While it’s hard to measure returns on investment for public spending on space science, such programs are key to inspiring new generations of Canadian scientists and technologists.
In a recent article, Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau called for Canada to send its own robotic mission to Mars. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that would create high-technology jobs for Canadians and could, if part of a wider expansion of space policy, make Canada a leader in this field.
If funded, however, the proposed project would no doubt stir up enormous controversy.
Read Marc Garneau’s full argument in favour of a Canadian mission to Mars here.
Many people object that money for space-related issues would be better spent on the Earth – that we should use it to solve housing problems, or build roads, or support more oil sands development. Or, in other words, that we should spend it on things that are perceived to create jobs or solve social problems. But the reality is that every cent spent on space is spent on the ground. High-tech firms are responsible for building hardware for space missions, and over 7,000 jobs in Canada are involved in space-related technologies (including the commercial sector).
But this is a small number of jobs nationally, and, from the government’s perspective, it’s the detailed return on investment that counts. Unfortunately, that’s proven to be a real challenge for space science. While the monetary returns of a new device can be readily estimated from company balance sheets, the values of fundamental discoveries, such as new metal alloys, are much harder to estimate. Their path to significant returns can be winding and varied, drawing in both other fields (such as sports goods) and technologies. Accurately evaluating the returns on investment for public spending on space science is thus difficult, to say the least – although government consultants have certainly tried.
If measuring the economic impact of space exploration is difficult, what about measuring the social impact? Nobody can deny that space inspires people. Mars rovers have made a generation of school children imagine what it must be like on the red planet. The sight of the barren deserts of Mars makes us appreciate how amazing our beautiful blue orb is. But unfortunately, such issues are not easily quantified with dollars and cents.
Thus, in terms of Garneau’s proposition that we send our own robotic mission to Mars, the question becomes: Could Canada even afford something like this? And, if so, is it a sensible way to spend taxpayers’ dollars?
Let’s take a look at the numbers. The Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) budget is around $420 million, but that works out to only 0.19 per cent of Canada’s $219,000 million in tax revenues. In other words, our monetary commitment to the CSA is hardly bankrupting us. Look at it another way: If you pay $1,000 per month in taxes, you’re contributing about $24 a year to the CSA. That almost makes CSA funding sound like a charity donation.
NASA astronaut Rob Garan is live-tweeting from space. Check it out here.
In contrast, NASA’s budget is $18,700 million, which is 0.88 per cent of the U.S.’s net tax revenues. Relatively speaking, then, the U.S. spends over four and a half times as much of its tax revenues on space programs as Canada does. Even when written in terms of the expenditure per person, the numbers are pretty much the same.
Suppose, for a second, that Canada spent the same percentage of its tax revenues on space programs as the U.S. does. What could the CSA do with a budget of $1,800 million? And should we be spending that kind of money on space, when we have major economic issues to deal with in other sectors?
Manufacturing accounts for only 13 per cent of our gross domestic product, and, in the long term, this number is expected to fall. We can’t survive on service industries alone. It’s also widely known that Canada’s industrial productivity is lower than that of our competitors. In order to correct this trend, we need to develop smarter work methods or bring some new ideas to market. Innovation is a big part of this strategy.
That brings me to why I would like to see more investment in space science. We need a new generation of workers that appreciate science and technology. A first step would be to inspire the children who will become these workers. We can do this through Canada-led cutting-edge space missions, hand in hand with a bold new vision to make the CSA more accessible to Canadians. While considered by some to be a fad, “citizen science” – where individuals participate in science projects – is something that I believe the CSA can use to Canada’s advantage. Let’s make the CSA something that Canadians are familiar with, and can even participate in.
But there is more to the CSA than space exploration and research: It has a major role to play in Canada’s policies – from agriculture to arctic sovereignty. Perhaps the biggest irony in the modern use of space is that looking down from space is of just as much value – if not more – as looking up.
Check out The Mark’s Innovation Series here.
So, if the CSA were given a budget of $1,800 million, I’d be more than happy to see one-third of that amount go toward Canada leading a project to Mars, and the creation of what some of my colleagues like to call the “Canadian Space Telescope” – a large orbiting telescope designed to study the formation of stars in nearby galaxies with unprecedented detail. Canada’s first space telescope, MOST, has been an unbelievable success on a relatively small budget, but it is the size of a suitcase. Given the budget to make these missions possible, we have the people to do them both, brilliantly.
But a budget of $1,800 million would support far more than just these two missions. We could build a new generation of Canadian remote-sensing satellites, or extend the current plans for communication capability in the high Arctic. How about establishing better support for satellite broadband across the country? We did it with CANARIE on the ground – why not provide the same kick-start for the next generation of satellite-based internet, to make data access ubiquitous in our most remote regions? With a budget like this, we could even start to consider creating our own launch facility.
This, of course, is a dream. The reality is that the CSA’s budget is set to shrink by almost a quarter by 2013. We are falling behind. This is made all the more disturbing by the fact that international space science seems to be moving backwards. There hasn’t been a human on the moon in 40 years, and the U.S. has just lost its capability to put one in orbit.
Read more about the retirement of the world’s most famous spacecraft, Atlantis here.
At a time when GDPs are still close to all-time highs in real dollar figures, it is perplexing that we now baulk at these grand adventures because they are “too expensive.” But the reason for this is simple: Rarely has space science been about science. In the past, military or political concerns drove funding. Today’s problems are largely about wealth distribution, taxation, and balancing budgets. With this focus on economic concerns, the powers that be are understandably hesitant to invest more money in programs (like space science) that do not have clear, measurable returns on investment.
But we can’t lose sight of the need to nourish the hopes and expectations of the young. Having programs that inspire a new generation with the joy of discovery, from which our future is born, is not a luxury: It’s a benefit to us all.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.