Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The Invention of Tomorrow is Absent Today”

On The Dylan Ratigan Show, renowned astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planitarium Neil deGrasse Tyson called for a major rethinking and reinvestment — not only for America’s space program, but an entire revaluation of making science, research and technology in our country a priority on a national level.  He said this has to happen in order to reignite a culture of innovation that would reverberate from government laboratories to middle school science classes.

“The point is, it’s not just ‘are we in space,’ it’s ‘are we advancing the space frontier?’ Because when you advance the space frontier, you have to be able to innovate in the ways you were not able to before. And when you innovate, discoveries are made. Patents are awarded. And new ways of accomplishing things are reached,” Tyson told the Megapanel.

While the rate of change in science and technology is occurring on a rapid and global scale, America has more than a few challenges to address if it wants to remain a player in the global economy.

“It is innovations in science and technology that are the engines of tomorrow’s economy… I am going to tell you that we are sliding into poverty as a nation. And so goes the health of NASA, as goes the health of America and the American economy, is my assertion here,” says Tyson.

“So, NASA’s budget of half a penny of a tax dollar. Double it to a penny. Then we can go to Mars in a big way, have a spaceship ready to deflect that asteroid that’s got our name on it, have tourist jaunts to the moon… there might be geopolitical arguments for all of the above, or none of the above. Space becomes our backyard and everybody engaged in it is innovating. And we have an innovation culture. It’s an investment,” he explained.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, is in bookstores now. Here’s the full conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dylan, and the Megapanel.  The full transcript of the conversation is below.

TRANSCRIPT:

DYLAN: What are the stakes? Obviously we could talk about going to space or not going to space, but you’re making a broader point — that if we do not have a rapidly forward moving culture that values science and technology when our rate of change is high, that we have problems. And I want to know what you think the stakes are.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I have very little to add to what you just said. The point is, it’s not just ‘are we in space,’ it’s ‘are we advancing the space frontier.’ Because when you advance the space frontier, you have to be able to innovate in the ways you were not able to before. And when you innovate, discoveries are made. Patents are awarded. And new ways of accomplishing things are reached. So, there’s the spinoffs of that. We all know about space spinoffs. But more important, when you do this in a big way, it gets writ large in the weekly headlines of what is discovered in space. What are the astronauts doing next?

DYLAN: You think it has some sort of broader cultural impact?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yes! (laughs) Yes! Because when that happens, it spills out into your culture. And all of a sudden, everyone realizes ‘hey, I want to be a scientist or engineer because that’s the frontier I want to participate in.’ And you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer, you could be a journalist or artist, but you start doing more stories about the frontier. And all of a sudden, everyone participates in inventing a tomorrow. It is the invention of tomorrow that is absent today in modern American culture. Tomorrow was everywhere in the 1960’s, wasn’t it? The World’s Fair was all about tomorrow. And who enabled that tomorrow? It is the scientific and technological literacy of a nation that does it. And it’s those innovations that are the engines of the 21st century economy!

DYLAN: And so if you don’t even have a culture that is focused on tomorrow —

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: You slide backwards.

DYLAN: That’s when you’re ready to go to the cave.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: We will fail on the world stage even just by standing still.

ROB COX: I recently was speaking to a middle school class and I asked a few of them what they wanted to be when they grew up. A few said journalists, and I tried very hard to keep them (laughs). But one kid said hedge fund manager, another kid said investment banker, nobody said “astronaut.” Now when I was a kid, it was about becoming an astronaut, right? So what you’re saying it’s about the aspirational culture of invention and innovation that is key to sort of getting us into this new world.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The world needs journalists, and probably needs investment bankers. But not to the exclusion of who invents tomorrow. The investment banker needs somebody to invest in to make tomorrow happen. And it’s going to be the scientists and engineers and the technologists. And one other aspect about NASA that’s unrecognized is that if you look at their portfolio of activities and what fields they reach for — there’s biology, because they look for life on Mars. The chemistry. The aerospace engineering, the mechanical engineering, the electrical engineering.

