The Great Space Debate: neoliberalism wins…

I recently observed “The Great Space Debate,” a public high-school debate competition put on by the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues. The team I was rooting for lost.

This year’s debate topic was: “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.” Earlier in the school year I’d been contacted by a few students who had come across some of my publications on the history of and rationales for space exploration.

In “The Great Space Debate” (April 13 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.), the team that argued the negative offered a critique of neoliberal* arguments for investing in a national space program. The panel of judges found their arguments lacking. I did not. (More on the judges below…)

Lauren Loper and Stephanie Jimenez of the Dallas, TX, Urban Debate Alliance, argued in the affirmative that expanding the U.S. space program is vital to the U.S. economic future: “Space exploration challenges the human mind,” and greater investments in the space program will improve science, technology, and math (STEM) education and stimulate innovation, thereby improving economic strength and competitiveness. For every dollar spent on the space program, the U.S. economy gets many more dollars back. Commercial “spinoffs” of technologies developed for space exploration justify larger investments in the space program. Space infrastructure development is vital to maintaining the U.S. image abroad as “a global hegemonic power.” And increasing investment in the space program would also be an incentive to pursue greater international cooperation in space, which would help the United States maintain its hegemonic position.

Darian Murray and Corwin Jones of the Baltimore, MD, Urban Debate League argued in the negative: Expanding the space program is not “vital” to the U.S. economic future; rather, it will hurt it. If we spend more, the national deficit will grow. What’s vital to the U.S. future are investments that benefit everyone, with education and jobs. It’s more important to help high school dropouts land jobs than to create more STEM jobs for college graduates. “Instead of investing in NASA to inspire students, we need to invest in our [K-12] schools.” And U.S. leadership “is not always a good thing…. The U.S. doesn’t need to lead everything.” NASA tech spinoffs are overstated, and the trickledown argument for investing in the space program is a “false ideology.”

In the current environment, the Baltimore team’s arguments make more sense to me. For more than 25 years I’ve heard space advocates make the education-and-innovation argument, and I find it less convincing today than I did 25 years ago. NASA’s annual budget is $18 billion, and U.S. student performance still lags behind many other countries (especially in STEM disciplines). And I’m not at all convinced that NASA is the engine of innovation that current and past administrations have claimed it to be. More disturbing is the Dallas team’s argument that the pursuit of global hegemonic power is desirable. I find it problematic, at the very least. According to Merriam-Webster, hegemony is “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group.” To me, hegemony conveys the idea of imperial dominance. Gramsci’s conception of cultural hegemony is more relevant in this case, and here’s a brief but accurate distillation provided by Wikipedia: “Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintain[s] control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie bec[o]me the ‘common sense‘ values of all.”

The panel of 14 judges favored the Dallas team’s neoliberal argument, by a vote of 10 to 4. Among the 14 were five government and corporate officials in the national security sector (all male), three government and corporate attorneys (all male), two museum curators (female), and three educators (female). I’d love to know how the vote broke down….

I know, I know, it was just a debate. The debaters train to argue both the affirmative and the negative for their assigned topic. What they argue for is not necessarily what they believe. But these are high-school students…. I worry….

In a recent issue of Social Studies of Science,** STS*** scholars Rebecca Lave, Philip Murowski, and Samuel Randall urge fellow STS scholars “to undertake a detailed exploration of exactly how the external political-economic forces of neoliberalism are transforming technoscience.” I hope the Baltimore debaters can sustain their critique of “space neoliberalism.” Somebody needs to do it.

* Neoliberalism, a la Friedrich von Hayek, frames “the market as the central agent in human society, and thus shift government focus from public wel­fare to market creation and protection.” (See “Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science,” p. 660)

** “Introduction: STS and Neoliberal Science,” Vol. 40, #5, pp. 659-675, 2010

** Science, technology, and society