A couple of weeks ago, a leaked internal memo from NASA revealed that the agency is suspending its education and public outreach programs in response to the sequester. The effects of this decision are devastating. NASA is one of the most publicly recognized science and research agencies in the U.S. The agency’s astronauts, missions, awe-inspiring images and discoveries have motivated many of us to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). NASA was able to accomplish this mainly because of its educational and public outreach programs, which are now in jeopardy.
|NASA logo (Wikicommons).|
This memo advises the suspension of all “public engagement and outreach events, programs, activities, and products developed and implemented by Headquarters, Mission Directorates, and Centers across the agency.” That means that the programs that bring astronauts like Joseph Acaba and Sunita Williams to classrooms full of excited kids; or 4-million-year-old pieces of lunar rock to a museum near you will come to a screeching halt. It also means that the workshops training teachers to help them bring the science of Mars exploration to their classrooms will be left hanging.
NASA’s decision to suspend its education and public outreach programs is questionable. However, what is most concerning about this move is what it could mean for the future of science in the United States. What if these cuts become blueprint for future budget cuts? What if other agencies follow suit?
Education and public outreach programs are vital to the most important partnership in modern American society: the public funding of science. Thanks to these programs, agencies that receive taxpayer money to fund their research endeavors—such as NASA— can have a conversation with the public, to keep them informed about their latest discoveries, their importance, benefits and possible consequences. By promoting awareness and understanding of science, education and public outreach programs help the public make informed decisions about health, technology, the environment and public policy.
The endangerment of science education and public outreach programs by the sequester jeopardizes our nation’s leadership in science, technology and innovation in several ways. The suspension of education and public outreach activities deprives our future generations of programs that spark their curiosity, encouraging them to innovate and dream big. The scientists and engineers that could have been, may never get to be, because the programs designed to get them interested in science are under serious threat.
Our economy will also suffer. It is projected that by 2050 the job market for careers in science and technology is likely to be in high demand. Many of these jobs are in the top earning quartile. How are we supposed to train the scientists and engineers that will sustain the economy, if we don’t have the programs to engage them with science in the first place?
Cuts to America’s education and public outreach programs not only jeopardize the training of future generations of STEM professionals, but the educational success of our youth. Science education and public outreach programs foster the development of critical thinking, problem solving and math skills. These skills are crucial for educational and professional success, whether you become a scientist or not.
Undoubtedly, the suspension of education and public outreach programs will save NASA money: approximately $130 million, less than 1% of the NASA’s $17.8 billion budget. But… at what cost?
The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the institutions and organizations I am affiliated with.