If your goal was to destroy the science of astronomy and astrophysics, this is exactly how you’d do it.
One of the perks of being President of the United States of America is that you get to submit your budget recommendations to the US Congress before any decisions are made. While it’s up to Congress to make the budget and the President to sign it into law, the recommendations for the next fiscal year are where the administration gets to set their agenda and announce to the world the direction it wants to go in.
Last year, the Trump administration proposed cutting a number of Earth Science missions, ending NASA Astrophysics’ flagship mission for the 2020s, WFIRST, and eliminating NASA’s Office of Education. Then-acting administrator Robert Lightfoot put out a statement mentioning hard choices and an inability to do everything with a limited budget, but Congress overturned these cuts and restored funding for these programs. This year, the assault is even worse, and has a better chance of succeeding. Here’s why.
America has, since the end of World War II, enjoyed its status as a superpower on planet Earth. We invested more than any other nation in fundamental science, including physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, medicine, and space exploration. This investment has paid off in innumerable ways.
- It’s raised the standard of living of practically every adult and child in America.
- It’s increased the average lifespan of the American population.
- We’ve eradicated or greatly reduced the impact of large numbers of diseases.
- We’ve made countless new scientific discoveries and advances, resulting in hundreds of Nobel Prizes.
- And we’ve taken humanity farther into the Universe — in pictures, data, understanding, and in our physical presence — than ever before.
Every time, the way we’ve progressed has had a similar story: we chose, as a species and as a nation, to take on a great unsolved problem or unaccomplished task that lay before us. We invested in the infrastructure, person-power, and equipment necessary to rise to whatever challenge lay before us. And, most importantly, we invested with our tax dollars.
We chose to invest a significant portion of our government’s expenditures on these endeavors. Basic research, education, and development — not a demand for return on investment — was what enabled our greatest successes, both in science and as a society. If you want to point to the one thing that made America great, this was it. The fact that we were investing in pushing the frontiers of human knowledge, and as a result, we were the first to reap its rewards.
Over time, it’s somehow become acceptable to question the value of investing in all of those things: research, education, and development. Science became a favorite target of deficit hawks, with the largest projects and missions receiving the most negative press. This practice goes back many decades, and has led to the United States ceding scientific leadership on many fronts. For example:
- In the 1980s, we were the largest producer of Pu-238: a high-power, long-lived radioisotope ideal for deep space exploration. Today, we don’t have enough fuel for new missions, and are producing less than 1 kg/year.
- In the early 1990s, Fermilab’s Tevatron was the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, and we had plans on pushing the energy frontier: with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). It was killed by politics, and now CERN’s LHC, which is less powerful than the SSC would have been, is the only home of cutting-edge accelerator physics.
- In the early 2000s, there were many plans to kill the Hubble Space Telescope rather than continue servicing and upgrading it. The fourth (and final) servicing mission was eventually performed. Hubble remains, 28 years after launch, humanity’s greatest optical observatory.
- And throughout the 2010s, there have been calls to de-orbit the International Space Station and to cancel NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, both citing the large cost of the missions in question.
The budgetary problems of James Webb became well-known in 2011, even though the overwhelming majority of the delays and cost overruns could have been avoided if not for the withholding of necessary funds. Today, they are used as a talking point for one purpose alone: to reduce federal funding for the most scientifically valuable missions of all, NASA’s flagship missions.
There is a lesson from all of this. The problem was stated most clearly by Nicholas Samios, the former director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. When speaking about the SSC’s cancellation, here’s what he said:
You can blame lots of people, but it was clearly a lack of will. We always got things done. It turned a getting-things-done society into a conservative, play-it-safe, no-risk society. We’re not made of the right stuff anymore.
We have already lost particle physics, the capacity for future deep-space missions, and the capability to take human beings beyond low-Earth orbit. While there are calls to bring crewed exploration back in various long-range capacities, the latest proposal comes with an unnecessary cost: gutting the science that made America great to begin with.
Hubble is perhaps the best example of what we can accomplish by dreaming big. As Neil de Grasse Tyson noted back in 2008 for Parade Magazine,
More research papers have been published using its data than have ever been published for any other scientific instrument in any discipline.
That was more than a decade ago, and Hubble continues to be the most sought-after observatory on (or beyond) planet Earth. Nobody doubts that its initial $5 billion cost was more than worth it, or considers the total $15-$20 billion spent over its lifetime to be a poor investment. We have revolutionized our view of the Universe in ways we could not have possibly anticipated prior to its launch. That is what NASA flagship missions can do like nothing else.
NASA was started in late 1958, and as its budget soared throughout the 1960s, so did our accomplishments in both space exploration and in science. Throughout the post-Apollo years, however, the budget steadily dropped, with only a bump in the Bush (Sr.) years bucking that trend. Today, NASA’s budget is less than 0.5% of total federal expenditures, with science making up nearly a third of what NASA does, divided into four subdivisions: astrophysics, planetary science, Earth science, and heliophysics.
And that’s why the latest budget, released on March 11th by the Trump administration, is so terrifying in its boldness for destroying science research, education, and development in the United States. Amidst a record-breaking $4.7 trillion budget, NASA’s funding is being slashed to a record-low of 0.45% of federal expenditures (a level not seen since 1960), with science, NASA astrophysics, and STEM outreach targeted for the greatest cuts.
In 2018, the Trump administration’s proposed FY2019 budget was a disaster for science, with deep cuts for NASA, the Department of Education, the Chemical Safety Board, the National Science Foundation and many more. It was plainly an anti-science budget, which would be disastrous for not only America, but for practically every state across the board. Congress was able to restore much of the funding that was proposed to be eliminated, and the budget passed.
This year’s proposed FY2020 budget has now been announced, and it’s as equally disastrous for science as last year’s proposal, but this time it’s more insidious. By emphasizing space exploration and increasing funding for the lunar gateway project — which is arguably a good project on its own merits — it obscures the fact that it gets its funding by destroying many of our most important and scientifically valuable programs.
This time, there’s a shuffle planned for NASA, and it’s designed to kill the very idea of flagship missions while dropping the overall science funding to record-low levels. Here are the biggest changes over what we’re presently doing:
- The science budget is being cut across the board by 8.7% ($603 million): the largest single-year decrease in history.
- The James Webb Space Telescope budget is being split off from the NASA astrophysics budget while WFIRST is killed entirely: this signals the end of the flagship mission program that makes NASA, well, NASA, according to Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen.
- Last year, acting administrator Robert Lightfoot’s statementacknowledged the deep cuts that would harm science; this year’s statement by Jim Bridenstine lauds the new initiatives but doesn’t even mention that these cuts are occurring.
- Emphasizes small-mission funding and continuation for existing missions at the expense of long-term and future missions.
- Reduces planetary science, Earth science, and heliophysics funding, as well as astrophysics funding.
- Eliminates the office of STEM outreach, along with its portfolio of grants and cooperative agreements.
The most optimistic take on the President’s FY2020 proposal is this: there is bipartisan support for a United States with a strong science program across the board. WFIRST is the top priority space mission, as ranked by the National Academy of Sciences; NASA is doing what the scientific community has recommended to them as a whole by flying these flagship missions. Hubble, James Webb, and WFIRST are transformative observatories, and we can stop the President’s short-sighted recommendations from becoming law.
But the budget proposal also declares that as long as he is in office, this will likely be an annual fight. A single year of missed funding or underfunding can kill a project that took decades to plan and enact. We must not lose our will. Our future and present demands that we not lose sight of a record-breaking cut to the greatest human endeavor of all: the quest to understand our existence.
Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.