Here is a relatively civil debate between Neil Tyson and Jian Ghomeshi:
In the next Q, a listener's e-mail was read that accused Neil Tyson of having watched too much Star Trek as a kid and that we should focus on the "problems we face here on Earth."
A few years ago, when Stephen Hawking mentioned the importance of having missions to Mars to work on colonization because of the population growth of the world he was ridiculed with people saying things like "I think we should focus on the things we can do on Earth" (sometimes with a smug, "obviously, this guy is crazy" look on their faces).
I am not really sure what drives this cynicism about space research, other than perhaps a profound misunderstanding of how progress happens in science and technology, and perhaps also the lack of understanding of the source of the "problems here on Earth".
1) Research is a sort of networked good. The more nodes and links you can create between those nodes, the more valuable each node (an the whole network) becomes. So funding research on the "most important problems we face" is a little like saying lets focus on putting telephones in only the "most important" houses, or only allow the "most important" computers to connect to the internet. This is foolishness.
2) The economic "payback" from research is unpredictable. Who in their right mind would put all their money in one stock instead of creating a diversified portfolio? Research payback, I would say, is even more volatile than stocks. Logic would suggest you create a very diverse portfolio just based on this (but even this is less important than the fact that research is a networked good).
3) Pretty much all the major problems we face "here on Earth" come from the fact "here on Earth" we have limited land on which to live on, grow food on, work on, produce energy on, etc. while the number of people on Earth continues to grow.
I believe research directly in healthcare, energy, biotech, etc. are very important (that is why I am making a career switch into bio).
But if you believe that the "solutions" offered by these research avenues will address the limited-land-for-growing-population problem in a long-term manner, you are sorely mistaken.
The logic of this seems pretty clear. Either you need to get more land/living space/growing space from somewhere (and terraforming oceans here on Earth, with all the implications of that , is the only way we can do this on Earth) or we have to stop the population growth.
Stopping population growth means making decisions about who lives and who dies, who is allowed to have children, and that sort of thing. If you believe that this is actually an easier route than space-exploration and colonizing the moon or mars...well, I think it is clear we have different moral frameworks.
4) The immediacy of when the land issue is going to be a problem is lost on some. Many of the estimates I have come across say about four decades. In four decades, the shortage of resources here on Earth are going to have incredibly dystopian effects on the global society. Already, nations are buying up huge tracts of land in other nations to secure their own agricultural and energy needs (obviously at the expense of the long term needs of nations whose land was bought).
I am not sure why I thought about this at 4:30 AM, but I have insomnia. Perhaps the world's problems actually keep me up at night.
So, any thoughts?