This is one of three articles I had to write for a course I took at the Colorado School of Mines called Advanced Science Communication. This article takes a look at the US budget crisis and questions the necessity of some line items that we pay for.
With the dawn of the space race in the autumn of 1957—the launch of Sputnik I and II—the doors of human imagination were blown wide open and the spirit of exploration and intrigue was given wings that would soar past the glass ceiling of the wide blue sky. What was once considered the horizon of impossibility had become simply the threshold of a brand new adventure. The science fiction of aliens and spaceships and far off galaxies had, in a moment, become breathtakingly close to reality. This new frontier was so wholly other to the common human experience that new fears of space wars and Soviet spy satellites arose quickly and were not easily abated. Indeed, the justifications given for space exploration follow these few motivations quite closely (scientific discovery, national security, economic competition, human destiny, and national prestige) even as they evolved and shifted over time (Launius, 2006). Space exploration is indeed quite incredible, and the burning question in my mind is how our government can successfully communicate that the recent (tough) budget reductions for NASA do not reflect a lack of benefits from our investment in space, but rather reflect the enormous deficit that we face right now.
What kind of benefits has our national space program wrought? Innumerable quantities of data have been collected about our neighboring planets that have in turn helped us refine our thinking about the nature of the Universe and how it works. Fringe benefits of space exploration include ballpoint pens, GPS units, Satellite communications, and memory foam beds (just to name a few). We cannot underestimate the ways in which space has transformed earth. Space exploration, however, is a costly endeavor. The funding necessary to launch a satellite or a shuttle is absolutely astronomical (no pun intended). For example, the shuttle built to replace Challenger cost $1.7 billion to build and $450 million to launch per mission (Ryba, 2008). With an estimated budgetary deficit for the United States next year of over $1 trillion (Aaby, 2011), how do we continue to justify line items like these?
According to the proposed US annual budget for 2012, the cost of funding NASA will be $18.7 billion. This is a mere drop in the bucket of the total US spending plan for 2012, estimated to be $3.7 trillion (Aaby, 2011). It may seem silly to think that cutting such a small slice of the budget would do much good in the overall scheme of things, but that is precisely what the House and Senate did this past week when they passed a bill this week to try to trim things down (Fahrenthold, 2011). NASA received a $650 million cut, meaning cancellations or postponements on a number of different projects (Matthews, 2011).
This may possibly be one of the most important science communication case studies of our time: the urgency of our financial situation as a country is pushing scientists and the public to start talking much more clearly and frequently. It will be interesting to see if true bidirectional communication from scientists to the public and from the public to scientists occurs; no longer can scientists simply say how great their research is—they will have to hear, understand, and factor in the position of the public as well.
The difficulty of the task lies in the fact that in reality, there is not a clear line between scientists and the public when scientists also pay taxes and receive paychecks. The stickiness of this situation is a telling illustration that science is a social enterprise: not only in the sense that scientific inquiry is affected by the presence of peers and co-scientists, but also in the sense that NASA scientists are very much affected by and have a vested interest in public policy and its social ramifications. If someone is friends with scientists at NASA, they are much more likely to vote against budget cuts so as to help out their friend.
The need for good communication between scientists and the public is not an academic exercise, but rather an intensely personal affair that pits the livelihood of NASA scientists and aerospace engineers against the future of America as a sovereign nation. Something has to give in the push-pull nature of this scientific controversy, and it doesn’t take an advanced degree to understand that the US government (that carries much more weight) is likely to win any battle of this nature. Landing research stations on Mars just isn’t as pressing a need as stalling the country’s headlong dive into debt.
If we’re searching for an easy answer to the question of how to communicate this to the country, we’ll be let down. The video above demonstrates how not to communicate, namely by belittling and blaming rather than constructively searching for a solution. Good communication will ultimately make both the public and scientists feel valuable, safe, and protected or at least aim to do so. As congress presses forward with budget reductions, they have their work cut out for them. Certainly any communicating they do will not be taken kindly with their current 9% approval rating (Schieffer, 2011). If they do, however, end up communicating effectively with both the scientists and the public, it will set an historic precedent for scientific/public discourse in the years to come.
- Launius, Roger D. 2006. Compelling Rationales for Spaceflight? History and the Search for Relevance. In Critical issues in the history of spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, 38-70. Washington, DC: NASA SP-2006-4702.
- Ryba, Jeanne. 2008. Space Shuttle and International Space Station FAQ. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttle_faq.html
- Aaby, Katherine D., et. al. 2011. United States Budget. http://www.gpoaccess.gov/usbudget/browse.html
- Fahrenthold, David A. 2011. House, Senate pass budget bill to avert shutdown. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/congress-set-to-vote-on-budget-bill-for-5-agencies/2011/11/17/gIQAXoGKVN_story.html
- Matthews, Mark K. 2011. NASA budget cuts could delay new jobs at KSC. Orlando Sentinel. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-11-15/news/os-nasa-budget-cuts-20111115_1_nasa-budget-rocket-and-capsule-nasa-dollars
- Schieffer, Bob. 2011. Congress’ approval rating: how low can it go? CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3460_162-57328351/congress-approval-rating-how-low-can-it-go/