NASA Astrophysics: It Really Is This Bad

By Sean Carroll | July 20, 2011 10:38 am

Shorter House of Representatives: NASA shouldn’t do astrophysics anymore. Via the Tracker, an article by Eric Hand in Nature News that puts the fiasco in helpful graphical form.

Misleading graphic alert! The vertical scale starts at $0.5 billion, not at $0. But taking that into account merely changes the situation from “complete annihilation” to “devastating harm.” We’re talking about a 40% cut, which won’t leave room to do much more than keep the lights on for existing programs.

The 2011 numbers are the President’s budget request; the 2012 numbers are from the bill that passed the House. This isn’t yet law, so there’s still time; the Senate and the White House will (thankfully) be involved in the final compromise.

Times are tough, and not everything is worth doing. But there are few things more important to the long-term flourishing of a country than investment in basic science. Sad to see the future sacrificed for bizarre political reasons.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Space, Top Posts
  • Thomas Jones

    How much would it cost to ship Obama into outer space?

  • Andrew

    My understanding of the House’s current plan is that it has no chance of passing the senate and that Obama has threatened to veto it:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14206558
    (in the “Cut, Cap, Balance” section)

    I’m not sure how high Obama and the senate will prioritize astrophysics–Obama has also recently agreed to basically double how much he is willing to accept in budget cuts–but this isn’t the final word on the budget yet.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Why astrophysics in particular? You’d think the teabaggers would be all about killing Earth science, since the field is lousy with climate change Cassandras and their ilk.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Because the JWST is one big project, and it’s ~40% of the astrophysics budget.

  • Stan

    You should compare this to Harry Potter earnings…
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/chrismenning/a-decade-of-harry-potter-earnings

  • Sili

    Interesting that Sun science isn’t more, since that thing can take out all our satellites.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Ahhh…

  • andy

    So where would Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya fall on that scale? Just out of interest…

  • Andrew

    So most of this cut corresponds to the JWST being cancelled?

  • hoot56

    I think almost all of the cut is JWST.

    By the way, here is some speculation from a AAS email:
    “Rep. Wolf and Rep. Fattah are highly likely to work out a deal to restore JWST funding before the bill goes to the House floor, perhaps involving enhanced language spelling out detailed project oversight requirements.”

    So, maybe this all amounts to a slap on the wrist.

  • badnicolez

    NASA is the one government program that should receive increased funding for all divisions every year. It’s a good investment for ALL of us, unlike most of the rest of federal spending.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Why does no one take Robert Zubrin seriously?

    http://spacenews.com/commentaries/110711-vasimr-hoax.html

  • The Social Age

    This, along with other recent events, is one of the heralds of the new social age. It is officially upon us (where is Kurzweil!).

    The reality:
    1) People with technical expertise have the same beginning social status as plumbers. Yes…look at how IT has evolved (series of tubes!). People in those careers are the new breed of plumbers.

    2) The social and financial elite have on demand analytical capability. There is no need for maintaining a staff of knowledgable people…just google it!

    3) Rapid processers of social media, interactions, with personal organizational skills have the new currency.

    Where there is need for technical skills:

    The single biggest advantage that traditional science and technology elite is there ability to intuit when things are inaccurate. The education and practice needed to be able to rapidly assess bad information, and having the social skills to communicate the risk, will be what is of value.

    Just some thoughts…

  • Mark P

    It seems that the US is in the process of becoming a different kind of country. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, but I doubt that it will be a happy time.

  • Becon

    “Times are tough, and not everything is worth doing. But there are few things more important to the long-term flourishing of a country than investment in basic science. Sad to see the future sacrificed for bizarre political reasons. ”

    As an economist I’m annoyed by this.

    a) Basic science with high return on investment probably doesn’t include astrophysics. We can save important science funding at the NIH or NSF, and ditch some of the frivolous stuff at NASA.

    b) You’re the last person I would ask about the value of astrophysics research because you have an emotional attachment to the field. You may be knowingly or subconsciously overstating its value to preserve something you value highly.

    c) Maybe most important of all, you haven’t defined a mechanism by which basic science helps a country flourish. Is it simply for the purpose of innovation. Surely China benefits enormously from a century’s worth of US research. Other countries will invest in science and we’ll free ride on their investments. Why does the research have to happen in the US, besides a desire for petty national pride?

