Alan Steinberg, a post doctorate fellow in political science at Sam Houston State University, conducted a study surrounding the vexing problem of how to motivate more people to support increased levels of funding for NASA. In an October 14, 2013 piece in The Space Review, Steinberg announced the results of a study conducted with a group of college students.
Steinberg’s approach was based on the findings of a study by Roger Launius conducted in the late 1990s that suggested that the American public believe that NASA spending takes up about 20 percent of the federal budget. It has in fact never exceeded four percent, which it enjoyed at the height of the Apollo program, and is currently about .5 percent. Steinberg was testing a notion advanced by Neil deGrasse Tyson that if people knew the true size of NASA’s budget they would be more likely to support increasing it.
“As part of a larger survey administered at the University of Houston in two waves, November of 2011 and June of 2012, college students were initially asked to identify their feeling towards the current level of federal spending on NASA as either ‘too much,’ ‘about right,’ or ‘not enough.’ These were coded –1, 0, and 1 respectively. Initially, 84 respondents felt that spending was too much, 219 about right, and 126 not enough. The initial mean level of support for all respondents was 0.098 with a standard deviation of 0.0693.
“Subjects were then asked to identify NASA’s budget as a percentage of the federal budget. They were given these choices: 0.1%, 0.5%, 1%, 5%, 10% and 25%. In the initial round of assessment, 294 respondents (68.4 percent) overestimated NASA’s budget as a percent of the federal budget by at least double the actual value, of which 224 respondents (52.1 percent) overestimated NASA’s actual budget by at least tenfold. This implies that people think NASA is getting a much larger slice of the federal pie than it actually is. While these findings are as expected, the question becomes, what can be done about it?
“Survey respondents were later told the words Neil deGrasse Tyson has said time and time again: ‘NASA’s budget is currently 0.6 percent of the federal budget, i.e., about half a penny per tax dollar.’ Following this fact they were then asked how they felt about the current level of federal spending on NASA using the same metrics. In this post-treatment round 61 respondents felt space spending was too much, 206 about right, and 162 not enough. The post treatment mean was 0.237 with a standard deviation of 0.682.”
The results clearly show a significant shift away from believing that NASA spends too much money toward the belief that it doesn’t spend enough. The conclusion is that anyone who suggests more spending for NASA in order to do things like send human astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars must also educate the public about the true size of NASA spending.