I was asked recently a stock question by interviewers about how to justify spending SETI when “some people would say” that we have so many problems needing solving , so many better places to spend the money.
There are a few answers to this.
One is that it’s a false choice: certainly if I had to choose between NSF funding for basic research, including SETI, and feeding starving people, I choose feeding the starving people every time. But that is not the choice we face: humanity produces more than enough food to feed the planet and cutting the NSF budget won’t feed any starving people.
Similarly, if I had to choose, I’d rather our government guarantee all people the basics of modern life—shelter, health care, safety, clean water and nutritious food, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and all that—than search the skies for technosignatures. But that’s not the choice Congress makes every year when it makes up its budget—we can easily afford all of those things.
Another answer is beautifully illustrated by classic Congressional testimony by R. R. Wilson, director of Fermilab, justifying building the lab’s first accelerator in a time when the national defense dominated the budget conversation:
SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?
DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.
SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?
DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.
SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?
DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.
It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.
SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.
DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.
SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?
DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.
In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.
“It helps make [America] worth defending”—quite the rhetorical dunk there.
But more broadly, basic science is an essential part of culture, civilizations, and humanity. We have more than enough labor and wealth to do SETI and be safe. Indeed, we spend hundreds of billions per year on national security—a future that President Eisenhower warned us against—and against this, basic science expenditures are a rounding error.
The third answer is: because we can easily afford it.
I once heard a figure that America spends more on doggie treats than on publicly funded science. I threw this figure out in that interview, but worried I had it wrong. So I looked it up.
The US pet food and treat market is almost $30 billion. Of this, dog and cat “treat” sales reached $4.39 billion in 2017. The FY17 appropriation for NASA’s science mission directorate was $5.76 billion.
So, I was wrong: NASA spent 30% more on science in 2019 than America did on dog and cat treats than. But we spend far more on dog and cat food.
But looking at some other points of comparison:
- NASA’s budget for astrophysics specifically was $0.73 billion in 2017, plus another $0.57 billion for JWST.
- The NSF had a budget of around $7.4 billion in FY17
- The NSF Astronomical Sciences budget is around $0.23 billion per year
Since America spends over $2.5 billion on dog treats each year, its probably safe to say that Americans spend about twice as much on doggie treats than their federal taxes do on astronomy.
The point, obviously, is not that we spend too much on doggie treats or that there is some obviously more correct ratio between these two expenditures—it’s that America is a very, very rich country (even ignoring the “1%” that doesn’t spend much on pet treats) and the amount we spend on things as important to culture as basic science is actually quite small, comparable to niche consumer markets like pet treats.
I’m not arguing we should spend less on basic human needs, pet treats, or any of these other things that define modern life. Regardless of whether we fund science with new taxes or by cutting other expenditures like the military budget, we can easily afford to spend a lot more on a lot of those things, including SETI.