$145 million
July 1, 2001 10:21 AM   Subscribe

$145 million in a search for evidence of Big Bangs! So far the popular vote indicates most are in favor of the spending--whatever the cnn data is worth. Am I the only one who'd prefer it spent on my undergrad work, or even biosciences research?
posted by greyscale (20 comments total)

Apparently your science education hasn't taught you the extent to which research in one field of science routinely spills over into the study of other fields.

It is naive to assume that you can channel/focus research on the things which will be worthwhile; it doesn't work that way. It all hooks together. It's all linked. Everything we study eventually affects everything else. For instance, astronomical research has been particularly critical as a means of testing theories such a quantum mechanics, quantum chromodynamics. By studying the largest things we know of, we have gained irreplaceable knowledge of the smallest things there are.

And quantum theory revolutionized chemistry, which directly changed our understanding of biology. In other words, people looking into telescopes fifty years ago were doing bioscience research.

The work that this NASA satellite will be doing is involved in a field called "cosmology". They're attempting to gain information about the origin of the universe, and it's possible that this, among other lines of research, could lead to that holiest of holy grails, the grand unified theory of everything. No-one knows for sure, of course; if we already knew we wouldn't need to do the research.

But if indeed this happens, then it could be just as far reaching and influential to all aspects of science and engineering as quantum mechanics was.

There's also the issue of spin-off engineering. NASA has been particularly fruitful in the creation of technologies for space which have had wide use here on Earth.

I can't speak for anyone except myself, but I am glad that they launched this satellite, and I wish they were doing more of it. I think it would be a mistake to invest too heavily in applied research. There should also be long-range basic research going on.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:56 AM on July 1, 2001

I totally agree with Steven Den Beste. Basic research is a long term investment, but there are few alternatives to it in terms of its ability to increase the quality of life for the population at large.

I think it's also important to put NASA into perspective. In then-President Clinton's 1999 Federal Budget , "General science, space and technology" got about $18.5 billion in funding. How does that compare to:

-- $24.5 billion for Natural Resources and Environment
-- $18.4 billion in Farm Subsidies
-- $60 billion for Education
-- $143 billion for Health services
-- $204 billion for Medicare
-- $390 billion for Social Security
-- $227 billion in Interest on the National Debt???

Big thanks to greyscale for pointing out how underfunded basic research (especially space science) is in the US. You should all write to your legislators and tell them to increase NASA's budget!
posted by nicolotesla at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2001

Heh. One of the reasons I stopped doing astronomy was because I felt it waste of public money (the other reason was that I was pretty crap at it...).

Arguments saying that basic research spills over may be true, but that doesn't mean the basic research has to be astronomy (which is pushing to energies and scales less and less connected with our own).

Arguments saying that it's a small amount of money are pretty sdeuctive, but that's only for one satellite (a small fraction of the global astronomy/astrophysics spend).

If you use NASA related hardware these days you get pestered by their PR dept asking you to produce pretty pictures, keep the public "informed" etc (ie keep up the propoganda push).

The long term prospects of the vast majority of people on this planet would be helped a lot more by decent politics. Measuring the anisotropy of the uwave background isn't going to make much difference if you've never even made a phonecall.

Oh, and finally, my impression is that funding for this kind of thing is much better in the USA than elsewhere. That's where all the postdoc jobs are...
posted by andrew cooke at 12:56 PM on July 1, 2001

The long term prospects of the vast majority of people on this planet would be helped a lot more by decent politics. Measuring the anisotropy of the uwave background isn't going to make much difference if you've never even made a phonecall.

Politics is one tool that can be used in the quest for a better world, but are you saying it's the only tool? I would hardly believe that giving all of our money to politicians (and not to scientists) would solve many problems. ;-)

Seriously though, I'm not making a value judgement to say that science (or space science) is more valuable than any other field. Rather, my point is that science is part of the overall equation, and deserves a fair share of any nation's resources.

In the numbers I posted, "General Science, Space and Technology" represented only 1% of the US Federal Budget. That 1% in basic research (over time) has yielded the following "insignificant" spinoffs:

-- Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMR, MRI, etc.)
-- Global, low-cost satellite communications networks
-- Laser Angioplasty
-- ... and more

Sure, it will take time for all of these technologies to filter out of the industrialized world and into developing nations, but that only proves the point further (that is, the more we invest the faster technology transfer should occur).