  • Richard

    Somewhat rhetorically, I wonder if we have some responsibility for this as a community.

    It has been known for years that JWST was subject to all sorts of delays and overruns — some of these are arguably bad luck, but the magnitude of what has gone wrong has to be due in part to mismanagement and lowballing some of the initial estimates.

    However, rather than organize to demand change at NASA (instead of just grumbling privately) or descoping the mission to something that was doable with the money at hand, people in the community have largely kept their heads down since they did not want to be seen to be rocking the boat, or providing ammunition to people in Washington who might want to cut the NASA budget. (As a thought experiment, imagine the likely consequences if someone very senior had written an Op-Ed for the NY Times in, say, 2009 asking for a shakeup at NASA — my guess is that wagons would have been circled, and the writer cried down.)

    But now it has been cut anyway, and while everything we might say about the value of the science and JWST’s role in preserving US leadership in astrophysics is true, we also have to make the case reinstating the project while somehow explaining away the cost overruns.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it will be tragedy if this is axed — but we would be in a stronger position as a community if we had been more visibly unhappy with the chain of events that has led to JWST being seen as a large and low-hanging piece of fruit by budget cutting House members.

    (Nor do I think the “it’s rocket science” excuse really works — NASA delivers a huge range of things on-time and on-budget so, in principle at least, they should know how to manage this sort of project.)

    And to make matters worse, over the last few years JWST has accreted most of the money available for astrophysics at NASA — so instead of just cutting JWST, this effectively cuts most of astrophysics. In this sense it is worse than the SSC, since (so far as I can see from this distance) it was added to the DoE budget as new money, before being taken away again.

  • Paul

    Why does the research have to happen in the US, besides a desire for petty national pride?

    It’s also for the egos of the scientists who want to continue living in the US.

  • http://www.nature.com Ivan Semeniuk

    Hi,
    As the editor who worked on this piece, I can say that starting the graph at .5 billion rather than 0 is typical for Nature because it leaves room for more text on the page (we still have those — physical pages I mean). We basically show the curve and as little empty space as possible. It’s a print media style choice worth debating, but most emphatically not an effort to mislead.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I tend to reject the notion that basic research in any particular field has a higher or lower chance of return-on-investment. Even if true in the crudest immediate sense, the intelligence and skills required to do cutting edge work in astrophysics are obviously quite portable, or should be. These days, the problem isn’t the pittance spent on minting new astrophysics PhD’s, it’s that there’s increasingly little outside of academia and govt. for them to do with it in the United States. Even in a globalized economy, there are hubs of excellence. I can’t imagine we don’t want the kind of halo effect training astrophysicists produces right here at home. Let’s not lose that capability because there’s nothing to motivate such dedication in our own borders. I expect the cash-flush private sector to do more to give aspirants a fall-back strategy. Outsourcing ain’t it.

  • Craig

    I will buy that funding physics is a good idea. I am all for it. But is it really true that our long term prosperity depends on funding astrophysics?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Ivan, thanks for chiming in. I certainly understand that there is no intentional effort to mislead, but there’s also little question that the result is quite misleading. Not sure I understand the argument about fitting on a page — no matter what the range on your vertical axis is, you can still fit the graphic into a box of the same size. The only difference is that the curves will be closer together. But that’s just an accurate reflection of the reality.

    If there were some quantity that ranged between 200 and 220, I would understand not starting the graph at 0. But for something that ranges between 0.5 and 2.0 there’s really no good reason.

  • Anchor

    “I will buy that funding physics is a good idea. I am all for it. But is it really true that our long term prosperity depends on funding astrophysics?”

    Yeah. If you think our long-term prosperity depends on funding physics, you must per force agree the same for astrophysics. There is no better laboratory or more powerful machine we can ever build or consult to confirm or refute our physics theories than the horse’s mouth. Physics and astrophysics are inseparable.

    BTW, although it is the biggest chunk, it is NOT just the threatened axing of JWST that accounts for the dip in the astrophysics budget.

