Why is Astronomy Important?

There’s an interesting and unusual article on the arXiv today entitled Why is Astronomy Important? Here is the abstract:

For a long time astronomers and other scientists believed that the importance of their work was evident to society. But in these difficult days of financial austerity, even the most obvious benefits of science have to undergo careful scrutiny. Eradicating poverty and hunger is a worldwide priority, and activities that do not directly attempt to resolve these issues can be hard to justify and support. However, several studies have told us that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general and has helped countries to face and overcome crises. The scientific and technological development of a country or region is closely linked to its human development index a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income.

The full text of the paper can be found on the IAU website here.

The article focusses on matters relating to the transfer of technology between astronomy and, e.g. industry, aerospace, and medicine, its effect on technology we are familiar with in everyday life, on astronomy as an exemplar of international collaboration and on its wider cultural and philosophical impact. Many of the points made in this article can also be found in the Royal Astronomical Society‘s free publication Beyond the Stars: Why Astronomy Matters which is available for free online here.

I recommend you read the full article and make your own mind up about why astronomy is important. I have just two comments, which are partly questions. The first is that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the interpretation of correlations like that mentioned in the last sentence of the abstract (between technological development and the human development index). The issue is the basic one that correlation of two phenomena does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. Is it really possible to establish rigorously a causal link between spending money on astronomy and wider societal benefits? I’m not saying that there isn’t such a link, just that it’s difficult to interpret evidence which is dependent on so many factors. Could one not argue instead that more developed countries spend more money on astronomy because they can afford to?

The other thing that troubles me with arguments of the type presented in the paper is that there is a danger that  emphasizing the transfer of knowledge to other disciplines as the rationale for funding astronomy implicitly negates the argument that astronomy has intrinsic worth of its own. In other words, answering the question “Why is Astronomy important?” seems to accept at the outset that it isn’t.  If it is indeed the case that we can only justify astronomy because it has produced spin-offs in, e.g., medicine, why not just spend more money on medicine and forget the astronomy?

I’m not saying that the technology transfer arguments carry no weight, just that they are definitely double-edged and should be used with caution. For the record, I think we should fund Astronomy (and other sciences) primarily because they are an essential part of the fabric of our culture and civilization; all the rest is icing on the cake. In other words, I support state funding for the sciences for very much the same reasons as for the arts.  I’m fully aware, however, that this unlikely to persuade the powers that be as effectively as an appeal to economic benefits; that’s why science funding has fared so much better than arts funding in this age of austerity.

18 Responses to “Why is Astronomy Important?”

  1. “I’m not saying that the technology transfer arguments carry no weight, just that they are definitely double-edged and should be used with caution. “

    Definitely. If it were the most efficient way, then surely industry would fund astronomy in order to reap the spin-offs. How often does that happen? Tony Tyson (who now has an academic position) comes to mind, but that’s about it.

    If we emphasize the spin-offs, then people will ask why not just cut out the middle man? And, of course, “blue-skies” research will not get as much support.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with Peter’s words above.

    We can perhaps identify the following arguments for funding astronomy, some of which have already been mentioned by Peter above.

    1) Astronomy is of fundamental cultural importance, because it establishes humanity’s place in the Universe, and the origins of the Universe, of the Solar System and of the Earth.

    2) Astronomy has a high profile in society and it generates interest from the broad public in science. Many young people, in particular, are turned on to science and choose to pursue careers in engineering, technology and applied science as a consequence. This provides a very strong, but indirect, economic benefit.

    3) Astronomers in universities educate undergraduate students in physics, mathematics and computing. Those graduates then enter employment in the general economy in large numbers.

    4) Some people trained to a higher level in astronomy – by researching for PhDs – enter the employment market with general skills in computational and numerical methods. Astronomical instrumentalists may move to work in advanced industrial engineering.

    5) Technologies developed for astronomy might enter the general economy more quickly than they would if not funded at all.

    Of all these reasons, (4) and (5) are the most debatable, even dubious. Arguing for funding astronomy on these shakier arguments is dangerous because people responsible for allocating public funds in government and the civil service might dispute them. The consequence could be funding cuts.

    Supporters of astronomy should emphasise the strong arguments. They carry most weight. They should be the most successful in attracting and maintaining funding.

    • i’m not sure you shouldn’t add #3 to the list of debatable points – given astronomers don’t necessarily need access to expensive telescopes and supercomputers to teach u/g physics. you could just as easily employ some flavour of “cheaper” physicist to do such training.

      for me #2 is the best argument we have for spending on astronomy research – we’re a loss-leader for all levels of training in physics.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, to some extent that is true.

      I do feel that astronomers have particular computing experience that contributes to undergraduate teaching, especially for MSci courses. That includes familiarity with large data sets created by telescopes. Various types of physicists offer skills of similar or other types.