And as for NASA's "propaganda push," God bless 'em. If it helps convince folks that they should spend their national resources wisely, it's money well spent.
posted by nicolotesla at 1:26 PM on July 1, 2001

Your argument assumes that we are at the critical point where less money to this kind of speculative research gives devastatingly lower returns. Why won't we manage on 1/10th or 1/100th the astronomy/astrophysics funding we have now? Why is what we have now something close to a fair share? The evidence is that we spend more than enough - we are making technological progress at an amazingly fast rate. The world is changing increasingly rapidly (at least, for us). We don't need to worry that technological progress will stop if we spent that tiny amount of money on a few thousand hospitals.

As for the spinoffs you list - they are indeed insignificant to everyone except the wealthy few (you + me). And will continue to be in the forseeable future - how does studying the microwave background make NMR scanners available in 3rd world countries? There's no physical limit that means that an extra satellite for us pushes a scanner out of the box for someone less fortunate.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:07 PM on July 1, 2001

Your argument assumes that we are at the critical point where less money to this kind of speculative research gives devastatingly lower returns. Why won't we manage on 1/10th or 1/100th the astronomy/astrophysics funding we have now?

Not quite. I actually think that we're well below the theoretical "critical point" that you mention. If I may paraphrase, your argument is this: "if science can make due with $x, science should be ably to make due with $x-1". That's fine rhetoric, but it doesn't make practical sense and it doesn't fit with the "point of diminishing returns" argument that you seem to be advancing. Couldn't the same logic be applied to Medicare, third world hospitals, or education?

The evidence is that we spend more than enough...

Is it? Is this a personal impression of yours, or does this "evidence" actually exist?

how does studying the microwave background make NMR scanners available in 3rd world countries?

It's a fairly straightforward process, but it does take time. First, some scientist does basic research that helps us understand how the world works at a fundamental level. Then an applied scientist or engineer says, "Hey, this could be used for a practical application!" Sure, when the practical application first comes about, it's typically in the wealthy nations that have the resources and infrastructure to produce it. The task then is to commercialize it and get it out to the third world.

And yes, this transfer process to the third world should happen more quickly than it does today. Based on that belief, I support additional funding for basic research AND additional funding for technology transfer to developing nations.
posted by nicolotesla at 3:33 PM on July 1, 2001

My final word...

"General Science, Space and Technology", as a component of the US Federal Budget, has declined steadily in the last 30 years. Based on the numbers in my original post, this measure of basic research dropped from 2.3% or total spending in 1970 to about 1.1% in the 1990s.
posted by nicolotesla at 3:41 PM on July 1, 2001

I thought I read once that a high percentage of baby males (which we have now) meant a war was imminent.
posted by Oxydude at 3:55 PM on July 1, 2001

greyscale posits a typical criticism of NASA ... "I don't like this, why are we spending money on it?" This assumes that any individual should have veto power over any specific spending proposal in the federal budget, which is ridiculous. I can think of 25 things (some of them listed above) that cost more that I'd love to not pay for. But in a democracy it doesn't work that way. Before getting angry about this one thing that you think is a waste of money, think about the things that directly benefit you that someone else may think is a waste of money (college loans? a new expressway? cheap milk?).

I know some conservatives truly in their hearts that the only things government pays for are the things that taken by themselves are supported by a majority, but it's probable that a setup like that would accomplish very little and lead to a stagnant economy.

I really don't understand why space research (Mars, MAP, shuttle) gets viciously disdainful treatment. Some people literally believe we're "shooting money into space" and refuse to believe that it has any value. That's such a narrow view, especially when you compare it with much larger expenditures that are completely earthbound, and whose relevance to the lvies of individual taxpayers is just as tenuous.
posted by dhartung at 5:49 PM on July 1, 2001

Nicholas, your rhetorical question of how space research can get NMR into the hands of the third world is both too local and too narrow in focus. This kind of research does have precisely the kind of benefit that you describe, but not necessarily in an obvious way.

For instance, the space program has involved a great deal of research into creation of reliable, compact and reduced power electronics, all of which are essential for satellites and deep space probes. One non-obvious benefit of this research was that the same technology makes possible compact and reliable and cheap computers which are now being sold to the third world in the millions. The computer I'm using now, which cost maybe $2K, is more powerful than a computer which cost $20 million twenty years ago. That's rather dramatic, and this computer and others like it are now well within the reach even of poor nations, who are using them to solve problems and make their lives better.

