Thursday, October 16, 2008

Space and Science Spending in the New Economic Order

This will be as close to a nonpartisan rant as I can manage, partly because I don't see either of the two presidential candidates as being greatly different, and partly because regardless of who is elected in a couple weeks, either of them would have to face the same set of circumstances:

  • A $700 billion promise of a congressional bailout, on top of $3 trillion in federal spending on defense, entitlements, and homeland security.
  • An aging workforce, which will soon require a great deal of Social Security and Medicare assistance.
  • An increasingly competitive global market in science and technology.
  • A dysfunctional elementary and secondary government school system.
  • More and more national and international problems based on science and technology.

There's also this: a Republican friend of mine reminded me today that she didn't think space was a worthwhile expenditure by the federal government. Darlene the Science Cheerleader recently posted some comments on the value of "funding discovery." My response is worth posting here because if I can't plagiarize myself, I'm in real trouble.

Once upon a time, very rich people in America and aristocrats in Europe funded institutions of research and learning for the sheer joy, pleasure, and worthwhile nature of understanding the physical world. I’m not sure whatever happened to that practice, but if those folks are no longer willing or able to do that, then government should. The research and discovery of new knowledge are common goods, and as such belong to everybody.
Private investments in research can and should be more practical (applied science) and focus on translating known facts about the physical world into new products and
processes that can be patented and owned.

I still believe that federal funding of pure research and private funding for applied research is a good model. However, science has not been an easy sell to the American public. Or, rather, space exploration hasn't been an easy sell in my lifetime. Once upon a time we put men on the Moon and sent multiple spacecraft to all of the outer planets. But then the Cold War ended. NASA funding shriveled. Bush Sr.'s plan to go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond (the $450 billion, 30-year Space Exploration Initiative) was torpedoed. The world's largest atom smasher was built in Europe. Magnetic-levitation trains were built in Germany and used in China. The list goes on, but I'll leave it to Neil de Grasse Tyson to finish the litany for me. See here and here.

There are several approaches space advocates have used:

  • Fear of others (the Chinese, Russians, or Indians)
  • Fear of external threats (asteroids, comets, solar radiation/flares)
  • Economic development and gain (space launch services, satellites, mining materials, tourism, power systems, new jobs, increased prosperity, etc., etc.)
  • Scientific knowledge (discovery of other life forms, new chemistries, new galaxies, stars, or planets, new scientific laws)
  • New frontiers (other places to live, have families, develop political/social systems, get away from life on Earth, or go to somewhere cool)
  • New technologies (technology development on Earth, building new and better stuff that works in space, applying technologies or knowledge from space to Earth-based problems/spinoffs)
  • Fun (new sports, new hobbies, new activities)

Even a combination of all of these approaches has not been enough to "sell space" in a healthy economy, which is quite frankly frustrating. But what will all these great reasons and ideas matter in a seriously constrained economy or federal budget? I've been chided by several friends about my negative perception of the government bailout and its potential impacts for the future. Am I hallucinating 30 years of reading history, most of which has told me that bad things happen when government spends beyond its means? Do people no longer study the actual events of the Great Depression in America or Weimar Germany or 1917 Russia?

Okay, I'll take off my frowny-face mask for the moment and assume that all my optimist friends are right: the economy will be fine, socialism will dissipate, and the budget will resume its normal cycles. To quote (of all people) Hillary Clinton, that requires a large suspension of disbelief, but I'll try. The fact still remains that we've got the same long-term problems I listed initially, even without the bailout! Now what? We can't stop Baby Boomers from aging. Can we prevent them from retiring or going on the government dole unnecessarily? Can we fix our public school system so that slow students can catch up while gifted students are allowed to excel on their own or in nurturing environments? Can we get the federal government to spend serious coin on basic research and space exploration? If so, how? I guess my brain is baked because I'm out of ideas.

Suggestions welcome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Buck up, Bart! Yes, the situation is dire, no doubt about that. And, yet, it will be VERY challenging for anyone to rip dollars from the tightly gripped hands of Congress during the next several years. However, both candidates have gone on record to specifically state their desire to increase spending on space exploration (despite the fact 9 of 12 federal offices haven't received 2009 budget allocations...they were supposed to get their funds on Oct 1, the start of the new fiscal year....they'll have to wait until MARCH!)
If I can paint a rosey picture here it's this one: we were out of control with our spending from the government over to my own family. Everyone will be forced to think more wisely about spending and, heck, we might even learn to better appreciate what we have and figure out ways to be more innovative, effective and efficient citizens. Look what the outrageous cost of gas has done for the environment (agree with global warming or not). People--average citizens--are actually talking about fuel cells, solar energy, and how we can harness wind power. Bike sales are WAY up, people are walking more.
And I do think the "silver tsunami" (wave of retirees) will choose to work a little longer because of the economy and because, well, 65 is the new 55.
All that said, Bart, I'm thankful you keep reminding all of us why we should be concerned.