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Nov 13 2014

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The case for making space science a national priority

A good, though long, article at the click. Here are the historical budgets for NASA, NSF, Department of Energy, and NIH.

US Govt R&D Budgets

My first, unrelated-to-space take is: “Boy, you can sure tell when a Democrat is in the White House.” All the big bumps in DoE’s budget occur from 1978-1980 (Carter), ’92-’94 (Clinton before getting trounced in the midterm ’94 elections), and 2008-2012 (Obama).

It’s also easy to see when a Republican is in the White House. Reagan’s build up of the military is evident, and the military budget stays at a peak until the Berlin Wall falls in 1990. Likewise, G. W. Bush’s military budget increased, though 9/11 really accelerated the spending.

You can also see that as the Baby Boomer aged, more and more R&D money was shoveled at NIH, peaking at 2004, right around when the first boomers began retiring. It’s still the largest non-defense bucket of research the government does.

Here’s the meat of the article:

Clearly, it makes no sense for researchers to tailor all of their efforts to chasing reactionary national priorities, particularly when such shifts in policy are by definition dynamic and often unpredictable. The goals and activities of a research community are—and should be—driven by the scientific questions most relevant to that community. This does not mean that a research community can’t highlight aspects of its activities that already align to priorities outside of science.

As an example, the planetary science community includes a large number of highly specialized scientists, engineers, and technicians. These practitioners have acquired valuable skills they will retain regardless of their career paths. While many will continue to work in planetary science, aerospace engineering, or a closely related field, others will take their knowledge into other fields, introducing different thinking and techniques to their colleagues. Those who remain in the field will also disseminate new knowledge and ideas through collaborations, interdisciplinary work, and professional gatherings. More valuable than any technology or system that may be “spun out” from the space community, this circulation of ideas and practices is integral to the process of innovation upon which the US economy lies.

But to understand the full extent of the contribution to the US economy that members of the planetary science community make, we have to know some basic information: How many practitioners are there, and what are they working on? Where are they working, and with whom? How many teach or have students working with them? How many remain in their chosen fields and how many move to other fields? Perhaps most important, how do these numbers change over time and through varying historic circumstances?

If planetary exploration is proven to impact many more national priorities than currently perceived by our political leadership, I believe it becomes much easier to argue for stable budgets even in times of fluctuating priorities.

Mapping out these fluctuations over time, we could analyze qualitative changes made by US investment in planetary science contributing to national priorities, including STEM education at the university and post-graduate level, distributing knowledge through professional networks to foster innovation and commerce, engaging in international collaboration which bolsters goals of diplomacy and communication, and increasing skills and knowledge vital to our national defense capabilities. I think most researchers in the field know this intuitively and even communicate it implicitly, but we need the information to make such claims accurately.

Basically, the author recommends doing market research on the various parts of the space science community to identify their larger impact to the public…Interesting idea, and perhaps a wise investment of some R&D money.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2014/11/13/the-case-for-making-space-science-a-national-priority/

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