In a speech at the National Academy of Science’s 146th annual meeting in April, U.S. President Barack Obama put forward a bold vision for science to the gathered scientific dignitaries. Choosing to connect his bold plans to a prior time when science was foremost in the public’s mind, he stated he would build our nation’s investment in research and development (R&D) to levels exceeding those achieved at the height of the Space Race, to more than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Although the nation, both in private and federal funds, invests roughly 2.5 percent of GDP in R&D, this would still be a substantial increase in the federal R&D investment, which stands now at roughly 0.6 percent.
Although the president referenced the Space Race as a high water mark for
investment in R&D, there is little evidence that R&D at NASA will benefit from the president’s stated goal to significantly increase federal investment in R&D. The scientific community that supports the NASA mission must clearly articulate to the president and the Congress why NASA’s R&D is just as vital to our nation as investment in any other agency. If we do not, NASA’s R&D will wither, while significantly enhanced R&D funds go elsewhere.
The current science policy environment is centered on the climate change crisis and the creation of cheap and clean energy. These are areas of clear national and international need and obviously deserve increased levels of funding. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, representing significant physical science enterprises, have and will continue to grow under the president’s plan. The National Science Foundation, long held to low levels of increase while efficiently funding researchers across the country in all areas of science, also deserves much needed increases. However, left out of nearly all policy discussions – as well as recent legislative increases in science funding – is the importance of the work NASA does in R&D that not only benefits the nation, but also enhances the economy.
Focusing only on the activity in the Science Mission Directorate, NASA supports research in four areas with broad impact and importance: Earth science, heliophysics, planetary science and astrophysics.
NASA’s Earth science division seeks to understand how the Earth is changing and determines the consequences of those changes for life on our planet. Research in Earth science has direct application to climate change and has seen growth recently, especially after the completion of a decadal survey prioritizing NASA investments. Only by fully understanding the Earth as a system can we hope to find ways of mitigating the impacts of climate change.
studies the sun and how it interacts with the Earth and the rest of the solar system. No other object has such a dramatic impact on life here on Earth, yet we understand only its basic facts. New images and analysis of data returned from heliophysics missions regularly spark new understanding and new mission ideas. The sun is a complex and dynamic object, yet we must seek to understand its long- and short-term activity to better protect life on Earth.
Planetary science seeks to understand the origin and history of our solar system, the hazards to the Earth as a resident of the solar system and the potential for life existing elsewhere. This ambitious program regularly develops and launches satellites to the various bodies in the solar system to understand them in greater detail and to probe for the conditions for life. It is nearly unbelievable to consider that we humans have sent robotic spacecraft to all of the classical planets and even comets and asteroids, returning pictures of these worlds along with scientific data on their major characteristics. We have accomplished this only a little more than 50 years after we launched the first satellite into low Earth orbit, developing our technologies and knowledge along the way.
Finally, astrophysics seeks to accomplish the grandest goals: to discover the origin, structure, evolution and destiny of the universe while also searching for Earth-like planets. These grand themes resonate with the public, draw creative talent to the sciences and play an important role in understanding our place in the universe. We have already found more than 300 planets orbiting other stars; soon we will begin identifying Earth-like planets and hopefully begin to study their properties. This will take large and complicated telescopes in orbit along with supporting theoretical and laboratory work.
In short, NASA’s science programs are tremendously exciting, help stimulate the economy by supporting an active public aerospace sector, have relevance to the challenges we face today and help draw creative talent to the sciences.
NASA’s R&D programs deserve to share in the bold vision put forward by President Obama in April. It will not be enough for our nation to invest strictly in the crisis of the day; we must invest broadly in all areas of R&D to ensure the long-term success of our nation’s economy. However, we must work together to bring the importance of NASA’s R&D to our policymakers and to our nation’s leaders. I call upon everyone supporting the NASA R&D mission to redouble your efforts to communicate with the public and Congress. Do more this year than you did last year and do even more in subsequent years. I fear that if we do not step forward now, we will be faced with a long dry spell, a period of desertification, a period when NASA’s science efforts shrivel and wither. We cannot allow this to happen when we are on the cusp of great discoveries; we cannot allow our nation to fall short in these vital areas. We must be loud, we must be persistent, and we must succeed.
Kevin Marvel is the executive officer of the American Astronomical Society.