  • http://seanthemystic.blogspot.com Sean the Mystic

    Well to me the problem is obvious. Astrophysics research, being of no practical economic value, needs to be part of a larger cultural/religious milieu to survive in a world that is converging toward nihilistic global capitalism. So what astrophysicists really need to do if they want to survive is to aggressively promote their science as part of a new cosmic religion. I know this is anathema to most of you, but a cursory acquaintance with human history suggests that it is true. I think Carl Sagan and Arthur Clarke understood this and took a big step in that direction, but their cosmic religion seems to have faltered in recent times, and without another prophet I’m not optimistic about the future of astrophysics in a world that is so desperate for religious myths that it will embrace even the most backward-looking faiths over the nihilism of pure scientific materialism.

  • Anchor

    We don’t need no stinkin’ prophets. Thinking so is part of the problem.

  • http://seanthemystic.blogspot.com Sean the Mystic

    Actually I think you do need new prophets. Where atheist scientists fail is their inability to understand the power of myth. They tear down all traditional myths and offer nothing in return. This is the real root of the religion-atheism dispute. Again, Sagan understood this and offered a new myth. Where are the new atheist scientist myth-makers? Without a strong, aggressive myth, modernity is simply doomed.

  • Becon

    #19 Low Math, Meekly Interacting said:
    “Even in a globalized economy, there are hubs of excellence. I can’t imagine we don’t want the kind of halo effect training astrophysicists produces right here at home.”

    Similar arguments are made by local businesses and politicians for taxpayer funded sports stadiums, convention centers, and monorails*. The halo effect will make our city a world class hub of commerce and culture, and more than pay for itself. In reality they are giant sinkholes for public money.

    The positive economic externalities of astrophysics are probably nil.

    * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF_yLodI1CQ

  • Charon

    @Becon:

    CCDs. Just sayin’.

    Given your track record, I’m not sure we need any funding for economists.

  • Heinrich

    The misleading graphic alert goes farther than the ordinate numbering. It shows the budget of the four science divisions within the Science Mission Directorate. The dramatic fall of Astrophysics is *precisely* because of the management shift of JWST outside the Astrophysics Division. That was done, of course, because it was a key recommendation of the high level oversight group that was charged with digging into the mission cost problems for JWST. So this is about division budgets, not science budgets. The astrophysics science is still all there, just not in the Astrophysics Division. To those who are more protective about divisions than science, go ahead and shed a tear. Once launched, the operation of JWST would be transferred back into the Astrophysics Division (which seems to know how to operate big missions a lot better than it knows how to develop them), and there is every reason to believe that the budget for NASA astrophysics as a science pursuit would be preserved.

    Now, sure, JWST is at risk of cancellation, but that cancellation doesn’t really depend on whether it is part of the Astrophysics Division or not. It’s just as cancellable outside as it is inside.

    So let’s be clear. The administration has nothing against astrophysics. The “fiasco” most certainly isn’t that JWST development management has been taken out of astrophysics, dammit, it’s that JWST is being canceled by Congress. The real fiasco isn’t what this plot pretends to show. Eric Hand is a bit lame in suggesting that “In Congress, the division faces outright hostility.” Nope, the Division isn’t seeing any hostility from Congress. But JWST sure is, and it’s not part of the Division anymore! In any case, the text in Hand’s article is mostly right. Taking this figure out of context, and using it to create a graphical crisis is not.

  • Paul

    CCDs. Just sayin’.

    Invented at Bell Labs for use as memory devices, and applied in spy satellites with the first launch in 1976. How is this an astrophyics spinoff?

  • Doug

    Re: Paul

    so, the 1973 JPL program to develop a large format CCD camera for astronomical use followed by the use of a 100×100 pixel Fairchild CCD on a telescope in 1974 was somehow less important than a 1976 spy satellite in the development of CCDs? The continued development of CCD technology at Lincoln Labs, LBL, and other research organizations during the 1970’s and 1980’s should be discounted?

    We should also ignore the fact that the algorithms developed for correcting HST images for the flawed optics were later adapter to medical imaging to improve the image quality. We should also ignore the improvements in industrial glass and bearing technologies that were developed in the course of making bigger and better telescopes that were later used in non-astronomy industrial applications (such as the retractable roofs that are much in vogue with new sports stadiums).

    I absolutely agree with Becon and Paul, if you ignore all the spinoff technologies which have been generated by astronomy, it has provided no economic benefit.

