We live in an exciting era. For the first time in half a century, we are embroiled in another great space race. With each passing day our understanding of ourselves and our universe allows for massive innovations in the fields of science and technology, such as computers that are learning to program themselves or developing cures for medical scourges of humanity like cancer or AIDS.
In the midst of these breakthroughs, it can be difficult to step back and approach such developments not only with a sense of wonder, but also with a critical eye. Perhaps the most crucial question of our times is: "At what cost?" It's a question which despite its importance is nevertheless asked far too infrequently. Going to space is great, of course. But what does it mean for the future of humanity when the exploration of the final frontier is subject solely to the whims of corporations? Our scientific breakthroughs are undoubtedly astounding. But who is funding them and what are their motives?
When I heard Noam Chomsky would be coming to Phoenix, Arizona, to participate in an Origins Project dialogue with Lawrence Krauss, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to discuss these increasingly important issues with two of the most prominent public intellectuals of our times. Both individuals have made such substantial contributions to their respective fields of study that they have become household names and hardly require an introduction, but for those who might have missed out on the most exciting developments in theoretical physics, politics, philosophy and linguistics in the past several decades, I'll briefly fill you in.
Since he started publishing in the early 1950s, Chomsky, a professor emeritus at MIT, has written over 100 books covering a staggering range of topics, from linguistics to cognitive science, the Vietnam war, and the merits of anarcho-syndicalism. He has been voted world's top intellectual, a title which he arguably has earned.
Krauss is a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, who has published widely on topics pertaining to theoretical physics and cosmology. He was one of the first physicists to suggest that the vast majority of mass and energy is found in empty space (now called dark energy) and more recently has promoted a model of the universe in which the universe emerged from nothing at all. He is widely known for his atheist activism.
"You can send a robot to Mars for the same cost as making a movie about sending Bruce Willis to Mars"
Given their vastly different, yet nonetheless complementary fields of inquiry, I figured Chomsky and Krauss might have something interesting to say on the state of science and space exploration. Our discussion was held over two sessions. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MOTHERBOARD: What's the risk, in your minds, of leaving the future of space travel, which may very well be integral to the future of humanity, almost entirely in the hands of private interests?
CHOMSKY: It's like the risk of electing a dictator of the world and saying we're going to follow everything he does no matter what. It's a terrible development. The environment, the commons, it's what we all share. They're a common possession, but space is even more so. For individuals to allow artificial institutions like corporations to have any control over it is devastating in its consequences. It will also almost certainly undermine serious research.
KRAUSS: I think it's dangerous, but unlikely anyhow. The costs of going to space are so large and the danger so high, that the only game in town is the government in the long term. For short term, small distance things like going around the Earth private industry is going to be involved, but in my opinion there is no business model that is ever going to motivate the incredible cost, difficulty and time of sending people to the Moon or Mars. So yes, it's a problem if the government gives up and backs out of the space endeavor, and says, 'Well, private industry can pick up the slack completely.' If the government absolves itself of its responsibilities, then that's a problem. Ultimately, though, space exploration and space science are something that society should either decide they want to responsibly do through government or decide they don't have time for it.
It kind of seems like a double-edged sword, though. Rely too heavily on the government for space exploration, and you'll just end up with the massive efforts to militarize space like we saw during the Cold War.
KRAUSS: When it comes to exploration of space, we need to have an informed public explaining to congress why they want to spend money on doing it and how to spend it. Unfortunately, many people are confused and think human space exploration is the scientific exploration of space and that's just not true. When we send humans into space, we spend 99.99 percent of the cost making sure they're alive and get back in one piece. As I often say, you can send a robot to Mars for the same cost as making a movie about sending Bruce Willis to Mars.
If we really believe in democracy—which is something that's really kind of an illusion—then we elect representatives that make decisions that they are accountable for and are informed about. You can be sure at some level that the public can have input on what they want to see and what they don't, but they need to have informed input. Then we have to decide if it's a national priority and if it is, then the elected government needs to decide how much to spend on it. I think the government will inevitably be looking to militarize things, but the problem is that most of the money that is spent militarizing space is invisible. They're classified programs.
After Apollo, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s, people weren't really talking about the militarization of space as much. But like Lawrence said, the militarization of space hasn't gone away. Its influence has just become much more nuanced.
CHOMSKY: If you look at the Air Force's projections of their programs, policies and technological development, a lot of it was concerned with the militarization of space and also trying to ensure a monopoly of the militarization of space. So it's happening all the time.
A lot of people say that if it wasn't for corporations, there wouldn't be any space travel at all and kind of justify the privatization of space by saying it's better than nothing.
CHOMSKY: If that's true, it's a social pathology. If you go back, say, 60 years, you could've said the same thing about computers. Let's let private corporations develop them. That's not what happened. They were developed under government subsidy—procurement. Most of the creative, risky work was undertaken essentially by the public, at public expense, which means it was undertaken by the government. Corporations didn't want to do that. They didn't want to undertake risky, costly endeavors. They'd rather have the public do that. Then they can pick up the results and market them for profit. That's the way our system works. If you have an iPad, for example, and you take it apart and ask where the pieces and components were developed, they were developed almost entirely within the state system. If you're talking pharmaceuticals, chances are the basic research was done by a government laboratory or a university at public expense. The private corporations then pick up the results and market them for profit.
In the case of computers it's pretty striking: The first marketable, personal computers in the late 70s came about after almost 40 years of research and development, which created the technology at public expense. One of the peculiarities, if you'd like, of our system of innovation and development is that it's radically anti-capitalist in many ways. For one thing, so much of the risky, creative work is done at public expense and also because it violates the capitalist principle that if you invest in something and there's profit made, then you get a share of the profit. People who paid taxes in the 50s and 60s may not have known it, but they were creating what was ultimately marketed by Apple. But they don't get any of the profit.
