The impact of the US sequester on research institutions is only starting to become clear, but Friday marked one of the most visible indications yet that severe cuts in the NASA and NSF budgets will harm our nation's capabilities. In an effort to protect research interests, the space agency has eliminated programs designed to communicate with and educate the public.
NASA is among the most visible government agencies and perhaps the highest-profile research organization in the world, thanks in no small part to an engaging and effective public outreach program. NASA TV let the world watch as rovers landed on Mars and astronauts repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. Summer camps for children helped inspire the next generation of astronauts, scientists, and educators. Carefully constructed teaching materials ensured that students receive only the best and most accurate education about our exploration of space. I wrote last month that the American public thinks that NASA spends more five times what it actually does. Surely some of that is due to the agency's enormous media presence.
NASA's research is America's research, funded by the citizens for the benefit of the citizens, so it's a shame for the agency to be forced to stop teaching the citizens. It'd be nice to know what we're paying for, but, ultimately it is more important to do research than it is to talk about research. If NASA needs to cut outreach in order to continue developing a mission to Europa, so be it. I'd rather read in a press release that we've discovered life on another world than watch a beautiful video explaining how we might one day go looking for it.
This isn't to say that we don't need education and outreach. Without it, we'll create a dangerous gap between scientists and the public. We naturally tend to fear and mistrust ideas which we don't understand and this phenomenon could do long-term damage to future research efforts. The nuclear power industry already suffers this fate. To compensate for this looming deficiency, other institutions need to step up. Museums and planetariums need a more public role. Quality science journalism must have broader reach. Although the road ahead will be challenging, we can step up and reaffirm astronomy and space exploration's powerful connection with the public.
(Thanks to Vivienne Baldassare for the tip!)