  • Paul

    Doug: it’s a common tactic of spinoff hypesters to observe that NASA had an effort in some technology, and then leap to the conclusion that NASA is responsible for the technology.

    Because there were alternative, and larger, markets for CCDs, it’s no stretch to imagine they would have been developed even without NASA and JPL. The Japanese, for example, had a large effort to push them into consumer products.

    If CCDs would have come along anyway, then one cannot use them in support of NASA programs. For that, you need to find technologies that came into being ONLY because NASA did something.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    #26 – Your argument seems persuasive at a superficial level, but I’m not convinced that competitive pursuits of intellectual excellence and exploration of the natural world are all that comparable to sports stadiums, and the proposed economic benefits from either are of a completely different sort, I think.

  • matt

    Those of you speculating about the (putatively zero) economic impact of various fields might want to, say, Google “economic impact of astrophysics.” The first hit is a report issued by consultants from KMPG who were asked by the Canadian NRC to examine this basic issue. They conclude, for instance, “Thus for a yearly research spending increase of just under $15M, one could (after some period of time) expect incremental gross industry revenues of roughly $150M per annum.” I.e., “The ratio of incremental industrial revenues compared to the additional government expenditures alone could easily be 10:1 or considerably higher.”

    Now, there are considerable uncertainties in how you come up with (or even define) a figure like that. Other ways of defining it could give you a much lower (though still healthily greater than 1) number for benefits/costs. They also note that “a typical finding (across many scientific fields and industry sectors) is that one project in perhaps 10 or 20 provides almost all the benefits, while the remainder either contribute only a little, or fail completely.” But hey, it’s a start.

    There are many, many other examples of this sort of analysis out there (I see a few on just the first page of Google results). They each have their caveats, but I contend that any of them are preferable to bizarrely uninformed statements that the field has zero positive economic impact.

    (I’ll confess that finding comparative info about the economic impact of various other physics sub-disciplines has proven slightly harder; that said, I’m willing to admit that there are other fields whose economic spin-off potential is probably larger. But it doesn’t follow from this statement that it isn’t economically beneficial to fund astronomy.)

  • don’t kill the messenger

    The best art *and* science is never created for its immediate economic impact. Traditionally it has flourished as a result of the backing of a wealthy patron. In the last century breakthrough science has often required patronage on the scale of nations rather than individuals. If, as a society, we’ve come to agree that it’s reasonable to value fundamental science commensurate with its economic impact, then as a civilization we’ve already lost. Perhaps the “western” renaissance has run its course. Now either the rising nations of the East will take over, or, more likely, we’ll return to the motivations of pre-renaissance society. I know this argument is viewed as flowery liberal nonsense by our conservative economist friends. I hope they at least find fulfillment in a world without wonder or discovery, or any notion that humans can be more than mere consumers. I know I won’t.

  • https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~rkirshner/ Bob Kirshner

    Heinrich is saying something important— JWST is no longer inside the Astrophysics division budget. So, the apparent decline in Astrophysics funding is a bookkeeping matter (as well as an example of bad graphics.)

    Of course, what really matters is restoring the funding for JWST. It’s not just a matter of economics– there is something important about learning how the Universe works.

  • Tintin

    8) andy asks:
    So where would Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya fall on that scale? Just out of interest…

    For the month of February 2011, the last month available,

    Afghanistan, 6.7 Billion , and climbing (fast)
    Iraq, 5.5 Billion, coming down

    As for Libya, it’s a bargain. From the time the air strikes started, March 19, until April 4, the Pentagon says $608 Million. Hey, you can’t have guns and butter at the same time…

  • Mean and Anomalous

    To Sean the Mystic – Sorry, but your assessment of the legacy of Sagan and A. C. Carke is truly horrible (# 23 and 25); a new cosmic religion? I hope you were being sarcastic…

    I any case and to get back on-topic, I do think canceling JWST would be terrible, and would be one more symptom of American decline.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    If Heinrich’s statements are correct (and I have no reason to doubt them), then it’s somewhat more encouraging for the field (though my alarm over the JWST is undiminished, and JWST is of enormous importance to astrophysics, regardless of what funding box it’s in).

