AIDS, Astronauts and Federal Science Spending

An astute reader, who I very much respect, called me out on the “why Mars” question.

His question: “why this, over feeding the hungry, curing cancer, or stopping AIDS?”

First, if his argument is to have any merit, it has to apply to all basic science. Astronomy, geology, archaeology, paleontology, etc., all have the same lack of immediate practical import that makes them vulnerable to this argument. Mars is only the most visible precisely because it is so noticeable, which is to say, because it is so cool. But we do them all for the same reason, to use our treasure to satisfy our curiosity. (For that matter, his argument is easily extended to funding of the arts, which puts him on a slippery slope that he might not want to start down.)

I’ll split feeding the hungry from the other two, because it’s not clear that rearranging federal research spending has anything to do with solving the problem of hunger. The entire cost of the Mars missions, $820 million, is chump change aganst the hunger problem. As for research into cancer and AIDS, the effective doubling of the NIH budget over the last five years has left us with research funding that is essentially maxed out. Pumping more money into those endeavors has reached the saturation point. AIDS and cancer need time and smarts right now. Those research communities are pretty well funded. (There’s what I think is a dangerous diversion going on right now in infectious disease research as we demand “homeland security”, but that’s a separate question.)

To say we’re wasting the money because we’re giving it, as Verbal says, to “a dysfunctional, wasteful organization” ignores the complexity of NASA. I would agree if he were to describe the human spaceflight program that way, but the robotic satellites have been hugely successful at a tiny fraction of the cost. The entire Mars missions, the both of them, full life cycle costs, are of order about the same price as a single shuttle flight these days. Well, come to think of it, the shuttle isn’t flying these days, which makes the per-flight cost infinite, but before last year’s deadly boo-boo, that’s about what they were running. While the humans in space thing is a continuing disaster, bureaucratically as well as in terms of the body count, I think the NASA folks sending up satellites and robots to do science are doing things pretty damn well.

There’s an argument to be made, on which Verbal and I might agree, that within the basic research budget of the federal government, maybe Mars probes are not the most cost-effective of basic science tools. That’s tougher, but in judging the benefits we get, looking at the grinding load on JPL’s web servers suggests some important public desire is being satisfied here.

There’s also a separate argument Verbal hints at but doesn’t go to, which is the amount of federal research money spent on military technology. Defense R&D is larger than the non-defense stuff we’re talking about here, and is probably worth pulling into this discussion.

So Verbal, if you’re arguing that we should not fund basic research, and spend money on health research instead, I’d say we already we’ve reached a level of significantly diminishing returns. If you say we should not fund basic research, and fund hunger instead, I’d say we’d blow our wad in a week, end up with no basic science and make nary a dent in the hunger problem.

But if you wanna just shift stuff around within the basic research portfolio, I know some archaeologists who would be ecstatic. They pretty much just need gas money and the cost of a new trowel, and $820 million buys a lot of those.

(The AAAS has a helpful compendium of federal research spending data that illuminates these issues.)


  1. Oh, I thought last time you were supporting President Bush’s Mars plan, which surprised me (seeing as scientifically it seems to boneheaded to me). This makes more sense now.

  2. John:
    As usual, you’re more astute than I. Why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute?

    My knee-jerk reaction is of course to suspect anything that Bush does– and I am still sure that the “Why now?” question is answered “Elections.”

    The Mars bill looks cheap compared to the Iraq bill or the Afghanistan bill or the tax-giveaway-to-rich-people bill. But when does this administration stop hemmoraging money and start a responsible budget? What’s with the deficits? Why are we fighting over this and not the military budget? Why in the military budget are we cutting VA and soldier’s pay?

    Is paying taxes becoming more like giving money to winos?

    “He’ll just spend it on guns and tax rebates!” “Well, I’d just spend the money on booze!”
    “I guess better on pursuit of Martians than on martial pursuits.”

  3. One of the best arguments I’ve heard for basic science was around the time of the (thrid) demise of the superconducting supercollider. It turns out the reason a lot of us kept hitting the books as kids is because there were cool stories about scientists doing amazing new things. The prestige of CERN finding new particles and new forms of matter has a huge effect on kids wanting to keep learning science.

    On the world hunger question, jfleck is wrong that $820 million is chump change. If you look at the whole budget for applied research in agricultural sciences it’s not very big. Take the next rover mission, move it to agricultural research and you might very well find ways to increase agricultural productivity in africa by a few precentage points. Doesn’t even really need research, more of a question of paying for outreach. And a million bucks pays for a whole lot of salaries, cars, gas and meetings.

