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From Distant Planets to the Deep Blue Sea

by Phil Plait, Mar 25 2009

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.

What’s better, Kepler or ocean studies? Neither. They’re both important!

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.


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.

20 Responses to “From Distant Planets to the Deep Blue Sea”

  1. Jeff says:

    “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.”

    that WILL yield very little. I’d love to see this crystal ball he’s using.

  2. Brian M says:

    NASA is a great example of an agency that thinks outside of the box. It isn’t just space that they are always researching, but aviation, and many many other disciplines. While staring at stars won’t yield anything really useful in itself (at least, not until we crack faster then light travel), the side research is where all of the “here and now” advances will appear. I always defend NASA, and the space shuttle, when people say “shooting things into space is pointless, we can spend that money solving poverty”, which itself is retarded, because throwing money doesn’t change the attitude of the poverty stricken nations. Hand ups, not handouts… Grr…

  3. jdcllns says:

    To bad that as a scientist you don’t really understand economics. Then you would understand that we simply cannot “support everyone”. Choices have to be made. Priorities have to be set. Values must be applied. Government funding, by it’s nature, is what politicizes science. I’m amazed that skeptics don’t seem to understand this.

  4. Ed Graham says:

    OK, if you want to add judgments to NASA projects –

    Kepler = Good

    Space Station = Bad

    Etzioni writs interesting books on OD, but has some strange prejudices.

  5. “Poopoo”

    Phil said, “poopoo.”

  6. Canadian curmudgeon says:

    The Huffington Post is a major promoter of anti-vaccination and other forms of woo. If I read anything there, it certainly isn’t anything to do with science.

  7. Max says:

    “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.”

    Assuming that space exploration and ocean exploration are equally important, but ocean exploration is much cheaper, it’s clear that ocean exploration yields a better return on investment.

  8. SeanJJordan says:

    I’ll agree that a lot of the government-funded “research” out there is ridiculous, but NASA is an organization that’s exploring new frontiers and paving the way for the future. The moment we shut down NASA is the moment we start regressing into the dark ages, because it will mean that real science is not as important to us as a culture.

    I think it’s going to be hard in the 21st century for people to have a sense of perspective on matters like these because they’re going to take science and technology for granted. Researchers are going to have to use PR firms to get their point across down the road. Seriously.

  9. Brian says:

    Does the Huffington Post ever publish good science articles? This is a serious question — I don’t read it myself, and it seems that the only time I hear references to it is when they’re attacking good science.

  10. Max says:

    How come the ocean in the above photo is more blue on the right?

  11. Bob says:

    Talk about taking on one mission that NASA is doing that he Amitai Etzioni disagrees with and using it to try and downplay the importance astronomy has on our lives!

    Also, there is one part of our Earth which hasn’t been fully mapped/explored: the underground. So get your helmets and gear and go caving!

  12. llewelly says:

    Wrt to the NASA vs NOAA budget comparison, note most (if not all) of the funding for operating the many weather satellites NOAA relies on comes out of NASA’s budget.

  13. Phil Plait says:

    HuffPo used to have some good science… when I wrote for them :) But Chopra, Kennedy, Kirby, and their ilk drove me off.

  14. Max says:

    llewely, are you sure about that?

    Consider this:

    “NOAA manages the POES program and establishes requirements, provides all funding and distributes environmental satellite data for the United States. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., procures and manages the development and launch of the NOAA satellites for NOAA on a cost reimbursable basis.”

  15. Patrick says:

    ugh, keep the politics away from this site please.

  16. Max: “How come the ocean in the above photo is more blue on the right?”

    It’s because of the relative location of the camera. See, if the camera was on the other side pointing back this way, the bluer side would be on the left.

    Patrick: “ugh, keep the politics away from this site please.”

    Amen, brother. Nothing drives me from a site quicker than politics. Are you the Patrick from Bikini Bottom, friend of SpongeBob?

  17. tmac57 says:

    This is a tough one Phil ( congrats on JREF by the way), but when it comes to public money, everyone that doles out a dollar will have something to say. I used to be in the camp of people who said ” why spend money on space when we have real problems right here on Earth!”, but then I was young and naive. I have come to realize that much can come from scientific exploration of all kinds, and much of it unanticipated. Space seems to have an almost magical allure for many, but it seems to others like a total waste of time and money.
    I hope that we can find a way to fund the best projects that all of the sciences want. I fear though ,that with the current financial and other crises looming that it will be hard fought, but you have my support.

  18. On the space program or domestic spending thing you hear from so many, it’s a false dichomtomy. We can do both. Same with the oceanic vs space research argument. We can do both.

  19. Dichomtomy = dichotomy.

    Devil’s Advocate – Changing The World One Word At A Time

  20. Max says:

    Let’s just split 50/50, half domestic, half space program. Sound fair?