    Of course, the discussion has moved, as it inevitably does, to the usual claims that public funding for some-or-other field of basic science is at best an extravagance, and at worst a form of theft, if it can’t show some kind of immediate and tangible economic value. Actually, such appropriations, in the minds of some, amount to a grave violation of basic human rights and Our Freedoms even if they do have tangible economic value.

    Let’s hear it for liberty.

  • Brian Too

    @Becon,

    OK, this community is biased towards science and funding it. What is your bias? The best comment I ever heard about economists was that “you can take all the economists in the world, place them head to toe, and they wouldn’t reach a conclusion.”

    Your statements are filled with qualifiers like ‘probably’. Also there are numerous inflammatory words like ‘sinkhole’, ‘frivolous’ and ‘petty’.

    You use China as an argument, suggesting that they benefit off western research. Then you suggest we turn the tables by using their research. So which is it? Is research an economic benefit, or isn’t it? Or it is only an economic benefit when China does it, because that buttresses your flimsy argument?

    A little history is in order here and China is on the table. The Chinese imperial state, prior to the Communist era, was weakened by many factors. One of those factors was that China didn’t place a high value on technology and fell far behind western powers. As a result China lost control of it’s world and future for roughly a century. Much the same thing happened in Japan.

    Fundamental economic theory states that businesses, technolgies and business models have a stereotypic growth curve. High growth, maturity, and then decline. Stating that these businesses, technologies and business models “would happen anyway” completely misses the issue of timing. A business lead time of 1-5 years on competitors is golden in the marketplace, yet you overlook this entirely.

    So you are left with just one refuge. Perhaps there is a failure to transition research & development to commercial success? While this was a big concern several decades ago, and will never completely go away as a concern, take a look around. In the academic world (as one example), universities have jumped on this big time. Business incubators, spinoff companies, patent portfolios, venture capital funding, there is a whole support system to commercialize R&D. There is serious money in making this happen and despite the high failure rates, the successes make it worthwhile.

    The Chinese themselves wouldn’t willingly repeat the path of their own history. Why would we chose to do so?

  • hoot56

    “However, rather than organize to demand change at NASA (instead of just grumbling privately) or descoping the mission to something that was doable with the money at hand, people in the community have largely kept their heads down since they did not want to be seen to be rocking the boat, or providing ammunition to people in Washington who might want to cut the NASA budget.”

    I have first-hand knowledge of how the astronomical community “let” us get into this situation on JWST.

    First, leaders in the astronomical community went along with the ridiculous cost estimates and the waste because they felt that any bad news for JWST would jeopardize the mission and there was no way that the budget could be used to fund other missions anyway (notice that they are still saying we should save the mission because of this same logic). Also, as pointed out in an earlier post, anybody not towing the party line would have been escorted out of the community (gotta love “objective” science and competition of ideas – not!).

    I heard the same sentiment over and over and over during the past 10 years of the project. Also, one of the official astronomy “watchdogs” over the mission, AURA/STScI, repeatedly told their employees to look the other way as GSFC squandered project money by having everyone and their mother charge the JWST project code in a series of endless engineering meetings on designs that were going to have to be redone by the real builders down the road (the contractors). We were told, “this is the way great missions get built, if you can’t stand to see sausage get made, then go do something else. Oh, and by the way, GSFC are the ones who write us that $50M check every year, so best be quiet.” I wouldn’t be surprised if JWST were to be a total technical failure if it did get launched, as all the “oversight” has been bought with cold hard cash.

    This reminds me of the bankers who were given their perp-walk in the financial meltdown, all the while explaining, “Well, everybody was doing this, so it must be ok.”

  • Becon

    “You use China as an argument, suggesting that they benefit off western research. Then you suggest we turn the tables by using their research. So which is it? Is research an economic benefit, or isn’t it?”

    Innovation is a benefit, research is a cost. Assuming the Library of Alexandria never burns down again, anytime a discovery is made it’s added to the pool of collective knowledge. And it’s fairly cheap to exploit someone else’s discovery despite modern IP law. (e.g. We’re not paying the family of the inventor of the wheel to use his discovery.)

    I said we as a nation have been bearing the cost of research a long time, and now countries like China have had spectacular catch up growth using our hard earned discoveries. We can turn the tables and let China pay the costs of basic science research and we can reap the benefits at nearly no cost to our government.

