YOU Can Make Science Happen

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.

The Falcon 9 launch was pretty sweet.

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!


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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  1. Oh Skepchick, you have such a bias on the S part of STEM. I’d like to humbly point out that Elon Musk’s rockets are feats of ***ENGINEERING***. As a technology & engineering commenter I’d like to give a give a shout out for how sweet fixing, building & programming things are!

    1. You are right, I TOALLY missed that connection. And even though I’m more into the ‘S’, my thesis advisor is an engineer so I should be ashamed for not giving it more props. So, duly noted.

      As for commercial viability, from what I understand of Uwingu, as most of the details are still under NDA, is that they are producing a commercially viable product, and then using the profits from that to then fund STEM research and education. So they are creating an alternative pot of money that projects can propose for that otherwise only have the bug national agencies to go to. But their product is not that science itself. The product (and I have my guesses as to what it is) is yet to be announced.

  2. Also, I’ve been part of startups & and run a startup now, and I can vouch for how private funding can really accelerate a STEM venture. However, getting private funding generally requires what you’re working on being commercially viable.

    It’s actually quite hard to get private equity, because you really have to do a lot of rock-solid convincing to investors that your product will make them money. And that can take a lot of exhausting time & energy. That said, if you have nerves of steel, you CAN get it.

    As far as fields that can get funding. Software and engineering are more easily fundable than science. It’s easier to get funding for software because the development time & funding required is less. For engineering it’s generally harder because on average, it requires a lot more expense and development time.

    Science is a little harder because many areas of various scientific disciplines don’t focus on an economic endpoint. However the following things in my experience can get money.
    – Contract Research
    – Biotech
    – Livestock science
    – Petroleum research
    – Device or engineering oriented physics (i.e. advanced physics that will lead to advanced engineering or devices)
    – Engineering & Materials mechanics (materials or engineering research that has commercial value)
    – Various fields of chemistry
    – Any science that has commercial value

    1. Also, science which has little commercial value can still get funded, but I find that you have to find investors who are firm “believers” in what you do.

  3. I just want to put in a plug for supporting your local public school science programs. It may seem of relative unimportance compared to ZOMG space telescopes, but this is a great resource for budding future STEM candidates!

    Thanks to people supporting her school science programs, for example, my daughter today got to do a fun and cute project involving grahamn crackers, fruit rollups, and icing, used to approximate plate tectonic formations. Then she got to eat her results! She also gets to take awesome classes called things like Technology and Design where they design rockets, boats and cars and then test them, build them and have races, and join programs like Lego Robotics. Almost none of this is brought to her school by the state budget, but rather, by grants and donations.

    So, if someone isn’t sure what they can do on a small scale, one option is to find out what their local schools need and help raise funds to get that need met. Sometimes it can be as simple as a case of beakers.

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