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?
One question is “why cut outreach?” An obvious answer is “because it’s there.” If the question is decided by people only looking at this year’s bottom line, it becomes like deferring maintenance: a quick fix to a budget cut, and one that has no obvious, immediate adverse impact. All the bad news happens much later. Think about changing the oil in your car — it almost never has to be done now, and not doing it keeps money in your pocket, but if you delay it long enough it will cost you. As long as there are people focused only on the near-term making the decisions, this is the kind of thing that will get cut. It leads to a nasty feedback loop if it continues.
However, as I have written before, it’s a better tactical decision than making cuts that are less visible, but equally damaging in the long run. Public outrage, properly aimed, can be helpful.
There’s one other thing that I thought of after reading about this. There were articles I read just after the Navy’s sequester announcements came out, where the authors called the decision to delay deployment of a carrier group a stunt. The thing is, you can’t really deploy only part of a battle group — it’s all or nothing. If you cut out a few ships, you put the whole group at risk, because they all have their jobs. Similarly, you can’t launch only part of a NASA mission, and cutting a mission is probably way too large of a cut, if we assume this is a short-term problem. I suspect that unlike delaying a deployment, temporarily delaying a mission that’s in development wouldn’t save much money — you still have to pay people, and if you cut off other purchases, you’ll be paying them to play games on their computer rather than work.
If you do cut a mission, you may never get the same opportunity for it. Once projects are canceled, people move on to other work and you might never again be able to assemble the team. Any subsequent attempt will invariably have to recreate some (much?) of the work, which is a waste.
As much as this hurts, I think that treating it as a very public event, and treating it initially as a one-time problem is the best position to take. If it makes you mad, good! It should make you mad. Write to your congresscritters and let them know.