  • Heinrich

    Let me add to the above that the graph purporting to show the crisis (as noted) has an ordinate that starts at $500M. That is, Eric Hand could have shown the JWST Project Office as a fifth SMD “division” (serving astrophysics, as it turns out), which functionally it isn’t though it is budgeted that way. But the graph wouldn’t let it show up. So JWST is tossed off the graph, much as Congress is trying to toss it off the budget.

    Just to underscore — the “crisis” for the community isn’t that JWST was removed from the Astrophysics Division or that the budget for the Division appears low. The crisis is that Congress (well, one subcommittee at least) wants to terminate JWST.

    Now, there is one way this crisis could metamorphosize into another one. This is that Congress directs NASA to do JWST, but without providing funds. Then the crisis becomes someone elses, probably other science accounts. The Congressional protectors of JWST toast their success, and Administrator Bolden is left to decide who exactly gets screwed (most likely the other science accounts). However this turns out, the uber crisis is that JWST has rendered the astronomical community and NASA non-credible in managing flagship science missions. That is, in the long term, really the fallen fortune of the astrophysics community,

  • t

    But JWST is included in the astrophysics division funding shown in the graph until 2011. Only in 2012 would JWST become the “fifth SMD division”. Except that in the House budget for 2012 it isn’t funded.

    In the House budget astrophysics is given $683M, the same as in the President’s request where JWST was funded separately. So under the House budget the rest of astrophysics would be starving just as it was when JWST was sucking the money. If they really cancel JWST, couldn’t they even give some of the money back to be used for other projects? And once astrophysics funding is reduced to significantly <$1B, I'm afraid it'll be hard to get it back to a higher level where it was even before JWST.

  • chris

    Becon (#41): people like you make me want to privatize research for real. no publication, just sharing of results within trusted groups and all research results tightly controlled by the strictest possible IP laws, enforced by the scientists who made the discovery.

    it is breathtakingly dishonest how you ‘free market’ types take it for granted that we (scientists) share all of our hard-earned knowledge with everyone while you (non-discovering moneymakers) routinely turn this knowledge into money and make us beg for the peanuts you feed us with.

    no more knowledge for the public domain if the public is types like yourself.

  • Becon

    Chris,

    I’m feeding you with peanuts while you’re contributing important discoveries to the public domain. Go ahead, quit tomorrow. Take your talents to the private sector. I dare you.

  • Bruce

    Re “Becon”, and his ilk, the guy is practically a nihilist, and definitely a bully personality. Why waste your time on him? Walk away, and let him be to his small life.

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  • Anonymous_Snowboarder

    Well two things are pretty clear from this chart –

    1) The overall level of funding for those four subgroups of NASA’s budget has been approximately $4.5B since 2008,

    2) Robbing Peter to pay Paul – Earth and Planetary sciences have assumed a larger share at the expense of astrophysics.

    Also, $4.5B at 2.5% inflation for four years would require $5.1B to be ‘constant’ so if anything is to be said here beyond the internal distribution of funds it is that Congress/NASA have not given inflation increases. But clearly astrophysics has been out of favor now for at least four years and under both Dem and Rep House leadership.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I look at Beacon and his ilk and wonder how this economic Manichaeism takes hold of the human mind. Anyone who has worked in industry science (as I have) ought to be aware of its limitations, just as there are limitations to academic and govt. science (which I also have worked in). There’s simply no realistic one-size-fits-all model for research, and I happen to be convinced that both non-profit and for-profit institutions will be able to do some things better than the other. There’s no conceivable way in the real world that I can see for truly basic research to be funded and implemented adequately by private interests. A fully privatized model has never existed, and but for a few fleeting examples, in the 20th century, corporations have never made significant contributions to the foundations of science. There is precisely zero evidence of a working model of scientific inquiry that relied entirely on the private sector that would come even close to delivering the kinds of advancements we enjoy today. None. It is utterly unjustified.

