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Mars Exploration is a Flower in a Wasteland of Science Funding

Basic research needs major money as well.

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(Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump recently signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act, which provides $19.5 billion in funding and adds human exploration of Mars as an agency objective. It’s like a flower blooming in the wasteland. At $19.5 billion, the budget is not too bad as it is roughly in keeping with past budgets. This tiny flash of color brings gladness to the heart, but the story is in the wasteland. 
I was a graduate student watching on a decrepit TV when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. At that time, it was inconceivable that the space program would not continue. Back then we thought by now, we would have permanent colonies on the moon and be well on our way to Mars. But priorities shifted and here we are, decades later, with NASA still stuck and struggling to get out of low-Earth orbit. 
NASA’s work demands long-range steady budgets, but that is not how the U.S. funding system works. The blueprint budget for 2018 was originally going to trim NASA to $19.1 billion. If discretionary funding is slashed, as current developments suggest, NASA may yet be in a drastic budget crunch and aspirations yet again postponed. 
Here is where the story of the wasteland begins. In terms of the broader picture of science funding, the picture is bleak. There are two reasons: insufficient funds to support world-leading scientific innovation in the U.S. and suppression of the free exercise of science. 
Gone are the days when funding was sought to double the support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). For the NSF, which funds many of my astronomy colleagues, budgets have not recovered from the disaster of the 2008 great recession and the subsequent sequester. Grant success rates have plummeted from about 1 in 3 proposals to 1 in 7.
It is hugely difficult to maintain a research program when funding is, at best, sporadic. If the timescale for faculty grant success is longer than the characteristic “lifetime” of a graduate student, which is five to six years, the process of regeneration withers and science suffers. Harold Varmus, a past director of the NIH, pointed out in an editorial that, because 80 percent of the agency’s funding is for multiyear grants that are locked up in advance, a 20 percent cut would mean that there was no money for new proposals. The same would be true for the NSF.
More insidious is the plan for wider re-arrangement of priorities. The hot button is climate change science. In these days of alternative facts and fake news, one of the tactics is to curtail the obtaining of data that is critical to guide fact-based science. Hence we have discussion of limiting studies of the Earth by NASA and savaging budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency. This is not a new tactic. It has long been practiced in the controversial area of gun control, with Congress having formally forbidden the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from collecting data on weapon use that might illuminate discussion of the topic. Forbidden to collect data; contemplate that notion for a moment. That is not how we made America scientifically great. 
Basic scientific research in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, Earth science and many other disciplines is the seed from which the innovation engine of the U.S. economy grows. The appropriate balance of funding for scientific research versus other priorities is a legitimate topic for discussion in a democracy. Everyone should be concerned that we get this right or lose our competitive advantage. As a bonus, we gain a deeper understanding of our place in the universe. 
The moon, asteroids, and Mars. Let’s do it all, but we must do it from a solid, fact-informed base. Do not let the solo blooming flower distract from the vision of the wasteland. 
J. Craig Wheeler is the Samuel T. and Fern Yanagisawa Regents Professor of Astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin.

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  • SpiritofPearl

    We need scientific development of new anti-bacterial resistent antibiotics more than we need Mars Attack.

  • roadgeek

    Had the estimated trillion dollars spent on Great Society programs since the Johnson Administration been spent instead on NASA, we’d be on Mars by now. Perhaps a small colony. Oh, well. Assuaging liberal guilt was more important, I suppose. We can wave to the Chinese when they hoist the Five Stars from the Gustev Crater; perhaps they’ll let an American astronaut tag along on a supply run.

    • Jed

      that or the iraq war. but assuaging conservative penis envy and lining the pockets of oligarchs was equally important i suppose.

      • roadgeek

        Prepare for a shock: I completely agree with you.

    • SpiritofPearl

      What purpose would a small colony on Mars serve when millions, perhaps billions, are suffering to pay for it?

      Charity begins at home . . .

      • Tiffanybhiggin

        Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours & have longer with friends and family! !dy13c:
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      • BCinBCS

        Pearl, there will be wonderful things that will come about because we went to Mars. They will affect the lives of everyone.

        • SpiritofPearl

          Look, my spouse started his professional life as an aerospace engineer. He worked for McDonnell Aircraft during the years they designed and built the Apollo and Gemini capsules. I’m all for science and research, but until we get Americans to believe again in the power of science and engineering to help solve problems and be willing TO PAY TO DO THAT WORK, we simply can’t afford such a project.

