U.S. SCIENCE BUDGET CUTS THREATEN PLANETARY & NEO RESEARCH
From Clark Chapman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
2 September 1999
Many of your readers may not appreciate the seriousness of the
U.S. science budget crisis and its potentially devastating impact on NASA
activities as well as on planetary and asteroid research, in particular.
My urgent message to your American subscribers is that the time is *now* to
contact members of Congress (both House and Senate). Those elsewhere
in the world can simply stand by and watch in amazement at the bizarre
way the United States handles its annual budgets.
In late July, as the details were being worked out within a House
of Representatives subcommittee about allocation of funds to NASA, NSF,
and a variety of other non-science agencies, there emerged a proposed
draconian cut to NASA's budget. One NASA official said bluntly that if
the cuts went through, there would be enough money to finish some of
what we are doing, start nothing new, close the door, and just quit
planning to do solar system research in the future. In that crisis
atmosphere, enough protests were made that the final bill approved by
the Committee proposes cuts in space science "only" 40% as deep, or about a
quarter of a billion [10^9] dollars.
The problem is that even *those* cuts represent the most serious *threat* of
cuts since 1981 and, if enacted, would probably be the worst single cut in
NASA solar system research ever. This appropriations bill
is scheduled to be voted up or down on the floor of the House this coming
Wednesday, September 8th. It would cancel outright approved missions of
direct interest to CCNet subscribers (like CONTOUR and Deep Impact), as
well as many other planetary and astronomy missions. And it would
deeply cut the ongoing research and even end the careers of many U.S.
space scientists, who rely on NASA funds for their salaries. (Most
planetary researchers are *not* salaried employees of private-or-state-
funded universities, as are professors in more traditional academic
disciplines with many courses to teach.) It is this House bill that
*must* be voted down on Wednesday.
But that is only one phase. The U.S. Senate is on a completely
independent path to determining NASA's budget, although subject to the
same overarching political and budget-cap constraints as the House. It
is very plausible that it will also propose big cuts to NASA's budget, but
distributed in different ways. In the American system, the
reconciliation would only come later, when the House and the Senate must
somehow compromise. That process might be chaotic itself, where issues that
seem important to us (e.g. an asteroid mission) are actually very small
items, comparatively, among the giant issues (like veteran's benefits) that
will dominate the politicians' concerns.
The one thing that is clear is that the best chances for space science
funding to be restored during this chaotic process will be if the
members of Congress have *heard loudly* from many concerned people
(especially, but not restricted to people who live in their states).
Unfortunately, congressional staffers report (whether true or not) that they
haven't been hearing complaints about the NASA cuts since the House
committee restored some of them a few weeks ago. But make no mistake: no
NASA program (except, probably, those missions that are already launched) is
immune from the threat of major cutbacks (possibly starting as soon as Oct.
1st) or cancellation. Projects once threatened, but temporarily taken off
the chopping-block by the House Committee, could be threatened again (e.g.
in the Senate).
The political battle in the United States must be engaged at two levels.
The best solution, of course, is to get rid of the arbitrary budget
caps that were approved several years ago in different economic
circumstances, which are responsible for what would otherwise be
perceived as irresponsible jerking-around of carefully nurtured agencies
and programs. (There is little evidence of any overt opposition to NASA
programs by the influential members of Congress belonging to either
political party: they just feel that their backs are against the wall
and science is the only available arena in which to make the arbitrarily-
mandated cuts.) Both parties in Congress (as well as the White House)
are "playing chicken" and refusing to be the first to tamper with the
caps. They may well let the train wreck happen. In that case, it will be
the programs that the politicians and their staff members have heard about
that will be most likely to be protected during the budgetary disaster.
For more information about the NASA budget crisis, check out the following
For postal and email addresses of members of Congress, go to:
Clark R. Chapman
Southwest Research Institute
CCCMENU CCC for 1999