DYLAN: The sustainability of the environment in general, off the earth.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: You could look at it that way. I’m just talking about general spillage of enthusiasm for what it means to innovate. But if you want to talk about what’s direct, Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect. It’s 900 degrees fahrenheit there. And I calculated, you can cook a 16″ pepperoni pizza in nine seconds on the windowsill…

DYLAN: That’s good! That’s a silver lining! (laughs)

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Good for pizza, bad for people! So, I want to understand what knobs got turned on Venus. Because that’s an important ‘dead planet.’ And something happened there. Mars once had water coursing over it’s surface, and it’s all bone dry now. Meandering riverbeds, dry. River deltas, dry. Flood plains, dry. Dry lake beds, like salt lake in Utah. You see the mineral deposits left from standing water that evaporated. Something bad happened on Mars too, I want to know!

SAM SEDER: I want to come back to that for a second… you mentioned in the sixties it was all about tomorrow.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: In spite of that being a pretty bloody decade.

SAM SEDER: Right. And there’s been a very concerted effort — and I don’t want to get too political here — but there is a cohort of a political party, even amongst the most educated, whose faith in science has actually dropped over the past ten, twenty years. What has accounted for that?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I have an idea — I think it’s because the government has not participated in a big science project where the discoveries are writ large in the weekly papers. In the 1960’s, that community did not exist. Or if they did, they didn’t have a voice. Because discoveries were coming to us —

DYLAN: It was too much a part of the culture!

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: It was too much in the culture! You couldn’t stand in denial about it. Now there’s nothing there to talk about.

SAM SEDER: But, if that was the case, you’d see it across the board. But frankly, there’s a specific political party that is out to demonize science in some ways, to undercut the faith in it —

DYLAN: But don’t you think his point, Sam, about if it was in our face culturally, there wouldn’t be a place for a political party to do this.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: It wouldn’t stand.

DYLAN: It’s the vacuum of the conspicuous science in our culture that creates the opportunity for it to stand.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The vacuum of the conspicuous science in our culture!

DYLAN: Give me a job! (laughs)

IMOGEN LLOYD WEBBER: I want to ask a fun question about Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. What do you make of that? I mean, private money coming into this.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah. But he’s not advancing a space frontier. He’s not leading the charge to Mars. He can’t because it’s expensive with unknown costs and uncertain risks and if you look at those factors, you cannot establish a capital market valuation of that. That’s why governments are the ones that do the big first steps. Once the routines are established, then the private enterprise comes back in. Low earth orbit is no longer a frontier for NASA, so you seed that to the private enterprise. Richard Branson, sure.

DYLAN: So it’s like he’s just filling in the back.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: The back end, where the patents have been awarded, and the risks are understood, and you can get investors for that.

RON COX: But if you want to get to the real problem here — and I’m sorry to be the skeptic here — how do we pay for this? I mean —

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: It’s an investment!

ROB COX: I realize that, but we are not like we were in the sixties. We just aren’t as rich a country. (crosstalk) We have more debt…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Right, we’re multiples richer —

DYLAN: But the point he’s making is an interesting point, which is that our culture right now does not value national investment in science.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: It wouldn’t have to if you posted it in the context of “it is this investment.” It is innovations in science and technology that are the engines of tomorrow’s economy. And so, forget the Discovery. I’ll go because I like to discover, but I’m not going to require that of everybody who supports it. I am going to tell you that we are sliding into poverty as a nation. And so goes the health of NASA, as goes the health of America and the American economy, is my assertion here. So, NASA’s budget of half a penny of a tax dollar. Double it to a penny. Then we can go to Mars in a big way, have a spaceship ready to deflect that asteroid that’s got our name on it, have tourist jaunts to the moon… there might be geopolitical arguments for all of the above, or none of the above. Space becomes our backyard and everybody engaged in it is innovating. And we have an innovation culture. It’s an investment.

DYLAN: But you invent a tomorrow for the despondent culture of today, which is lacking.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And that would reverberate down the halls of the middle schools.

Meg Robertson is a digital producer for DylanRatigan.com.