Australia has in recent years formed his own space agency and launched a defense”space command† Billions of dollars for defense and hundreds of millions for civilian space have been allocated from the state coffers to develop capacity in this growing sector.
This level of investment is undoubtedly a good thing. But the vast majority of it supports applied research and engineering, and commercialization of results. None of the new funding goes to basic research.
In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea, China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates—to name a few—fundamental research in space and planetary science is underway. and scientific missions are key elements in strategies to grow their sectors. In Australia this kind of basic work gets only approximately A$2 million per year† It hasn’t gotten off the ground for ten years.
Why fundamental research is important
Applied research and engineering aims to provide practical solutions to well-defined problems by applying existing knowledge.
Fundamental research is aimed at increasing knowledge. It is the most successful mechanism that humans have ever invented to generate new knowledge.
Every other major space-faring nation funds basic research in space and planetary science from the state coffers. They do it for a good reason, and it’s not to make planetary scientists like me happy.
That’s because in space science, an unusually short thread connects fundamental research, applied research and engineering, commercial results, and a skilled workforce.
Fundamental research is not an optional extra: it is a crucial catalyst for everything else.
How it works
In other countries, scientists like me come up with an idea or hypothesis. Something big and exciting about how we think our solar system works.
To test that hypothesis, we are developing a space mission with engineers from both industry and academia. Because the universe defines the problem and not a human being, that team is constantly faced with unique challenges, requiring completely new technical solutions.
As a happy by-product, this process creates an environment that is almost perfectly optimized for technological breakthroughs. I learned this lesson on the very first mission I was on: the British Beagle 2 Mars lander.
The mission failed. We haven’t been able to sniff for methane on Mars. But the technology turned out to be a great way to detect tuberculosis early†
And exploring the solar system to make fundamental new discoveries is a great way to inspire young engineers and scientists. This will inspire your audience, make students interested in STEM careers and, in the long run, get your highly skilled workforce of the future.
I see this all the time. It’s one of the joys of my job.
Our space program at Curtin University is called Binar, from the Nyungar word for “fireball.”
We flew our first satellite, Binar-1, last year. We will fly six more in the next 18 months. Our ultimate goal is a lunar orbiter.
There are about 60 undergraduate engineers involved in Binar at any given time. Last week dozens of high school students visited us. The WA government is supporting a program that will allow them to conduct experiments on Binar spacecraft starting next year. This is what inspiration looks like.
And yes, an added benefit is that you make planetary scientists happy. But their discoveries gain your credibility and visibility on the global stage, so that’s okay.
Our work on the geophysical evolution of the dwarf planet Ceresbased on Dawn Mission data, is an example.
Cutbacks have sunk in
In Australia, basic research is formally excluded from the new funding schemes (e.g. the Moon-to-Mars Demonstrator Mission Schedule states that “STEM, scientific or research projects without a clear commercialization trajectory” are ineligible activities). So no scientific missions.
Because of that exclusion and the lack of funding, planetary science is no longer seen by universities as a strategic area. As a result, it was one of the first areas to be cut as the belts tightened due to COVID.
Colleagues from the Australian National University and Macquarie University have lost their jobs† In fact, our team at Curtin University is the only substantial group left in Australia.
No zero sum game
The Australian model is consistent with the belief that every dollar you spend on science is one dollar less for industry. Is this the case?
NASA doesn’t think so. The model is built around fundamental research and scientific missions.
A recent study commissioned by NASA found that this model was extremely successful in generating benefits for the wider economy. Over a single year, every dollar spent on the agency generated about US$3 of total US economic output. Over longer timescales, the returns are even higher.
Other agencies, large and small, can demonstrate a similar return on investment with science-based models. Every 1 the UK Space Agency invests in space science and innovation yields ₤3-4 in direct value to the space industry and additional spillovers of 6-12.
A risky experiment
No other major space-faring nation has implemented a strategy that formally excludes basic research. It follows that Australia is engaged in a unique experiment to see whether the growth of our space sector is optimized by minimizing our ability to generate new knowledge.
With hundreds of millions in new funding for civil space and billions for defense, our space sector can’t help but grow. The question is whether that investment generates efficient growth. Will our taxpayers see the same return on investment as taxpayers in those other countries if we scrap the science?
Overseas space agencies can point to an economic return of three to 12 times the original investment. Could our space agency do better with a model that formally excludes basic research and science missions?
I do not know the answer. Unfortunately, no one does, because there are no examples or studies to draw from.
My suspicion is that this new strategy is not optimal. Hedging our bets – learning from the strategies of other countries – wouldn’t cost much.
It would mean looking again at that A$2 million in annual funding for basic research. Involving scientists in how research programs are defined. Maybe even the strange science mission. Doesn’t seem like much if it gives you peace of mind.