NASA Astrophysics: It Really Is This Bad

Shorter House of Representatives: NASA shouldn’t do astrophysics anymore. Via the Tracker, an article by Eric Hand in Nature News that puts the fiasco in helpful graphical form.

Misleading graphic alert! The vertical scale starts at $0.5 billion, not at $0. But taking that into account merely changes the situation from “complete annihilation” to “devastating harm.” We’re talking about a 40% cut, which won’t leave room to do much more than keep the lights on for existing programs.

The 2011 numbers are the President’s budget request; the 2012 numbers are from the bill that passed the House. This isn’t yet law, so there’s still time; the Senate and the White House will (thankfully) be involved in the final compromise.

Times are tough, and not everything is worth doing. But there are few things more important to the long-term flourishing of a country than investment in basic science. Sad to see the future sacrificed for bizarre political reasons.

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56 Responses to NASA Astrophysics: It Really Is This Bad

  1. Thomas Jones says:

    How much would it cost to ship Obama into outer space?

  2. Andrew says:

    My understanding of the House’s current plan is that it has no chance of passing the senate and that Obama has threatened to veto it:
    (in the “Cut, Cap, Balance” section)

    I’m not sure how high Obama and the senate will prioritize astrophysics–Obama has also recently agreed to basically double how much he is willing to accept in budget cuts–but this isn’t the final word on the budget yet.

  3. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Why astrophysics in particular? You’d think the teabaggers would be all about killing Earth science, since the field is lousy with climate change Cassandras and their ilk.

  4. Sean says:

    Because the JWST is one big project, and it’s ~40% of the astrophysics budget.

  5. Stan says:

    You should compare this to Harry Potter earnings…

  6. Sili says:

    Interesting that Sun science isn’t more, since that thing can take out all our satellites.

  7. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:


  8. andy says:

    So where would Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya fall on that scale? Just out of interest…

  9. Andrew says:

    So most of this cut corresponds to the JWST being cancelled?

  10. hoot56 says:

    I think almost all of the cut is JWST.

    By the way, here is some speculation from a AAS email:
    “Rep. Wolf and Rep. Fattah are highly likely to work out a deal to restore JWST funding before the bill goes to the House floor, perhaps involving enhanced language spelling out detailed project oversight requirements.”

    So, maybe this all amounts to a slap on the wrist.

  11. badnicolez says:

    NASA is the one government program that should receive increased funding for all divisions every year. It’s a good investment for ALL of us, unlike most of the rest of federal spending.

  12. Charles Sullivan says:

    Why does no one take Robert Zubrin seriously?

  13. The Social Age says:

    This, along with other recent events, is one of the heralds of the new social age. It is officially upon us (where is Kurzweil!).

    The reality:
    1) People with technical expertise have the same beginning social status as plumbers. Yes…look at how IT has evolved (series of tubes!). People in those careers are the new breed of plumbers.

    2) The social and financial elite have on demand analytical capability. There is no need for maintaining a staff of knowledgable people…just google it!

    3) Rapid processers of social media, interactions, with personal organizational skills have the new currency.

    Where there is need for technical skills:

    The single biggest advantage that traditional science and technology elite is there ability to intuit when things are inaccurate. The education and practice needed to be able to rapidly assess bad information, and having the social skills to communicate the risk, will be what is of value.

    Just some thoughts…

  14. Mark P says:

    It seems that the US is in the process of becoming a different kind of country. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, but I doubt that it will be a happy time.

  15. Becon says:

    “Times are tough, and not everything is worth doing. But there are few things more important to the long-term flourishing of a country than investment in basic science. Sad to see the future sacrificed for bizarre political reasons. ”

    As an economist I’m annoyed by this.

    a) Basic science with high return on investment probably doesn’t include astrophysics. We can save important science funding at the NIH or NSF, and ditch some of the frivolous stuff at NASA.

    b) You’re the last person I would ask about the value of astrophysics research because you have an emotional attachment to the field. You may be knowingly or subconsciously overstating its value to preserve something you value highly.

    c) Maybe most important of all, you haven’t defined a mechanism by which basic science helps a country flourish. Is it simply for the purpose of innovation. Surely China benefits enormously from a century’s worth of US research. Other countries will invest in science and we’ll free ride on their investments. Why does the research have to happen in the US, besides a desire for petty national pride?

  16. Richard says:

    Somewhat rhetorically, I wonder if we have some responsibility for this as a community.

    It has been known for years that JWST was subject to all sorts of delays and overruns — some of these are arguably bad luck, but the magnitude of what has gone wrong has to be due in part to mismanagement and lowballing some of the initial estimates.

