On Monday, I published an article in The Space Review, titled “Making the case for space science as a national priority,” in which I discuss the importance of aligning the goals and activities of federally funded scientific or technological communities with national priorities. In this post, I highlight some of the main points of the article and suggest a possible role for The Planetary Society.
Federal funding does not exist in a vacuum. The processes and rationales behind funding decisions in the federal government may seem complex, or even inexplicable, but decisions often involve more reasoning than those observing from outside might suspect. When determining how to allocate resources to all of the organizations that receive federal funding, one of the key factors that policymakers consider is each organization’s contributions to national priorities. Therefore, it is imperative that scientific and technical communities reliant on federal funding continue to advocate for their members’ activities by highlighting all of the ways they contribute to national priorities.
Of course, not all priorities are equal. Some priorities, such as defense, education, commerce, scientific research, and international diplomacy are broad in scope and represent ongoing and long-term investments. Other priorities tend to be more reactionary, such as international incidents, recovery from natural disasters, or even unintended outcomes from previous policy decisions. Nevertheless, the federal organizations that tend to receive the most stable levels of funding are generally those engaged in activities that contribute to a wide selection of national priorities.
Federal Research and Development
Let’s look at a few historical examples and consider how national prioritization affected resource allocation, particularly in U.S. government research and development (R&D) activities. NASA is one of the five largest R&D organizations in the federal government, along with the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. These organizations receive the highest budgets in the federal government for science and technology research.
The plot above displays the four organizations with the largest research budgets in the non-defense discretionary line. It also provides a representation of the shifting research priorities for the nation over the last five decades. What I want to highlight in this plot is the common occurrence in funding federal R&D organizations in which budgets increase as a reaction to a new policy priority, and then return to a relative equilibrium when priorities shift again.
National Priorities and the Department of Energy
For our first example, let’s look at the Department of Energy budget line represented in orange. In the 1970s, the country’s research focus moved toward energy, in part a reaction to the 1973 oil crisis that resulted in President Jimmy Carter’s consolidation of a number of federal agencies into the Department of Energy in 1977. DOE’s budget increased again in the early 1980s due to the Reagan Administration’s policy increasing promotion of nuclear energy for power production, at least partially in response to the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania.
We see other bumps in the DOE budget in following years, the results of the Clinton Administration’s increased investments in renewable energy research and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included significant spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency research. These later increases, which both returned to relatively stable levels in short order, are not as large as the ten-year rise in DOE’s budget from the early 1970s through the early 1980s.
National Priorities and the National Science Foundation
As a point of contrast to the fluctuating DOE budget, the blue line representing the NSF budget in Figure I does not display the same type of dramatic shifts. The NSF does not specialize in any particular discipline of research, but rather provides resources for basic or fundamental research in all non-medical science and technology areas. As a result, the organization is unlikely to find itself affected by a reactionary national priority, but certainly supports ongoing, long-term priorities. It therefore receives a relatively steady budget that experiences moderate, slow growth and comparatively few fluctuations.
National Priorities and NASA
So, how does this narrative affect NASA? In the 1960s, we can see the focus on the moon landing represented by a spike in NASA’s budget, shown with the grey line in the plot. Scientists throughout the United States had been pushing for the formation of a federal organization to continue activities like the International Geophysical Year (1957-58 and extended through 1959) on a sustained basis, but the Soviet launch of Sputnik and the later flight by Yuri Gagarin created a political opening. Public and government fears of a decline in U.S. technical capability drove the efforts to form NASA, based on national security and geopolitical concerns specific to the Cold War environment.
The race to the moon, announced in 1961, was basically a crash project to demonstrate U.S. technological superiority in a peaceful way. President Kennedy and his supporters in Congress intended for the moon program to reassure NATO allies as well as non-aligned nations of U.S. technical superiority. However, while NASA leadership certainly intended to build moon bases, space stations, and expand further into the solar system, there were no plans outside of NASA for a continued human exploration effort. The moon program cost more than the Manhattan Project and was one of the largest technical feats in human history, and when national leadership decided that the effort was complete, NASA’s budget settled out to a relative equilibrium.
NASA’s budget experienced another boost – though much smaller – in the late 1980s and early 1990s following the space shuttle Challenger disaster. This was a national tragedy, and building a new shuttle became a national priority, not just a NASA priority. The budget following the Columbia tragedy in 2003 did not increase as dramatically as it did after Challenger. At that time, Congress and the White House did not view construction of a replacement shuttle as a national priority. Aside from the Challenger replacement funds, NASA’s budget has remained comparably stable since the early 1970s, averaging just below (an adjusted) $20 billion annually.
