Revived national science interest could mean starry future

By Opinions Editor

Nearly 35 years after Carl Sagan’s TV show “Cosmos” introduced a generation to the understandings of astronomy and the origins of life, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson suited up boldly to revive the show. With glossy graphics and neat illustrations to explain the most timely research on life in the universe, the show has great potential to reignite the public’s interest in science.

Tyson may receive criticism for playing mouthpiece for a seemingly objective profession—he espouses fairly biased viewpoints about evolution and climate change—but the show is a critical undertaking that could generate support for scientific research. Every Sunday night, he presents a broad topic, such as natural selection or the development of the public view of science throughout the ages, encapsulating history, public policy, religion and science all in one beautifully written script. The show’s March 9 premiere drew 8.5 million viewers, according to a March 10 Hollywood Reporter report, but newcomers may join in throughout the show’s 13-episode stint on Fox. Whether or not viewership is Tyson’s endgame, he is a beacon of hope for the scientific community wishing that public favor—and funding—could bring it to the forefront again.

Funding for scientific research in the U.S. has stagnated since the 1980s. A survey of 3,700 scientific researchers across the nation found that federal funding for their programs fell so significantly that 66 percent of them had to postpone research, according to an Aug. 29 report from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Only 2 percent were able to cover the reduction with private funding and more than half of the respondents knew a colleague who lost a job, according to the report.

The great scientific strides of the 1980s—such as the development of nanotechnology and the identification of HIV—were largely funded using federal dollars. From 1980–1990, federal science and engineering funding climbed from $11 billion to $21 billion, but stalled in the 1990s and declined between 1995 and 1996. With the added financial strain in the aftermath of the Great Recession, funding for science has fallen even further. In 2011, funding dipped 9 percent, according to the National Science Foundation.

Fortunately, the 2015 federal budget includes $135.4 billion in total research and development funding, a 1.2 percent increase from the 2014 budget, according to an analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Although funding has since increased, the National Institutes of Health will see less than a 1 percent increase, whereas NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency will lose funding, according to the analysis.

The sciences need a champion with a clear voice to push the government to devote more resources to research and development funds. In an NSF survey published Jan. 1, 14 percent of Americans said they had no interest in the sciences and only 16 percent said they regularly follow science and technology news. Sagan was science’s voice from the late 1970s until he died of pneumonia in 1996, and some of his broadcasts survive as motivational speeches verging on poetry, such as “Pale Blue Dot” and “We Humans are Capable of Greatness,” but public enthusiasm for science continues to wane.

However, science has not disappeared entirely from popular culture. The millennial generation had several science-based TV programs to watch as children, including “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and even the overdramatized “MythBusters.” Those shows were not at all the national phenomenon that Sagan’s “Cosmos” was, but perhaps the writing and delivery will give astronomy the appeal to recapture the American psyche.

Tyson’s antics on “Cosmos” may be a little corny at times—the shape-shifting spaceship is oddly reminiscent of “The Magic School Bus,” and his soul-searching stares into the camera are gimmicky. His Twitter handle features selfies with President Barack Obama and Bill Nye along with snarky commentary on public policy, which makes it seem as if he is trying too hard to attract attention. However, Tyson effectively communicates to an audience that may be unfamiliar with the concept of a universe that is billions of years old. If his show gathers enough attention and captures the public interest, voters may support political candidates who advocate increasing scientific funding rather than spending the nationalbudget elsewhere.

Furthering scientific research is paramount to society’s advancement, and to do that, the government needs to fund the necessary research. The private sector can donate philanthropically but is not obliged to do so regularly, and researchers depend on a steady paycheck as much as anyone else.

If the national fascination with the TV show extends beyond the screen, then Tyson has done his job in gathering support for the field he clearly loves.