    • BCinBCS

      roadgeek, you must not be very old, otherwise you would have seen the dramatic change in the well-being of the poor and the elderly due to the Great Society programs. You’re the type that, when we do get to Mars, will complain about all of the money that NASA had spent not realizing it was the price for accomplishing that tremendous feat.

  • Charlie Primero

    The U.S. Government is $20 TRILLION dollars in Debt.

    If Space Adventures are so awesome, go get investors.

    • BCinBCS

      It’s a shame that you cannot see beyond the tip of your nose and cannot understand with a cemented mind.

  • John Bernard Books

    There are side effects from radiation exposure for the astronauts traveling to Mars that will result in anti aging medication. Liberals will kill to get their hands on it.

  • donuthin2

    Good or bad? I don’t know. I have no idea what value it would be for us to establish a colony on Mars or for that matter what the value was for us to land on the moon. I do know significant science was developed out of the effort and many secondary benefits that we have benefited. Would it be better to spend the money on improving medicine? I tend to think so and as always that science would have corollary benefits too. I am a great believer in developing basic science, but understanding basic, fundamental is often developed with a ultimate goal involved rather than just studying in the abstract.


    Exploration has been one of man’s basic instincts…..but the question is whether this one can wait while we address important problems here at home……Unmanned probes can answer some of our questions—already they ones we have sent have probably raised more questions than answers…..but I tend to think Mars is not going anywhere.

    Closer to home…..who are the coal miners going to blame next when the Trump EO fails to save their jobs?…..Too dirty, to expensive to transport when compared to natural gas.

  • John Bernard Books

    Yeehaw we have a budget….
    “Borrowing words from state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, Nelson said the Senate had produced “a lean budget but not a mean budget.””

    Lets see what Straus’ dems come up with…….lemme guess “if we could just spend a little more”…….

  • José

    A lot of people just don’t understand how far away Mars is from Earth and how incredibly challenging it would be to send people there. The moon is trivial in comparison, and we spent a ton of money on that project and got very lucky.

    Maybe someone will discover a new branch of physics in the coming decades, leading to an innovative propulsion system. Until then we can expect to continue exploring the solar system with unmanned probes and content ourselves with humans doing research in orbiting space stations and, someday, a return to the moon.

    • SpiritofPearl

      It will take years for a passenger to reach Mars from Earth.

  • John Bernard Books

    They really are stupid….
    ” former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas (Deputy Asst. Secretary of Defense) appearing on MSNBC and admitting first hand knowledge the Obama administration spied on candidate and president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team to gather “intelligence” for political use.”

    I could go on…..and on….and on……

  • SpiritofPearl

    While we’re on the subject, the AIDS epidemic brought about tremendous advances in our knowledge of the immune system and retroviruses. That epidemic was a clear and present danger that caused us to mobilize our resources to find solutions.

    Now we have a looming threat – muliply-drug resistent bacteria. Our research efforts must begin to focus on that issue and not “Mars Attacks.” Most of us are here today because of advances in public health measures, vaccinations, and antibiotics.

    Big Pharma has little interest in such drugs because there’s little money to be made. So much for free market solutions to the world’s problems!

    How about a Manhattan-Project type undertaking to develop new antibiotics? Your grandchildren will thank you for your forethought.

    • donuthin2

      I thought we could have made much quicker progress in finding a solution to the AIDS epidemic had we put the resources into it early on rather than initially morally outraged about the cause but I agree that the drug resistant bacteria is a very significant issue and we should put make a priority.

      • SpiritofPearl

        I agree about the ” moral majority” who delayed intelligent thinking about HIV.

        I’d advocate for a Manhattan Project to finding new antibiotics. We’re only an epidemic away from disaster, yet many politicians are blathering on about “bathroom bills.”

  • SpiritofPearl
  • John Bernard Books

    Draining the swamp….
    “Candace Claiborne is charged with obstructing an official proceeding and making false statements in connection with her alleged concealment and failure to report her improper connections to foreign contacts along with the tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and benefits they provided,” added U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia. “As a State Department employee with a Top Secret clearance, she received training and briefing about the need for caution and transparency. This case demonstrates that U.S. government employees will be held accountable for failing to honor the trust placed in them when they take on such sensitive assignments””

    one democrat at a time…..