New Survey on Government Spending May Actually have Good News for Space Advocates

Commentary by Michael Mackowski


The results of a survey on government spending were released recently and reported in an Associated Press article on March 8. The General Social Survey asked people whether they believe government spending in specific categories is “too much,” “too little” or “about right.” The survey was performed by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation. Using an index based on the difference between the “too much” and “too little” responses, the public’s view on various categories were graded between plus and minus 100, where high values mean more funds should be provided, while negative values indicated the public thinks too much is already being spent in that area.

When asked about space exploration, the result for the index was “-9.0”. Some of the highest rankings went to categories like assistance to the poor (+53.8) and fighting crime (+51.6). Other areas that came in negative were foreign aid (-60.4), welfare payments (-28.5), and defense spending (-6.3). This may sound like bad news for space advocates, but a closer look at the survey trend reveals just the opposite. The “-9.0” is the best score for space exploration since the survey category started in 1973.

The actual responses for 2012 are as follows:

  • Too little 23.2%
  • About right 44.6%
  • Too much 32.2%

The “too little” score is the highest ever. It was only above 20% one other year (1988). The “too much” score is the lowest ever. The “about right” score has been between 39.7 and 49.7 for the last 20 years, typically around 45%. This means that public opinion has been moving in the direction of favoring more government spending on space, even if the overall ranking appears unfavorable.

What is interesting that both foreign aid and space exploration each take up less than one percent of federal spending. The President’s FY2012 budget proposal (reduced even further by the sequester cuts) had NASA at 0.48% of the total federal budget, its second lowest percentage ever. The non-profit group, Penny4NASA, was founded to point this out to people and work to increase the fraction to a level closer to one percent. Past surveys, like one in 2007, found that respondents thought that NASA was getting about one-quarter of the total federal budget.

Can you imagine what the response to this sort of survey on government spending might be if more people actually knew how tiny NASA’s budget is compared to other government agencies? Space advocates need to get this message out in their campaigns, and support the mission of groups like Penny4NASA.


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