Tuesday, April 03, 2012

An open letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hello, Dr. Tyson. First, let me say that I'm a huge fan. You do the scientific community a tremendous service by being such an approachable, clear spokesman, maintaining scientific accuracy while also entertaining the public. Astronomy is a great side interest of mine (like many scientists and engineers), and I really wanted to be an astronaut for a while (until my eyes were demonstrably lousy); that's why on some gut level I enjoyed your call for a renewed vigor in space exploration.

However, my brain's response to your call is, is this really the best strategy? Much as I'd love to one day walk on the moon or Mars, I can't help but be deeply skeptical of NASA's ability to allocate resources. Right now their annual budget is about $17B, more than twice that of the NSF, and more than three times that of the DOE Office of Science. While the achievements of the robotic spacecraft missions are truly amazing, much of the rest of NASA seems very dysfunctional. I'll admit, my impression colored by my thesis advisor's experience on the Columbia accident investigation board, my knowledge of the ISS (hint: the Soyuz "lifeboats" where the ISS crew shelters in case of debris impact? They're actually the most debris-vulnerable part of the ISS.), and the fact that NASA has employees that do things like this and this at some rate.

If taxpayers are going to be persuaded to invest another $17B/yr in federally funded research, I think a much more compelling case needs to be made that NASA is the place for that investment, given the alternatives. Yes, NASA's history and subject matter are inspiring, but you need to convince me that NASA as an agency will really get value out of that investment, given that their recent leadership has been singularly unimpressive.

PS - If you ever need a sub to go onto Colbert in your stead, please call.


Anzel said...

Agreed. The only reason I think that renewing our attempts for human exploration of outer-space would be beneficial to science as a whole is political: it would give people something tangible to look up to. Whether that would really be worth the cost--uncertain. There was a whole lot more public hand-wringing over the cancellation of the Constellation and the retirement of the space shuttle than when the JWST was about to get cut.

I thoroughly subscribe to the view that things like the ISS or the shuttle program wasted a lot of money that could have gone towards other science (*cough*SSC*cough*) simply because of some feeling that "but we've GOT to have Americans in space!"

Anonymous said...

Doug, I have several criticisms to this letter (from my brain).

Firstly, there is a ' positive feedback effect' from funding NASA with a grand goal that you can't get with the NSF or DoE that will inspire a generation to choose STEM fields. You can't ignore this -- for example, simply funding more grants at the NSF or DoE can't achieve this.

Secondly, there are really two NASAs. There's one that does manned stuff, maintains the ISS, and funds silly research (usually congressional pork) that you mention. Then there's the second NASA, the NASA astrophysics division that does things like Hubble, JWST, Candra and SOFIA. Osheroff's experience deals with the former, and isn't really applicable to the latter. The latter, in fact, has been spectacularly efficient and successful.

Thirdly, the whole premise of your argument is that there's some pot of money (~17B) and we could choose to spend it on NSF/DoEOoS instead of NASA. This is not the case, as there is little political will right now for increasing the funding of the NSF or DoE. However, there is a growing political will for doubling the funding for NASA, independent of Neil Tyson. If you've recently visited social media sites such as reddit (which is fast becoming the next facebook)there are almost daily calls for increasing NASA's funding. Science, and space inspires the public like other things simply don't, and we live in a Democracy.

There is even a petition being circulated: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/least-double-nasa%E2%80%99s-annual-budget-one-penny-every-government-dollar-spent/WHRSzLRj

Politically speaking, just take the money and run, Doug. The most likely scenario is no one will see their funding increase.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, let me play devil's advocate here regarding your points.

First, there is real economic data that shows that jobs in science and engineering track directly with federal investment in research - not just research associated with spaceflight. So, I would argue that there is direct economic proof that your statement that investment in NSF and DOE can't produce scientists and engineers is not true.

Your second point is, of course, correct - but manned spaceflight is very very expensive. Even on the unmanned side, I think it's an interesting case whether the community as a whole is being well served right now. Many many things are being sacrificed for the sake of the Webb telescope. Sure, it'll be awesome, but the costs have risen to almost $19B (!). Yes, I've heard the claim that the original pricetag was forced to be artificially and unrealistically low by NASA administrators. Still, $19B is not chump change, and it's worth asking whether the "all-in" strategy is really smart. I'm betting a lot of the Mars planetary science types have some qualms.

Thirdly, the idea that there is growing political will for doubling NASA's funding is an extremely optimistic interpretation at best. Congress (yes, those geniuses) have already voted at least twice in recent times to authorize the doubling of NSF's budget in 10 years. Heck, my own congressman is very proud to have done so. He's also proud not to have appropriated a damned penny for it. I don't want to sound overly negative, and I agree that it's not a zero sum game, in that money can sometimes just appear for the right cause. However, extrapolating from an online petition pushed by reddit to actual appropriations by a Republican-controlled deficit hawk House is a bridge too far for me.

DanM said...

Promise me that you will let me know if Tyson responds to your blog post. I would be interested to hear his response.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Natelson,

I think you and Anzel are seeing the issue from a point of view that is different from that of the average taxpayer and Congressman, specifically, the point of view that says why don't we move money from the manned exploration pot where it will do good scientifically and technically. This is an important consideration, but another important consideration is that in a recession, the question most people are asking is whether to provide a pot at all.

Manned spaceflight captures the imagination in a way that, say, missions like IMAGE do not. This is fundamentally more persuasive to the average taxpayer since they can relate to what is being done, which results in being more persuasive to people who periodically have to run for election.


Anonymous said...

That should have been "money from the manned exploration pot to another pot where it will do good scientifically and technically".