Second, it's not fair to stick the space program with specific responsibilities like "NMR machines". The question isn't whether the space program will specifically make cheap NMR equipment available to the third world, it's whether it will help the third world in some ways -- and the answer is that it already does so. In particular, things like LandSat have turned out to be god-sends to the third world. (Some of the esoteric geologic research resulting from satellite surveys is being used in places like the Sahara to locate aquifers that no-one suspected existed. Ask the people drinking that water whether the space program is a waste.) Equally, weather satellites feed invaluable data to the US agency in Miami which tracks and predicts Atlantic hurricanes. Their predictions are given freely to all nations who might be affected by the storms, and those warnings over the last twenty years have saved thousand of third-world lives. And they track all hurricanes, even the ones which have no chance of hitting the US. The technology used in those weather satellites was originally developed for deep space missions which had nothing to do with hurricanes -- but technology isn't totally application specific, and NASA develops a lot of technology.

How will the new satellite help us to help the third world? We surely cannot know for certain, but we can make some guesses. For one thing, this satellite mounts the most sensitive IR cameras ever put into space. Existing weather forecasting (including that hurricane stuff I just mentioned) relies heavily on IR cameras which only have resolution to a degree or two. These new cameras have resolution at least a thousand times better than that. If we can measure temperatures more closely, will we be able to predict storms about to hit third-world nations more accurately? It's very likely.

But all of this discussion misses the fundamental point: the value of long-range basic research can't be judged on the basis of its short-term practical application. Our technology and our lives (including the third world) are being shaped now by the basic research which was done in the 1930's. It is fortunate for us that no-one then asked "How will this pay off in the next five years?" because it didn't pay off in five years -- but it paid off in spades in fifty years. We owe it to our grandchildren to do the same for them. Basic research is an investment in the future.

How could Michelson and Morley have predicted, in 1887, that their work would lead to nuclear power? They couldn't, since they were trying to do was to accurately measure the speed of light. (What a waste, eh? How does knowing the speed of light help the third world?)

But that doesn't mean that it didn't do so. The MM experiment lead directly to the Special Theory of Relativity (which was formulated to explain the results of the MM experiment), and one side effect of Special Relativity was to prove that mass and energy are interchangeable. It isn't possible to predict what the results of this mission will lead to, but we can be certain it will lead to something. It always has.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:22 PM on July 1, 2001

This is better than spending to put an Idiot in Space
posted by brucec at 6:55 PM on July 1, 2001

we can't even solve public/personal transportation problems in Seattle and you guys are speculating about how $145million will trickle down to me someday. frankly I don't see how things are any better than they were 500 years ago. We've got most of africa dying of AIDS, poeple going blind in south america from the parasite carried by mosquito bites, rampant food shortages in much of Eastern SSR/Northern China and war in the Middle East between highly literate and industrialized countries. You guys have talked yourself into NASA's pathetic excuse for existence and I doubt I'd ever talk you into something so realistic, practical, and meaningful as solving one of these problems. To see your blind faith in nothing less or more than pure technology and academia is completely disappointing. Why do you worship simple and pure intellect?
posted by greyscale at 9:03 PM on July 1, 2001

Greyscale, if you don't think things are better now than 500 years ago it's because you don't know how bad it used to be.

Up to half of children died before reaching the age of majority. One of the reasons people had so many kids back then was because of the huge mortality rate.

As plagues go, AIDS is a cupcake compared to things like killer influenza (which killed more people during the period of WWI than died in combat), typhus, bubonic plague, cholera, diptheria, tuberculosis, not to mention smallpox. You don't hear about these things now because in the industrialized world they're under control (because of technology).

Over the course of the next fifty years, AIDS may well kill a third of the population of Africa. ("Half" remains an exaggeration, thank goodness.) Bubonic Plague pulled that stunt off in Europe in just three years, in the 14th century, and continued to slaughter people right up until the invention of antibiotics.

Most of the people 500 years ago, even most of the wealthy ones, lived in conditions we would think of as being apalling. In point of fact someone in the US living at the poverty line still has a better life than all but the top nobility of 500 years ago, and in some ways better even than them. They eat a better diet, they wear better clothes, they live longer and are more healthy, and they damned well have a better chance of each kid they bear living to see age 21. Most "poor" people in the US have a refrigerator and a television and a lot of them have cars.