    However, rather than organize to demand change at NASA (instead of just grumbling privately) or descoping the mission to something that was doable with the money at hand, people in the community have largely kept their heads down since they did not want to be seen to be rocking the boat, or providing ammunition to people in Washington who might want to cut the NASA budget. (As a thought experiment, imagine the likely consequences if someone very senior had written an Op-Ed for the NY Times in, say, 2009 asking for a shakeup at NASA — my guess is that wagons would have been circled, and the writer cried down.)

    But now it has been cut anyway, and while everything we might say about the value of the science and JWST’s role in preserving US leadership in astrophysics is true, we also have to make the case reinstating the project while somehow explaining away the cost overruns.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it will be tragedy if this is axed — but we would be in a stronger position as a community if we had been more visibly unhappy with the chain of events that has led to JWST being seen as a large and low-hanging piece of fruit by budget cutting House members.

    (Nor do I think the “it’s rocket science” excuse really works — NASA delivers a huge range of things on-time and on-budget so, in principle at least, they should know how to manage this sort of project.)

    And to make matters worse, over the last few years JWST has accreted most of the money available for astrophysics at NASA — so instead of just cutting JWST, this effectively cuts most of astrophysics. In this sense it is worse than the SSC, since (so far as I can see from this distance) it was added to the DoE budget as new money, before being taken away again.

  17. Paul says:

    Why does the research have to happen in the US, besides a desire for petty national pride?

    It’s also for the egos of the scientists who want to continue living in the US.

  18. Hi,
    As the editor who worked on this piece, I can say that starting the graph at .5 billion rather than 0 is typical for Nature because it leaves room for more text on the page (we still have those — physical pages I mean). We basically show the curve and as little empty space as possible. It’s a print media style choice worth debating, but most emphatically not an effort to mislead.

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I tend to reject the notion that basic research in any particular field has a higher or lower chance of return-on-investment. Even if true in the crudest immediate sense, the intelligence and skills required to do cutting edge work in astrophysics are obviously quite portable, or should be. These days, the problem isn’t the pittance spent on minting new astrophysics PhD’s, it’s that there’s increasingly little outside of academia and govt. for them to do with it in the United States. Even in a globalized economy, there are hubs of excellence. I can’t imagine we don’t want the kind of halo effect training astrophysicists produces right here at home. Let’s not lose that capability because there’s nothing to motivate such dedication in our own borders. I expect the cash-flush private sector to do more to give aspirants a fall-back strategy. Outsourcing ain’t it.

  20. Craig says:

    I will buy that funding physics is a good idea. I am all for it. But is it really true that our long term prosperity depends on funding astrophysics?

  21. Sean says:

    Ivan, thanks for chiming in. I certainly understand that there is no intentional effort to mislead, but there’s also little question that the result is quite misleading. Not sure I understand the argument about fitting on a page — no matter what the range on your vertical axis is, you can still fit the graphic into a box of the same size. The only difference is that the curves will be closer together. But that’s just an accurate reflection of the reality.

    If there were some quantity that ranged between 200 and 220, I would understand not starting the graph at 0. But for something that ranges between 0.5 and 2.0 there’s really no good reason.

  22. Anchor says:

    “I will buy that funding physics is a good idea. I am all for it. But is it really true that our long term prosperity depends on funding astrophysics?”

    Yeah. If you think our long-term prosperity depends on funding physics, you must per force agree the same for astrophysics. There is no better laboratory or more powerful machine we can ever build or consult to confirm or refute our physics theories than the horse’s mouth. Physics and astrophysics are inseparable.

    BTW, although it is the biggest chunk, it is NOT just the threatened axing of JWST that accounts for the dip in the astrophysics budget.

  23. Well to me the problem is obvious. Astrophysics research, being of no practical economic value, needs to be part of a larger cultural/religious milieu to survive in a world that is converging toward nihilistic global capitalism. So what astrophysicists really need to do if they want to survive is to aggressively promote their science as part of a new cosmic religion. I know this is anathema to most of you, but a cursory acquaintance with human history suggests that it is true. I think Carl Sagan and Arthur Clarke understood this and took a big step in that direction, but their cosmic religion seems to have faltered in recent times, and without another prophet I’m not optimistic about the future of astrophysics in a world that is so desperate for religious myths that it will embrace even the most backward-looking faiths over the nihilism of pure scientific materialism.

  24. Anchor says:

    We don’t need no stinkin’ prophets. Thinking so is part of the problem.

  25. Actually I think you do need new prophets. Where atheist scientists fail is their inability to understand the power of myth. They tear down all traditional myths and offer nothing in return. This is the real root of the religion-atheism dispute. Again, Sagan understood this and offered a new myth. Where are the new atheist scientist myth-makers? Without a strong, aggressive myth, modernity is simply doomed.