    All these questions are pretty valid, only they don’t resonate in countries that *love* to go around killing people. I still challenge anyone to come up with a single year where the USA military was not actively killing someone, somewhere.

    1) The buget is rediculous (military, agric. subsidies …) so the need to reorganize the budget does not warrant a debate. How to get politicians to do it might be but that’s elsewhere

    2) Within discressionary sepending, how to spend money could be usefully discussed. (As an aside, it really pisses me off that scientists think they are so damned important that they get the final priority on all the rarest experiences. For example, the world hasn’t yet sent a single artist into space. I personally would get a whole lot more from artists going to the most spectacular/delicate/remote/dangerous places than scientists. )

    3) Within scientific spending you can start talking about how to spend it. That would be a really useful debate. It would get us thinking about how important archeology is compared to particle physics. These debates don’t happen as much as they should. How important is radio-astronomy compared to marine science? Never really asked. The decision is ultimately made based on funding allocated but not as an answer to that question.

    4) Within the space program, how do you want to spend money? Well, the mars missions are cool but I suspect there’s a lot more important planatary science that is needed right now. Venus, because of its atmosphere, is probably a lot more interesting. However, here the cool factor takes over again. These expeditions are not planned based on which are the most scientifically critical but based on how NASA can keep/increase its funding or offset the problems with the manned space program.

    So the questions you want to ask, you can build up systematically. However, these questions are irrelevant to how research funding is actually allocated. Bush’s program is all about looking cool for re-election and having programs which may be useful to the military. You can be sure that Bush has not done the slightest evaluation of what is best for space research, for scientific research, for discresionary spending or for human need.

  4. i was going to make an argument for or against, but i think for
    several reasons it’s moot.

    what really annoyed me though was this paragraph
    “Because it’s cool” isn’t really the complete answer, of course, just
    a shorthand for the richness of of the human experience of gathering
    new knowledge, but if people don’t get the “cool” part, they’re
    probably not going to get the deeper issue of the centrality of
    acquisition of knowledge to the human experience.
    speaking first-worlder to first-worlder, it’s certainly a valid
    statement and idea, and it’s one i understand. but for my tastes, the
    statement sounds glib and naive, when i consider trying to explain it
    to someone in the third world watching their children die [1].

    the last line “they’re probably not going to get the deeper issue…”
    also sits poorly with me: maybe joe six-pack doesn’t care? maybe joe
    sixpack just wants to get drunk and forget about his day at work.
    saying one value that’s important to you personally is central to
    human experience seems a bit pompous [3]. we can talk about the
    nobility of the human spirit and the history of science, but i’ve seen
    movies that make highschool and bowling seem like important activites
    central to human experience. maybe a lot of things are central to the
    human experience? maybe they differ?

    or maybe i’m just in a mood.

    as for the orginal question itself…i dunno, but realistically, i
    have nothing at stake.

    [1] which is only to say survival is slightly more central to the human
    [3] regardless of whether it’s true or not

  5. Peter –

    Thinking about this yesterday, in the midst of a long drive, I realized that maybe there was a certain amount of talking past one another going on here, because I never made clear my original “why Mars” was about the current Mars mission, not Bush’s current wackiness.

    Adrian –

    You are right on the question of agricultural research spending, but there’s some interesting questions about the actual utility of us first-worlders trying to solve hunger problems in the third world by introducing technological fixes. Interesting piece last month in Science on this question. I’ll track it down and blog it when I get the chance. But that’s a quibble, your underlying point still stands well. I can imagine an argument I might buy for shifting research money into some sort of agricultural investment that might help feed hungry people.

    Ed__ –

    Yeah, you’re right, but almost everything we might try to explain about why we do all the things we do would surely sound glib and naive when trying to explain to a person in the third world why their child is dying. That argument could be used to negate most any first-world discussion.

    As for the centrality of the acquisition of knowledge to the human experience, I would make an evolutionary argument that knowledge activity is more intrinsically central than bowling. Bowling’s fine, but it’s not what got us off the Serengeti.

  6. w/r/t agricultural research: We’ve got plenty of production. There’s enough food for everyone, actually. Plenty. The problems lie in helping farmers become self-sustaining in the third world; flooding the African markets with free grain drives African farmers into poverty, and of course what do you do about food aid that’s diverted, sold at a markup on the black market, or used to fuel armies and political massacres (Nigeria, Mugabe, etc.).

    That’s less a research problem than a political science and economics problem.

    But we digress…

    I have no legitimate objections to the Mars project, except that I distrust the motives of the nutjob in the whitehouse.

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