    I would state just as firmly that I cannot conceive of a fully socialized system that could deliver the kind of practical implementations such basic knowledge has enabled as what we have today. It is inconceivable to me that human altruism is sufficient to take the place of markets. Some degree of profit motive is demonstrably worth the costs incurred by the corrupting powers of human greed, if those powers can be kept in check. With proper regulation, the two halves of the scientific enterprise can and do complement each other. This is a model that has WORKED for us throughout the past two centuries, at least. The signs I can see of it breaking down is the increasing power of corporations coupled with the short-term demands of alarmingly powerful institutional investors. If anything, too much privatization is ruining this very successful model, and the evidence of this ruin is everywhere, if these libertarian zealots could be bothered to look.

    I cannot fathom how such economic dogmatism is persuasive, as disconnected from any real-world evidence of human endeavor as it is. And this nonsense isn’t about God or the fate of our immortal souls, either. It’s about nothing more than money, and what some regard as, apparently, a God-Given Right to have no mortal compel them to part with even a little of it. Far more than televangelists and creationists, these people make me fear for humanity.

  • Randall Smith

    It’s hard to argue that US funding for astrophysics research returns the highest possible return on investment for the dollar. Basic physics (especially solid-state/condensed matter physics) and certainly chemistry provide a much better direct return on the dollar, and rightly get a much larger share of the nation’s funding, both public and private. This can be seen trivially in the conference size — attendance at a March APS meeting dwarfs that of any AAS meeting (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people attend a March APS meeting than the AAS has members), and the major chemistry meetings are 10x the size of physics meetings. All of this is intended to show that the funding for astrophysics in the US should not be a large fraction of the GDP — and it is not.

    However, astronomy and astrophysics do have a hold on the imaginations of the citizenry in a way physics and chemistry never will. Which is a large part of the reason why, in the past 50 years, we’ve been willing to put the US taxpayer’s money into it. At some point in their lives, *everyone* looks up at the sky and wonders what is going on out there. The entire field is, simply put, inspiring (making it both an honor and a duty to work in it). If the US wishes to remain the kind of country that attracts top quality talent in ALL fields of human endeavor, we’re going to need a certain amount of inspiration — not because it makes money for us directly, but because of the knock-on effects. As Harold Urey noted about an earlier civilization: “Athens built the Acropolis. Corinth was a commercial city, interested in purely materialistic things. Today we admire Athens, visit it, preserve the old temples, yet we hardly ever set foot in Corinth.”

    Do the citizens of the US want to be the kind of country that only looks back on our former greatness, or looks forward to new achievements? That is the question before us, and I for one am willing to submit to taxes at the level seen during the Clinton administration in order to have a positive response. I just don’t know where the rest of my fellow citizens lie on this question.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Something Robert Wilson once said, not about astrophysics or economics, but rather the SSC and what it might do for national defense, rings in my ears now and then. I think it makes a lot of sense still, in the present context…

    “Nothing at all. It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

  • http://andromedachild.blogspot.com Andy Fleming

    Can’t believe how those in charge of a great nation can contemplate cutting basic science budgets such as astrophysics, and running NASA and space exploration down. Such things are the seedcorn of the future and NASA is a great ambassador for the US. As a Brit, I’ve always said that I wished some of my taxes went in to supporting it. All organisations have faults and none are perfect, but the US politicians are mad for cutting something as good as NASA.

    Mind you when there are folks wanting to stand for President who think that the Earth was created in 6006BC and man co-existed with dinosaurs, what hope is there? I just hope that Russia, ESA, JAXA, India and China continue their visions for the human future in space.

  • Gordon

    “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”–Mark Twain

  • Hiram

    Think it’s bad for astrophysics? No, it’s going to get worse. Because pretty soon some senior members of the astronomical community will come out if not endorsing the cancellation of JWST, then at least raising some skepticism about why it shouldn’t be cancelled. Who would do this? Well, just look at the many missions that have been tabled/cancelled because of JWST. Now, the argument they have to make is that the money would be preserved for astrophysics. Not clearly the case.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    The US military spends about $1.5 million per minute. ’nuff said.

  • mimili

    Hi,
    The scientist can find lots of thing but they won’t be able to explain eveything!!
    It would be great that more and more people believe in God and in his son JESUS!:-) We can find our big questions in the bible and the answere is in there! If we read the bible we understand more about our planet.If you believe in JESUS and that he forgive your sins you will have eternal life.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .

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