I think that's a social pathology and the same carries over into space.
The right way to explore space is with robots, which is now done. So why did it start with a man in space? Just for political reasons.
The cost of entry is so high for space, and arguably for science as well, that the general public seems to be excluded from partaking right from the start. In that light, what can really be done to reclaim the commons of space?
CHOMSKY: If you look at the whole history of the space program, a lot of things of interest were discovered, but it was done in a way that sort of ranges from misleading to deceitful. So what was the point of putting a man on the moon? A person is the worst possible instrument to put in space: you have to keep them alive, which is very complex, there are safety procedures, and so on. The right way to explore space is with robots, which is now done. So why did it start with a man in space? Just for political reasons.
KRAUSS: Of course we should [pressure the government to divert more funds to space programs]. But again, if you ask me if we should appropriate funds for the human exploration of space, than my answer is probably not. Unmanned space exploration, from a scientific perspective is far more important and useful. If we're doing space exploration for adventure, then it's a totally different thing. But from a scientific perspective, we should spend the money on unmanned space exploration.
CHOMSKY: John F. Kennedy made it a way of overcoming the failure of the Bay of Pigs and the fact that the Russians in some minor ways had gotten ahead of us, even though the American scientists understood that that wasn't true. So you had to have a dramatic event, like a man walking on the moon. There's not very much point to have a man walking on the moon except to impress people.
As soon as the public got bored with watching some guy stumble around on the moon, those projects were ended. Then space exploration began as a scientific endeavor. Things continue to develop like this to a large extent. Take, again, the development of computers. That was presented under the rubric of defense. The Pentagon doesn't say, 'We're taking your tax money so that maybe your grandson can have an iPad.' What they say is, 'We're defending ourselves from the Russians.' What we're actually doing is seeing if we can create the cutting edge of the economy.
How large of an influence do you think private interest has had on research and development in the university setting?
CHOMSKY: I know of no serious study, but there is a general awareness that corporate funding tends to be more short-term, narrowly focused and applied than government or other institutional funding. It wouldn't be surprising if people exaggerate the private role. When you buy a computer, medicine, et cetera, you see what private corporations have added, not the long period of basic research that underlies the applications for the market.
Climate science is becoming increasingly integral to the survival of our species. It's probably one of the most ostensible areas where private and government interest can be seen influencing the results of the science being done. Do you see any hope that private interests will eventually swing around and at least try to capitalize on sustainable technologies, or are we going to profiteer on unsustainable development until we begin to extinguish ourselves as a species?
CHOMSKY: The signs are not auspicious. Scientists are in general agreement that most fossil fuels must remain in the ground if there is to be hope of decent survival. The energy corporations are devoting vast resources to extraction of everything possible, while new areas are being opened to extraction and governments are subsidizing them at a rate of over $5 trillion a year, according to a recent IMF study. The rest depends on us.
Both Arizona State University and MIT have a robust relationship with the military and defense sectors. As faculty members who have received funding from institutions, such as the Department of Defense, that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, how do you ensure that these interests don't skewer your academic work?
CHOMSKY: For MIT, which received enormous military funding, the matter was studied carefully by a faculty-student commission, called the Pounds Commission. I was a member and the records are public. The findings accorded with my own experience at a lab that was 100 percent funded by the military and was probably the leading academic center of organized resistance—not protest, but resistance—against the Vietnam war. MIT administered two military labs. On campus, there was no indication of military influence on research or teaching. That's quite true generally. Department of Defense funding has been directed, commonly, to the long-term development of the economy, such as the IT revolution. It's risky, innovative and creative research in science and technology over a long period. When the outcomes are marketable, they are handed over to private corporations for application and profit. It is to a large extent a system of public subsidy and private profit.
Is 'academic freedom' in the sciences a contradiction in that case?
KRAUSS: There's the academic freedom not to take the money! In my experience, there have been many times where communities have said they will not take money from the military. There is a long history in the physics community, for example, of saying we will not take money for Star Wars. We thought it was misguided, physically ridiculous and we would not accept money for it, no matter what Ronald Reagan wanted to put money into. The scientific community has to be upfront about these things and say they are ill-conceived [if in fact they are].
There is no doubt people chase existing forms of money. I'm not too worried about that because normally even people who accept money from the military will give an argument for why they accepted money from the military, but they're really doing the research they wanted to do anyway. They'll often tailor their research proposals to what they think the interests of the donor are, but they ultimately end up doing what they wanted to do. Now to some extent, the availability of money in certain areas does skew the research that's done, but I don't see any way around that. It's unfortunate, but a fact of life.
To wrap up, then: The public is largely uninformed, the government is militarizing everything, and new space companies see the final frontier as a gold mine. This is a rather dire state of affairs. How can we engage the public more actively to democratize science and space exploration?
CHOMSKY: It can be achieved by the same means that yield informed participation by the public in their own affairs in other domains. For anyone who believes in democracy, this is necessary.
KRAUSS: There's no magic bullet, but you try to interest people by making the science more interesting and going to where they are. You try to get people to realize that it's an important part of their life, even if they didn't think it was and get them interested in things that they previously thought were esoteric, boring or difficult. It's a long job and you have to start it early on, investing more money in teachers, et cetera. It's partly [on the shoulders of] academics but also on the government to try to encourage support for hiring qualified teachers and paying them adequately so they choose not to go into industry, but rather teach.