Implications for NASA
So we see that federal funding for various R&D organizations often increases as a reaction to a new policy priority, and then returns to a relative equilibrium when priorities shift again. For those of us interested in the nation’s space program, it is important to understand the moon race in this context. Following the spikes in the NASA budget line, which were the result of reactionary shifts in national priorities, the budget level seemed to level out a bit, give or take a few billion dollars. This demonstrates that, barring a renewed interest in space as a national priority on the scale of the race to the moon, NASA is unlikely to see a significant increase in its budget. And since the moon race was the result of a specific set of events taking place during the Cold War, a far more likely scenario is that the projects and programs within NASA will continue to compete for resources that are set near the current levels. Again, give or take a few billion dollars.
National Priorities and R&D at the Department of Defense
As an interesting comparison, the plot above shows the Department of Defense R&D budget line, in olive, with the non-defense R&D agencies. Note that the budget for defense R&D is roughly equivalent to all other federal R&D efforts combined, an indication of the strength of defense as a national priority. Again, there are upward shifts during periods in which defense R&D spending increased as a national priority, particularly in the 1980s and following the September 11, 2001, attacks. It is also interesting to note that the defense increase in the 1980s correlates with a decrease in Department of Energy spending, which had been on the rise through the 1970s. And again, the defense increase beginning in 2001 coincides with a downturn in spending on the National Institutes of Health, a clear R&D priority through the previous twenty years. This is not to say that federal R&D spending is a zero-sum game, but it does suggest the fluid nature of national prioritization and highlights the importance of aligning goals and activities with national priorities.
How Does a Research Community Align Its Goals and Activities with National Priorities?
The planetary science community over the last 50 years has become incredibly adept at positioning itself in the Washington budget debates in terms of science. The community effectively establishes goals through the Decadal Study process; its many component groups tend to stand unified behind its goals; and when provided adequate resources, delivers world-class scientific research.
And yet, the community is still subject to the budgetary constraints and seeming whims of shifting national priorities.Is there some way out of this quandary? Probably not entirely. But I think it may be possible to mitigate the fluctuations somewhat by expanding the list of national priorities to which planetary science contributes, which can help to establish a predictable range for planetary or space science budgets.
Clearly, it makes no sense for researchers to tailor all of their efforts to chasing reactionary national priorities, particularly when such shifts in policy are by definition dynamic and often unpredictable. The goals and activities of a research community are – and should be – driven by the scientific questions most relevant to that community. This does not mean that a research community can’t highlight aspects of its activities that already align to priorities outside of science.
As an example, the planetary science community includes a large number of highly specialized scientists, engineers, and technicians. These practitioners have acquired valuable skills they will retain regardless of their career paths. While many will continue to work in planetary science, aerospace engineering, or a closely related field, others will take their knowledge into other fields, introducing different thinking and techniques to their colleagues. Those who remain in the field will also pass on new knowledge and ideas through collaborations, interdisciplinary work, and professional gatherings. More valuable than any technology or system that may be “spun out” from the space community, this circulation of ideas and practices is integral to the process of innovation upon which the U.S. economy lies.
But to understand the full extent of the contribution to the U.S. economy that members of the planetary science community make, we have to know some basic information: How many practitioners are there, and what are they working on? Where are they working, and with whom? How many teach or have students working with them? How many remain in their chosen fields and how many move to other fields? Perhaps most important, how do these numbers change over time and through varying historic circumstances?
Mapping out these fluctuations over time, we could analyze qualitative changes made by U.S. investment in planetary science contributing to national priorities, including STEM education at the university and post-graduate level, distributing knowledge through professional networks to foster innovation and commerce, engaging in international collaboration which bolsters goals of diplomacy and communication, and increasing skills and knowledge vital to our national defense capabilities. I think most researchers in the field know this intuitively and even communicate it implicitly, but we need the information to make such claims accurately.
Explaining the connections and details of planetary science community members to policymakers is key to demonstrating the impact of planetary science to a broad array of national priorities, but first we must have the data. So the first step is measuring the community in ways and at a level of detail not previously pursued. Understanding the state of the planetary science field in this larger sense, particularly measured over time, offers immense analytical capabilities that will allow us to argue the significance of planetary science to national priorities beyond science, technology, and R&D.
If planetary exploration is proven to impact many more national priorities than currently perceived by our political leadership, I believe it becomes much easier to argue for stable budgets even in times of fluctuating priorities. And while I am confident the field of planetary science will reap tangible benefits from employing this strategy, I also believe that those benefits have the potential to increase significantly if the scope of the strategy is eventually expanded to encompass all of space science.
How Can The Planetary Society Help?
The Planetary Society holds an unusual position in the space science community. It is a significantly large organization of people interested in exploring the solar system, many of whom are not professional practitioners of space science. This gives The Planetary Society a unique role, in that the organization’s members speak out in favor of scientific exploration, but do so with a distinctly objective voice. Participation of the Society's membership in these discussions of national priory adds a unique and vital perspective.
As the planetary science community increases its ability to communicate its value to a broader range of national priorities, The Planetary Society is well positioned to help publicize these connections to politicians, policymakers, and the general public.