Hubble image of the Horsehead Nebula, an active region of star formation. The formation of stars obeys the same physical laws we have dis- covered through observation of Nature on Earth. From Newton’s 17th century theory of gravity, to the 18th century theory of fluid dynamics of Euler, to 19th century thermodynamics, to 20th century atomic and quantum physics, our knowledge of our immediate environment shed lights on phenomena taking place thousands of light-years away. Image credit: NASA

As an astronomer I sometimes face a very simple yet profound question: “How is astronomy useful?” Scientists often deal with this type of questioning from science “skeptics”, especially in the context of budgetary debate, including the recent cut of all NASA’s public outreach budget, and in a time when research results are valued by their profitability and short-term benefits. However, every now and then this question comes from fellow scientists with more “down-to-Earth” backgrounds like applied physics, medical research, or the social sciences.

Astronomers are accustomed to answering this dreaded question in different ways. One common argument — the philosophical one — is that the purpose of basic research is to develop new knowledge for all humankind, and that human curiosity, after all, is the most fundamental reason for scientific inquiry. Another argument is more empirical. Historically, the consequences of basic research — often unintended -have provided enormous technological progress. This answer can be best summarized by a quote often attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Michael Faraday. When asked about what the experiments that laid the ground for electromagnetism were good for, Faraday allegedly replied: “What is the good of a newborn baby?”

There is, however, an even simpler argument for supporting and funding astronomy research: because it is fun. A “fun science” like astronomy is not only fun to those few who do research on it, but also to a broad general public who are fascinated by the discoveries unveiled by modern telescopes. Now, to those who are scientifically literate yet still critical of basic research, arguing in favor of certain disciplines based on how fun they are may seem rather self-indulgent and fail to justify their funding. However, acknowledging that astronomy has an advantage for captivating audiences is a pragmatic reason to position it as a bridge between the public and other — perhaps more opaque — physical sciences. NASA has long recognized this by funding successful outreach programs, but potential budget cuts are threatening one of the most effective communication channels between the nation’s scientists and its citizens.

People are drawn to astronomy because of its cosmogonic nature. Astronomy addresses our origins in the most fundamental way. It focuses on the origin of Universe, galaxies, stars, planets, life, etc. This search resonates with every single person who has wondered about the origin of the world and their role in it. Besides this metaphysical connection, the presence of Astronomical discoveries in the media provide audiences a sneak peek into the scientific method. Mind-blowing new discoveries reveal humankind’s amazing ability to disentangle some of the mysteries of the Universe, yet they also highlight the overwhelming number of phenomena remaining to be understood and discovered. Our evolving understanding of the Universe illustrates the very nature of scientific progress, in which paradigms adapt as new data extend the horizons of our knowledge.

Astronomy can play a crucial role in science education, not only in the media but directly in our schools, by acting as a “gateway science” and opening the door for all STEM fields. Astronomical content taught in an inquisitive learning format will introduce our children to scientific thinking more effectively than the memorization-and-recitation of scientific facts. Given the apparent ease with which people are drawn to astronomy, strengthening the role of this and other fun sciences in schools with streamlined curricula would provide a more cost-effective science education for a thinly stretched educational system.

The ability to capture the public’s imagination with scientific advancement should not be overlooked as a crucial benefit of funding basic research. The fun sciences, rather than being self-indulgent, are instrumental in nurturing the exchange between the public and the scientific community, and they can play an important role in science education and science policy.

Government agencies like NASA have taken advantage of this unique connection of the public with astronomy, making significant impact through their education and public outreach (E/PO) programs. This is one of NASA’s most successful programs, which includes award-winning educational web sites, major museum exhibitions, live webcasts, public television broadcasts on space science research and more. E/PO programs are, in addition, fundamental in keeping communication with taxpayers and, as a consequence, essential in guaranteeing a long-term support for NASA’s mission and securing its funding.

Hubble image of a major merger (Arp 274) in the local universe. Galaxies do not always have peaceful lives in isolation. The gravitational pull of galaxies toward each other (analogous to the Earth-Moon attractive force) can cause the in- evitable collision and subsequent merger of two of these objects. Image credit: NASA

Unfortunately, NASA’s role in astronomy education will be seriously limited if mission-specific EPOs are entirely eliminated, as proposed by the President’s Budget Request for the fiscal year 2014, which aims to consolidate different STEM outreach programs across federal agencies (like NSF or the Smithsonian Institution). From FY 2012 to FY 2014, the Astrophysics E/PO program is expected to be cut from $12.9 M to $0. Considering that NASA’s annual budget of $17 billion amounts to only $0.005 per tax dollar, the Astrophysics EP/O is only a two-thousandth of a penny per tax dollar. In March of this year, NASA had already anticipated a change in outreach policy when, under the sequester, they announced an immediate suspension of all E/PO efforts.

Fun sciences or gateway sciences should be recognized as the core of efficient and effective E/PO programs. Cutting funding for NASA’s successful outreach programs, while expecting non-specialized agencies to effectively carry them out, is a shortsighted policy that defies common sense, and will hamstring our efforts to create a scientifically literate public, which is essential for the technology- and knowledge-based economy of the XXI century.

DIEGO J. MUN ̃OZ, PhD Candidate in Astronomy, Harvard University