that money, and now have nothing to show for it.

    Oh, and how enthusiastic do you think Canada, the Europeans, etc. are going to be about joint scientific projects if we show them we’re so unreliable as to pull out of JWST (which is not just a US project)?

  • Charon

    @Brian Too:

    Over 1000 years of ignorance and religious insanity covering an entire continent, no big deal? WTF? I mean, yes, I’m a cosmologist, so I can put on that hat and say “Milky Way galaxy, no big deal”, but… as a human, I’m rather aghast at your “optimistic” viewpoint.

  • Mr. G

    The James Webb Space Telescope can be saved if all public employees pay more into their own pension funds and University employees take payroll cuts.

    Sacrifice will get us all the James Webb Space Telescope.

    You can make it happen.

    Sean? Contributed your own fair share to the JWT?


  • Phillip Helbig

    I suspect the series is infinite and does not converge.

  • Phil

    The Department of Defense spends more on air condition in Afghanistan than is allocated for the entire NASA budget. The NASA budget is larger than that of the National Science Foundation. After that, we’re talking really small sums of money that do real science work. There are others that get large amounts of money, but their budgets are devoted mostly to the final work (late development work only) just before implementation and that isn’t doing science.

  • JustSad

    Any project going BILLIONS overbudget is a disaster of epic proportions and should be scrapped ASAP.

    And it’s certainly not politicians (the scum that they are) who should be blamed for this epic failure but the managers at nasa who made promises they knew they weren’t going to keep just to get the money for their project.

    They scammed the astronomy community and the general public out of billions of dollars for which they should be jailed for life if not executed, they are no better then Bernie Madoff.

  • Paul

    Of course every special interest group thinks their little slice of the budget is different.

    The scale of the budget cuts that are needed to save the country are so vast — even if we end the wars today — that nothing will be safe. If they are going to be cutting Medicare and other popular middle class entitlements, do you think any branch of science is going to be spared?

  • Jane R.

    The Hubble Space Telescope was over-budget. Should we have scrapped it?

    No Pillars of Creation? ( No deep surveys of of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe? ( Just darkness and ignorance?

  • JGalt

    No doubt Google and Facebook are investing in science, primarily Computer Science. As much as I love space sciences, NASAs best days are behind it. When I was a kid, I’d hoped we’d by on Mars by now (and am still disappointed.) However, just because NASA is in decline doesn’t mean science is in decline. Modern technology is amazing.

    War, JWST, etc are boondoggles of mal-investment created by politicians and bureaucrats spending other people’s money. While the private sector may not have the practical need to invest in deep space observation, it will invest in science that can be put to work for our benefit. Publicly funded science is tainted by the politics needed to get funding. Get government out of the way, and the more practical sciences will proliferate. As for the less practical stuff, put your time & money where your mouth is by donating it to your special interest.

    Using the force of government to force us to give to your special interest is no different than stealing other people’s property at gun point. Just because “the majority” voted for it doesn’t mean it isn’t robbery.

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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I think part of the problem with these projects going over-budget (same could be said of the SSC) is that the original budget forecasts were absurdly optimistic. Mismanagement and other forms of waste of course play a role, but one has to wonder what the mood would be like today if the original estimates had been more realistic. At any rate, killing the JWST at this stage in the game would be pure folly.

  • Doug

    I’m disturbed by the people who think NASA is “scamming” or “robbing” or any other absurd mischaracterization. Even more disturbed by those who say the gov’t shouldn’t be funding basic science, and that private investment in “practical science” is the solution. Please, go read some history and tell us how obvious it was which research would turn into practical applications; things like the world wide web have (indirectly) come out of basic physics research. It’s almost entirely unpredictable what will turn into a practical application, and what will not.

    This line is pure idiocy: “Just because “the majority” voted for it doesn’t mean it isn’t robbery.” Yes in fact, when the majority votes to use tax dollars for something, it is perfectly legal and the exact opposite of robbery.

  • JGalt

    “It’s almost entirely unpredictable what will turn into a practical application, and what will not.” … Which is why government shouldn’t be spending public funds on such projects, particularly when the investment decision is based on politics. Should the JWST be abandoned, that’s public money, taken from us by force, that has been wasted. Investment by the private sector, however, is voluntary. The only reason Apollo was a success is that we had an “enemy” to compete with. Same with the Manhattan project.

    Do you still yearn for the good ole’ days of the cold war?

    Lots of misdeeds have been considered legal in different regimes, that doesn’t mean they are right. As student of history, you’ll certainly recall that we had a revolution in this country about that issue. Even when a majority approves, there is a minority that is forced to comply, right or wrong. Quite often, you and I will be in the minority (perhaps on different issues.)

  • sievemaria

    Science and Art will happen without freckless federal funding. Now ? who will pay to clean up all the garbage abandoned in space and the plastics in the oceans from the past 50 years of science and economic transformation? Part of being a *good* Scientist or Artist is cleaning up after your self. We have been slow-dancing with no adults in the room for too long.

  • TedL

    I was waiting for the specious “brain drain” argument. Money spent on any one project cannot go to another. More projects go unfunded than are funded.

    The SCSC is a good example. We didn’t build it, now we have the LHC. No shortage of particle physicists. But the JWST is somehow different?

  • Sean the Mystic


    In fact I do yearn for those good old days of cold war, or perhaps a new one. The amusing fact about our species, which peaceniks don’t seem to appreciate, is that our greatest progress comes through strife and struggle, not through peace. Peace is stagnation; war is progress. So I say start another war, ramp up the new space race, fight for the moon and mars, build the Terran Empire, and gaze in wonder at what our clever, evil species is capable of!

  • JGalt

    @37 – War is a competition for survival, which creates a laser-like focus for those fighting to survive. The corner stone of free markets is also competition, but without the nukes. I’ll take free markets.

  • nomoreJGalt

    Well, America is officially part of the third world.

  • Charlie

    Speaking as someone who worked to pay my own way through university, I’m sure glad that (at the time in the early 90s) it was still barely possible. Given the current situation, I doubt that I could have done it or would have bothered to try. (Thank you socialism, we will miss you.)

    Free market is rather like evolution. Those who really understand either do their best to not participate.

  • Mark

    Is it possible fo the already constructed portions to be utilized by another government/entity?

  • abc

    Guess it’s good that I moved to Europe. :/

    On a related note, at least there are fewer idiots who think every government program aside from military needs to be cut rather than continue to keep upper bracket taxes at a level that’s still lower than anywhere else in the world.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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