The Sciences

From Distant Planets to the Deep Blue Sea

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMar 24, 2009 4:41 PM


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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.

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.

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