When the world is going to shit, sometimes it helps to remember what is awesome around you. For me that involves a lot of science. Doing science, learning about science, talking about science, even arguing about science. So I went full bore and decided that was all I wanted to do, and it’s been a fun and crazy ride so far. But the traditional path to science isn’t the only way to experience it, and there are lots of things that you can do to help or support science, even when things are looking down.
Let’s face it, science funding isn’t exactly a priority on the national stage. Although there are many, many, good reasons why it should be, those of us doing science have to carry on somehow even when the funding is tight. There seems to be no lack of scientists to do the work; just ask any recent Ph.D. graduate what applying for jobs is like. And then have a tissue ready for when they start crying. Competition for grants to fund the researchers is stiff, and that’s an understatement. The amount of grant money available ultimately depends upon the politics of the day, and space science in particular always seems to be caught in the crossfire. Despite the obvious need for public support of our scientific endeavors, money for education and outreach projects gets slashed as an afterthought.
Lucky for science, science education, engineering, and technology*, there are people out there that DO give a crap and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is. One of the most visible examples today is Elon Musk and his private venture to make getting to Low Earth Orbit affordable, SpaceX. Of course, NASA has been using private contractors to do the work of space exploration for decades, but now they’re not the only customer looking for a ticket to ride.
Private funding can produce amazing results on the ground as well. Discovery Communications recently chipped in to help build a 4.3-meter telescope in Arizona in partnership with the Lowell Observatory called, naturally, the Discovery Channel Telescope. Let’s face it, if you are going to brand a telescope with a corporate name, that’s a pretty good one to go with. (Full disclosure: I’m a freelance blogger for Discovery News.) The telescope will focus on research into the icy bodies of the outer solar system and those ever enigmatic dwarf galaxies that populate the universe in great numbers. The telescope celebrated “first light” on July 21st and is gearing up for a full research program starting next year. And, of course, there will be a television special so everyone can share in the fun.
There’s a new space science funding venture happening right now called Uwingu, which is Swahili for “sky.” They are raising their startup funding right now over on Indiegogo. With many personal contributions and several corporate sponsors, they’ve gotten past the halfway point to their goal, and they just have a few more days to get there. Think you can help? Donate and/or spread the word, won’t you please? This project is headed by Alan Stern, principle investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and former NASA Associate Administrator. It includes a cast of awesome people, including my friend and boss Pamela Gay. The project will fund space science research and education with a grant system similar to those that we go through for public funds. This company can help keep projects like the SETI Institute and my home project CosmoQuest running and doing good stuff, no matter the funding situation with the big national agencies. Can you imagine, we’re in a time where everyone can contribute to science like that?
Here are some more things that you can do to help. Maybe you don’t have the cash, but you have a few minutes to spare to talk to your elected officials. If you are in the United States, you may have heard of the troubles that the National Science Foundation is having in keeping up with world-class astronomy research. If you care about science and don’t want to see massive job cuts and observatory closures, ask your Congresscritters to support science! They are not hard to find, and you can even use an example letter written by one of our CosmoQuest members. If our Congress doesn’t come up with a balanced budget soon, science, as well as other enterprises, will suffer massive cuts in just a few months.
And of course, you can always spend a bit of time actually DOING science with citizen science projects in all fields. I spent most of the past weekend helping to pull together the launch of Asteroid Mappers, the newest CosmoQuest project. The science team of the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt have enlisted our help in exploring the high resolution images of Vesta as the spacecraft leaves for Ceres. There is a TON of data and some really weird and unexpected features. You’ll be marking strange looking craters and finding boulders and picking out whatever other weirdness will help us understand this asteroid and, consequently, more about the evolution of our Solar System. I have to admit, it’s really cool and strangely addictive.
So you see? It’s not all doom and gloom although there surely are some fights to be had for science. What I love about this enterprise is that NONE OF US know what the universe is really up to. At the cutting edge of research, we’re all groping about in the dark, trying to find the answers. One of the most comfortable things about being a skeptic and a scientist, for me, is being able to shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know. But we can find out.”
Featured art by Jill Powell! Because I want to be a space lady someday…
*UPDATE: Small edit to add engineering and technology because they are support important in their own right and to the scientific enterprise. See first comment below!