Casey DreierSep 10, 2013

A Division of Planetary Science

Division and parochialism dominated what should have been a strong showing of support for Planetary Science before members of Parliament at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) yesterday.

The session, held in a packed committee chamber in the House of Commons in downtown London, featured four invited speakers, each one briefly discussing their area of scientific expertise: Mars, outer planets, asteroids & comets, and the importance of space in inspiring students. The conference did a great job turning out scientists to pack the room, unusual for a parliamentary committee meeting.

The session's stated goal was to provide:

...a rare opportunity for planetary scientists to interact directly with policy makers, both from the UK and from share information and understanding of each others' priorities and goals.

And in attendance were two Members of Parliament and various other staff! A rare opportunity indeed and crucial to developing stronger political support for space exploration in the UK and Europe.

But during the open discussion period I was dismayed to see multiple scientists (who made up the majority of the crowd) stand up and give a variation of the following: "How could you possibly ignore topic X? Topic X, which I just happen to specialize in, is far more important to planetary science than topic Y! You should have talked more about X!"

Now, this debates are all well and good, but allow me to suggest that this should never happen in front of politicians. If science is to survive eras of austerity, scientists need to present a common cause when asking for political support. Public squabbling about whose research is more important is just bad form.

Imagine the poor politician who hears one scientist argue that lunar exploration should be the government's top priority. Along comes another scientist, this time arguing for Titan as the top priority. In comes another one arguing for Mars, etc.. Does this politician, who literally has to develop opinions on thousands of topics, have the time and inclination to figure out their best position?

Usually not. They'll think that the scientific community is divided and undisciplined. Why should they work to fund that?

Executive Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee Phillip Lee addresses the EPSC Policy Session
Executive Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Space Committee Phillip Lee addresses the EPSC Policy Session Image: The Planetary Society

Now imagine a politician that sees scientist after scientist come in and argue for the same priorities. The message is reinforced. The goals are clear.

Which approach will tend to garner better support for science?

The planetary science community must show a united face to the politicians (and the people!) responsible for their funding. This means showing some discipline and accepting that yes, sometimes other research may be highlighted more than one's own, but it's a practical concession that must be made.

A good example is the Planetary Science Decadal Survey in the U.S., which sets out the official priorities of the planetary science community. This is not a document without detractors, but it went through a long process in which goals were debated within the community.

When the Planetary Society walks into a congressional office, we can state simply that we want to "support the Decadal Survey." When a scientist goes to lobby Congress, they say the same thing. We've seen very strong response to this tactic, and funding has improved, with legislation written into law requiring NASA to "follow the Decadal Survey."

Yesterday's session was valuable because - if for nothing else - it was the first time the EPSC arranged a meeting with MPs. It should continue to do so. But in the future, the scientists in attendance should realize that they're there for a common cause, not their own. If everyone demands precedence for our own parochial science, we become that figurative house divided. And you know how well that works out.

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