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Scientific Pig-Out

Wednesday morning I received an e-mail from the American Physical Society (APS) advising me that I should send a thank-you note to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for giving the National Science Foundation (NSF) $3 billion and the Nation Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) $600 million of new funding—euphemistically called “science infrastructure investments”—in the $816 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Instead, I sent a thank-you note to my congressman, one of the 11 House Democrats who voted against the spending bill.  Of course, my reasoning had nothing to do with the advancement of science.  Reading the bill, I saw that it is simply a massive list of congressional pet projects, an expansion of socialized medicine, and further federalization of the public school system.  I think the bill will harm the economy.

Over the short term, researchers in the fundamental sciences will get more money.  The bill should give short-term funding to astronomy and astrophysics.  The bill earmarks all but $150 million of the NASA funds for climate research, aeronautics, and the mitigation of flood and hurricane damage to NASA facilities; the remaining money is to be spend on science, so much of this will likely be spend on astronomical projects.  One billion dollars of the NSF funding is earmarked for such things as the modernization of academic research laboratories, funding of the “Major Research Instrumentation Program,” and funding of the ‘‘Major Research
Equipment and Facilities Construction’’ program, all of which, presumably, support astronomical observatories, leaving $2 billion for unspecified scientific research.  Certainly on the NASA side, and perhaps on the NSF side, some of this money will go to astronomy and astrophysics.

The joy the APS expressed over the additional NSF and NASA funding, I believe, is misplaced.  Astronomy is a luxury.  It does not have any application on Earth.  It is simply fun to learn, and that is its sole justification.  Because of that, it does not exist in countries that are struggling to survive.  It is an activity of wealthy countries and countries that are rapidly growing or aspire to world prestige.  This is reflected in the rapid growth in NASA from 1960 to 1975, and the rapid grown in the NSF over the past three decades.  These rises parallel the rise in the U.S. before the 1970s and between 1980 and the present day.  Science has thrived when the U.S. economy has thrived.  Can it thrive when the economy is struggling?

I believe the increases in government spending contained in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are more likely to hurt the economy than help, since the increased spending must be paid for with higher taxes, which reduces consumer spending and business expansion, with higher borrowing, which raises interest rates, damaging the ability of businesses to expand, and with inflation, which saps the saving of everyone in the country.  There is no reason to think that the “stimulative” effect of massive government spending would counteract these negative effects, especially since the new spending programs are selected for political rather than economic reasons.

This is bad new for astronomical research, because if a bad economy persists, congress will be compelled to cut government spending to reduce the burdens of taxation, debt, and inflation.  Where will they look?  Certainly not at the new spending proposed for health insurance; rolling back entitlements is always politically difficult, so they will be the last to go when a budget is cut.  First to go, and justifiably, are the luxury spending, and among the logical targets for such cuts are astronomy and astrophysics.

Jim Brainerd

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