Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Importance of Advocacy

When I was in High School, I was a bit of a film buff. I was so interested I even worked at a movie theatre part time! I saw as many as I could manage and looked forward to Sunday Mornings each week when I could sit down and hear what Siskel and Ebert had to say. While I valued their opinions, what I enjoyed most was getting a glimpse into how their critiques were put together. And if they could do it, why not me? So a friend of mine by the name of Robert and I decided to write our own film reviews and publish them in the School Newspaper. We called it "Films Under Fire" and it was a hit. We had our own website and a logo.

One day, we decided to submit one of our reviews to the local paper, "The Evening Telegram" which was in the habit of printing Roger Ebert's review from the Chicago Sun Times. We waited with baited breath for a response. But when it came, we were disheartened. The lifestyle editor liked our writing, and appreciated our initiative, however, the paper would not be printing our article, nor would they be interested in more like it in the future. He said "Movies come from away" (The newfoundland term for something foreign) and as such, he felt that they could not benefit from a local opinion. And so the dollars to print movie commentary continued flowing west, out of the province.

That editor's words have stayed with me, and I thought of them again when I was putting together my recent presentation for the RASC. You see, we often think of planetary science and space exploration as something done elsewhere by other people, something that "comes from away." When Phoenix was in full swing, when Huygens landed, the science operations centres were crawling with reporters from Canadian TV and newspapers. Who did they want to talk to? Why the head honcho, the principal investigator, of course. Why waste time talking with the Canadian team? The mission was being run from away, wasn't it?

Even so, it was good to see our own media at hand. It proves that we do have the interest here in this country. So why can't we lead planetary missions? Why are we satisfied by an astronaut or two launched every couple of years who plays a supporting role? Why is our space program funded at less than 20% per capita of the american rate? In short, why not us?

I've heard all the excuses and they don't hold water. "We're too small a country!" some say. "We don't have the talent or the expertise!" I'm told by others. The truth of the matter is that if we funded at the same per capita rate as the US, the CSA would disburse just under 2 billion dollars a year, that's more than enough to launch a phoenix sized mission ($475 million distributed over four years) or even a New Frontiers class mission to the Outer Planets ($750 million over five+ years). As for talent, I can't begin to count the number of Canadians I've run into at NASA centres in the US - it's not just the sunny california weather that keeps them there, it's that NASA is the place to be and we don't compete.

Note that I didn't say "can't compete." We could do it if we chose to, but why haven't we? Well, part of the answer is that you could argue NASA's budget is inflated compared to other countries for historical reasons. First of all, after the second world war, the US discovered that technological advantage was the key to military advantage. As such, they invested very heavily in higher education to produce the best workers, science and technology. Then there was the space race, a prestige project carried out in competition with the russians. The truth of the matter is that even the US used to spend almost four times as much per capita as it does now, or something like 20 times our current space spending.

But the reason NASA still outspends everyone else, combined, is advocacy. While NASA has itself mastered public relations, there are millions of people belonging to societies who advocate for space exploration. When we landed on Mars, the deluge of interest was unbelievable. Even the professional associations in the US (of which I am a part) are intentionally activist in their intents. This makes perfect sense. Without this advocacy and the NASA dollars that it begets, how would we find employment? And without us, where would the discoveries that enthral the public come from? It's a virtuous circle. And it's one we can start here.

How, you ask? The answer is advocacy. The government listens to numbers. If enough people feel that space exploration is something we should be doing, then it will get funded. If the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada becomes big enough it will have the power to sway the public mood and the public purse. This is an excellent example of what you can do to help. But this will happen only if enough people stand up and say "why can't we make our own contribution?"

As I see it, it's my job to do two things. First of all, I need to share my interest and enthusiasm with you all - to show you what's possible. That's why I was at the RASC's meeting on wednesday. And secondly, I need to demonstrate how we can do this in Canada and why I feel we should.

That, of course, is the other pickle. "Why should we go there, they say/There's nothing up there anyways/We could use the money here/Don't you know that life's too dear?" (Kristoph Klover) To that, there are several responses I can make. I could tell you about trickle down effects from spending heavily on something that fosters a high technological culture based in this country. I could tell you about high paying technical jobs, about inspiring graduates to pursue science, many of whom would go into other fields and make startling discoveries completely separate from space. I could tell you all about how a space program makes sense from an economic point of view.

But I won't. Unlike many things that governments do, a space program is fundamentally an aspirational program. It appeals to our hopes and our dreams. It speaks to us of discovery and what the future can bring. Things that go right to the heart of our human nature. To me that is why we explore, and spend the money on something an accountant might find frivolous. However, it has often been said that we Canadians are a pragmatic people. As such let me offer you one more reason to get involved. You could think of it as insurance, after a sort. Whether it happens in ten years, a hundred years or a thousand years, the future of humanity almost certainly lies in space. If we choose not to invest now, then who are we to expect a seat at the table when that time comes?

1 comment:

  1. wow good read this one was...

    we play second fiddle, or little brother, to the US in more ways than space exploration, but we'll stay on the space one.

    i agree with you 100%, we need more people, doing more outreach. People, like you and me, need to take it on ourselves to show people what is so awesome about science/astronomy and why it's so useful to invest in it.

    This is a difficult thing to do, how do you convince someone who has 3 kids, a house, a car, and depedent parents that science is awesome and you need to pay more attention....though I suppose I would aim at inspiring their kids and not the parents.

    i wanna dip my hands further....I will be your activist !