And if you think HIV is bad, you should see what syphilis and gonorrhea do to a population which has no drugs to treat them. Even by the standards of venereal diseases, HIV is mild.

Greyscale, how old are you? You don't seem to have much perspective; have you really studied what life was like 500 years ago?

500 years ago you could be "put to the question" by the Inquisition in large parts of Europe. (It was introduced into the Netherlands in 1522, for instance.) How would you like to be subjected to torture, and then be burned at the stake, for the crime of disagreeing with authority?


No-one is claiming that this money is going to trickle down to you. What we're claiming is that it is going to trickle down to your grandchildren -- and that this is a good and worthwhile thing. Not everything that the government does has to pay off immediately.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:36 PM on July 1, 2001

We make jokes now about "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" but 500 years ago it wasn't a joke, not by any stretch of the imagination.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:37 PM on July 1, 2001

What really cracks me up is that this discussion is taking place on the internet, using personal computers.

The technical sophistication of a modern PC is incredible. You may not really think about it, because the PC is so ubiquitous. Think of the need for a steady electrical supply - I doubt the applications of electricity were obvious to Faraday. Think of the design of the semiconductor. Without a fundamental understanding of atomic chemistry, it wouldn't be possible. The list of technical innovations required for us to even have this conversation goes on and on.

Cosmology is one of the most important disciplines there is, along with particle physics. By probing the most basic questions about the fundamental nature of the universe, who knows what might be achieved? Money spent on science is money well spent.
posted by salmacis at 5:50 AM on July 2, 2001

July 2, 2001 -- NASA helps battle malaria outbreaks. It appears that the Thai media has been closely following our debate, and felt compelled to comment with the full weight of dramatic irony.

From the article:

Nasa has offered Thailand the use of its satellites to help survey areas of the country experiencing a rise in the incidence of malaria, the Communicable Disease Control Department said yesterday.

I must say that I completely agree with Steven's comments. It sure is romantic to imagine living in the "simpler times" of merry-old-1501, but the reality was quite a different thing.

Sheesh, indeed. ;-)
posted by nicolotesla at 7:17 AM on July 2, 2001

What Steven Den Beste said. But why go all the way back 500 years? My maternal grandmother had seven or eight siblings, four of whom lived to maturity. My goddaughter received live-saving surgery when she was less than two months old. My cousin has had at least two kids who would have died due to lung problems if they had the misfortune to be born a mere generation earlier. My mother recently survived breast cancer. We truly live in an age of miracles made possible by basic and applied scientific research, and I have a viscerally hostile reaction to ignorant attitudes like greyscale's.
posted by whuppy at 9:25 AM on July 2, 2001

True, I am ignorant to many details. I think I have the lightest production bicycle frame in the world because of either NASA or the US military funding of some company and there are economic benefits for the States because of both. But I don't think anyone would disagree that there are many more practical applications of information we already have. My opinion of NASA and its use of $ might change but at this point I don't think anything it has done has significantly changed my life. And I'm objecting spending $ to send stuff off of the planet. Note in my initial comment I'd prefer it spent on bioscientific research which has more promise than pictures from space for some creation/origin theory you can never prove. All the improvements whuppy mentioned are biomed and not related to space exploration or observation.


a few interesting comments. thanks for the input. I think I'll consider taking another look at history.
posted by greyscale at 11:20 AM on July 2, 2001

Yes, it is true that we have not fully exploited the body of information and theory we have now.

That has nothing to do with the question of whether we should seek out more. It's a pipeline process; if we don't keep feeding the pipeline we will run out some time.

You live in Seattle. If you lived in Miami, you wouldn't have any doubt about the ability of space technology to save your life when you listened to the hurricane forecasts.

Also, does everything the Federal Government do have to directly benefit specifically a certain undergraduate male who lives in Seattle? It's not so much whether you specifically benefit as whether people now and in the future do, and of that there can be no doubt.

[I, myself, would have died when I was three were it not for modern medicine. Five days in the hospital getting intravenous fluids saved my life from influenza-induced dehydration. That hospital stay is one of my earliest memories.]
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:04 PM on July 2, 2001

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