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Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson has long tried to make the point that NASA is only a small fraction of the overall federal budget; does instilling that message in the public make them more willing to support NASA? (credit: J. Foust)

Testing the Neil deGrasse Tyson Effect


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Ask your friends to take a moment to consider how large NASA’s actual budget is. Then, ask them to try to put it in terms as a percent of the federal budget. If your friends are like most people, they will have no idea what NASA’s actual budget is. (Of course, as Space Review readers, you know the answer.)

For the 2012 fiscal year NASA’s budget was $17.8 billion or about 0.5 of one percent of the 2012 federal budget.1 Most people grossly overestimate these values, and this influences their opinion of space spending. This is a major problem for people who want to see NASA’s budget increase, or at the least, remain the same.

For the last few years, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, has been working to correct misperceptions about NASA’s budget as he advocates for increases in space spending. However, this important piece of budgetary information that would be invaluable when forming an opinion on federal NASA spending is still known to only a small subset of the population.

Despite his attempts, the actions of Congress may lead one to believe that the public does not support increased space spending, and that his efforts of educating the public are falling flat. Using a survey experiment of 430 college students, the “Neil deGrasse Tyson effect” was put to the test.

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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s space evangelism works, but perhaps that the message has just not yet reached a sufficient amount of people.

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%.2 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 graph bellow visually represents the changes, where it can be seen that after the treatment a large proportion of the sample changed their opinion, with more people now feeling that federal spending for NASA is not enough. The statistical evidence for the change can be evaluated though a test of the initial and post-treatment values. A calculation of a difference of means test provides t-value of 2.975 and subsequent p-value of 0.003. Therefore, educating respondents on the actual level of NASA’s budget leads to a statistically significant increase in overall support for NASA spending.

chart

This study thus confirms, and the data shows, a 29 percent mean increase for support for additional NASA spending after being individuals are educated on the reality of NASA’s budget as a percentage of the federal budget.3

While this is just one small test, and the sample is limited to college students, respondents in the sample are demographically representative to the public in regards to income and political leanings. This suggests that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s space evangelism works, but perhaps that the message has just not yet reached a sufficient amount of people.

Footnotes

1 According to the Office of Management and Budget, the total 2012 Federal budget was $3,537 Billion and NASA’s budget was $17.8 Billion. For the complete document see: Office of Management and Budget, “Fiscal Year 2014 Budget of the U.S. Government,”; Budget.gov (accessed 3 September 2013).

2 The choices to use these percentages were based upon questions found in prior surveys of NASA budgetary knowledge.

3 Complete data available upon request.


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