      There is indeed a contrary argument that the money that now goes to astronomers could go to other physicists. My point is, however, that money that goes to physics and astronomy combined does contribute usefully to undergraduate teaching. It’s about astronomy funding being good, even if it does not justify astronomy over various branches of physics.

    • Personally, I think that taxpayers should fund astronomy because (some fraction of) the public is interested in the results. That’s all the justification one should need.

      How one should argue with those deciding about funding is another matter. One must be careful that one’s strategy cannot backfire.

      Having said that, I don’t think 4) and 5) are dubious at all. Many non-academic employers have a need for people with hands-on numerical experience. Some explicitly advertise for physicists. Some avoid people with degrees in computer science because of the lack of real-world experience. Thinks like CCD cameras almost certainly would have come later were it not for the fact that astronomers had been (and still are) pushing the development. So, from the point of view of other parts of society, these reasons are valid. (Whether one should use them to argue for funding in astronomy is another matter. One could also argue that astronomy would be more efficient if, for the same total budget, there were more permanent and fewer temporary jobs. Training someone for 6 or 7 years who then leaves academia might benefit his future employer, but is not the most efficient way to do astronomy.

      On the other hand, I think the other points are a bit dubious.

      1) True, but enough has been done here. Most non-astronomers will never “benefit” from the latest, greatest astronomical discoveries. Knowing the size of the galaxy, the size of the universe: yes, point taken. Knowing the spectral index of primordial density fluctuations: dubious.

      2) True, but this depends on many people hoping for a career in astronomy but only a few succeeding. Although it should be trivially recognizable, in fact it is not, and if advisers were more honest about future job prospects, fewer people would enter astronomy. Does the end justify the means?

      3) I think this is the most dubious. Astronomers are not in any way essential for this type of training.

      • #2 doesn’t say that everyone who chooses to do physics at school or university is expecting to become a professional astronomer.

        its simply that astronomy is perhaps one of the more accessible and more visually attractive areas of physics (perhaps “frontier” is a better term than “area”, given some of astronomy doesn’t really fall within “physics”).

      • telescoper Says:

        Ian,

        Interesting comment. What parts of astronomy would you say aren’t really physics?

        Peter

      • “#2 doesn’t say that everyone who chooses to do physics at school or university is expecting to become a professional astronomer.”

        Not everyone, but a large fraction. There is nothing wrong with this. Most of us probably don’t achieve all of our goals. However, I think that some supervisors are less than honest in order to recruit cheap labour. (And, of course, someone who has been “abused” as cheap labour probably had worse than average chances at an academic career.)

      • “Interesting comment. What parts of astronomy would you say aren’t really physics?”

        What about astrometry? OK, some of the instrumentation of course involves physics, but that is true of the barcode reader of a person working at a supermarket checkout and we don’t think of such people as physicists.

        When I was in Hamburg, one of the professors, the late Christian de Vegt, was an astrometer. He hadn’t studied physics; he had a doctorate in mathematics.

      • peter:

        maybe i should wait to answer until you’ve finished the feedback on our CG 😉

        …anyway – to my mind some of the statistical and population analyses which are done in astronomy use techniques which are more similar to social sciences, than hard-core physics, even if the final goal is to answer a “physics” question.

        ian

      • telescoper Says:

        Ian

        I did all my feedback ages ago!

        Peter

      • phillip:

        “Not everyone, but a large fraction. There is nothing wrong with this. Most of us probably don’t achieve all of our goals. However, I think that some supervisors are less than honest in order to recruit cheap labour.”

        i think both bryn and i were including school (high school) physics in this discussion and also undergraduate physics courses – and given that i would disagree that a “large fraction” are composed of people wanting to be professional astronomers. by the time you to come to the final years of undergraduate courses in astronomy that may be true – but in terms of raw recruitment into u/g physics – most of those don’t end up on such courses.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, I was thinking about people who follow degree courses or just school science, not people who go on to do research for PhDs. This could be qualifications in physics, or they could be engineering, computing or other STEM subjects.

        The issue of people who get PhDs in astronomy is different and should be considered separately.

  3. […] Why is Astronomy Important? (telescoper.wordpress.com) […]

  4. [Warning: heresy] I don’t believe astronomy is uniquely placed as “better than other sciences”. All scientific endeavours are valid cultural activities, as are poetry (which I personally don’t appreciate), opera (which I do). A civilized society needs to balance the blue-skies stuff with the obviously wealth-creating activities, but anyone who claims to be able to guarantee to pick winners is a fool.
    Chris

  5. θεμος Says:

    Astronomy is important because the Universe is transparent and we can observe about 10^57 more of it by looking beyond the Earth.

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