Reinventing America By Incentivizing STEM

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: So about a decade ago I realized that if we were going to go to Mars with people it would be really expensive, and so I thought to myself: what activities have human cultures engaged in, in the past that were as expensive as what it might be to go to Mars and what motivated them to spend that money? I was going to fill a whole book, “Motivations to do Great Things, Great Expensive Things,” and then I’d find the task, I’d find the activity that most closely resembled what it would be to go to Mars in the 21st century and I’d say, oh, is that what that culture did with their population, is that how they raised the money, is that how they convinced the people? I was going to fill a whole book of this. It would be a nice little reference catalog about how to get something done in modern times.  

In conducting that exercise what I found is that there are only three drivers, not more, not less, three drivers that account for the most expensive, ambitious projects humans have ever undertaken. One of them is the praise of deity or royalty. That’s what got you the pyramids. They’re basically expensive tombstones. That’s what got the cathedral and church building of Europe. That was a period where huge fractions of societal investment went into those activities. There is less of that today, so that’s not really a useful driver to think about how we might transform the 21st century. Another driver is war. Nobody wants to die. That gets you the Great Wall of China. That gets you the Manhattan Project where we built the bomb. That gets you the Apollo Project. Another driver, the search for economic return—nobody wants to die, nobody wants to die poor. The search for economic return, that’s what is responsible for the Columbus voyages, the Magellan voyages, Lewis and Clark figuring out what is beyond that frontier in hugely expensive enterprises, conducted by governments.

So if we’re going to go to Mars, and if war is not the driver—because it could easily become the driver if you get another space race with someone we view as a military adversary; I wonder who that might be—but if peaceful heads prevail, then war is not the driver available to you. Let’s check our list. Well, kings and gods are not sufficient in modern times to undergo heavy projects such as that. What’s left? The promise of economic return.  

You can go into space, transform society, change the zeitgeist of your culture, turn everyone into people who embrace and value science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM field. Whether or not people go into space or serve the space industry they will have the sensitivity to those fields necessary to stimulate unending innovation in the technological fields, and it’s that innovation in the 21st century that will drive tomorrow’s economies.  

Any frontier in space now involves biologists—we’re looking for life—chemists, geologists, physicists, mechanical engineering, electrical engineers, aerospace engineers, astrophysicists, all the traditional sciences and engineering frontiers are captured in any ambitious goal to explore space. We can recapture those times and reinvent America. We’ve already invented America once before. It’s ripe. It’s ready and it’s willing, I think, to be invented again.  

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


Neil DeGrasse Tyson lists the three drivers to accomplish extraordinary things.

Related Articles

Found: second draft of Galileo's argument for a heliocentric model

At least he wasn't burned at the stake, right?

The original letter in which Galileo argued against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has been rediscovered in London. Image credit: The Royal Society
Surprising Science
  • The letter suggests Galileo censored himself a bit in order to fly more under the radar. It didn't work, though.
  • The Royal Society Journal will publish the variants of the letters shortly, and scholars will begin to analyze the results.
  • The letter was in obscurity for hundreds of years in Royal Society Library in London.
Keep reading Show less

Why the world needs death to prosper

Scientists have developed new ways of understanding how the biological forces of death drive important life processes.

Surprising Science
  • Researchers have found new ways on how decomposing plants and animals contribute to the life cycle.
  • After a freak mass herd death of 300 reindeer, scientists were able to study a wide range of the decomposition processes.
  • Promoting the necrobiome research will open up new areas of inquiry and even commerce.
Keep reading Show less

Why birds fly south for the winter—and more about bird migration

What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

E. Fleischer
Surprising Science
  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
  • The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
  • Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Keep reading Show less