A new report by the Arizona Arts, Sciences, and Technology Academy (AASTA) found that research in astronomy, planetary sciences, and space sciences (APSS) pumped over $250 million into Arizona’s economy in 2006 alone.

That's real money but it's not all balloons and ponies for Arizona. There are threats to that economic engine and it's what you can probably guess - the instability of federal funding and competition from other locations - but it's also things you might not guess, like light pollution from residential and commercial development and lingering memories of environmental and political activism.

Arizona became popular for space science because fully one third of the evenings each year have no clouds. Another one third have only a few. High mountains and the natural transparency that result from a dry climate added to the benefit for astronomers.

Arizona light pollution map demonstrates how the effects of light pollution
spread far from the source of the lighting in cities.  Credit: Cinzano, P. et al. 2000,
provided by Arizona Arts, Sciences, and Technology Academy.

Between 1955 and 1985, an astronomy boom took place in Arizona but during that time a residential boom was happening as well. Light pollution began to degrade the value of sites outside the larger metropolitan areas. Then environmental activism, which like astronomy had a boom during the 1980s, began to attack proposed observatory projects [1]. In recent years, astronomers have instead pursued friendlier locations like Chile and Hawaii. That's bad news for science advocates in the state but not unexpected.

There's no question business communities and state and local governments want to be friendly toward science investment but if a location in Chile or Hawaii also has a population with a friendlier culture regarding astronomy, why not go there instead?

Mt. Graham observatory and the Large Binocular Telescope is the perfect example of the challenges Arizona faces. Political and environmental activism, responsible for bad things as well as good, really went overboard. Obscure claims like the observatory would destroy 10 percent of the "best" habitat of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel [2] and wreak havoc on the esteem of native Americans who had ancestors buried elsewhere on the mountain were impossible to defend against.

It didn't seem to matter that cottages and man-made lakes were already there. Everyone was told an observatory two miles up would wreck the neighborhood, karmically speaking.

No one wanted to see the unique "sky island" ecology [2] of Mt. Graham ruined by an observatory - few people care more about the ecology of the sky than astronomers - but building somewhere else would have meant new roads, with even more environmental impact, along with lousy visibility.

So Arizona faces a real uphill battle to maintain its position, not just because federal funding is fickle but because there's a real alternative solution that environmental and political activists don't consider; Hawaii and Chile and other places that are not superior to Arizona in any way except that they are not going to put legal and cultural roadblocks in the way. There are a lot of places with less visibility that want the kind of white collar high-tech economy that science brings. You know when you make Hawaiians seem friendly, you really have a hostile climate.

It could become a situation where interest in protecting increasingly narrow special interests impacts the good of everyone. Activists who think that a protest in one economic area simply means that something else can take its place are being naive. They don't realize how hard businesses and communities work to bring in large projects that add name recognition and revenue - and how much competition there is for big projects.

So here are a few reasons why astronomy should be the friend of Arizona residents:

1) We discussed $250 million but it doesn't hurt to mention it again.

2) Astronomy is a clean industry. It doesn't involve factories or belching smokestacks or low-skill workers.

3) People in astronomy tend to be both educated and above-average in income. Every demographic study shows these two things are key in having low crime and better schools.

4) Observatories need light ordinances. Light pollution is insidious but very real. Light pollution wastes billions of dollars in revenue and the natural resources needed to generate electricity.

The burning of natural resources also impacts air pollution and wildlife. Observatories provide an income incentive to have less light. Environmentalists can feel good that an observatory will restrict urban growth without damaging the economy.

5) Unless you are on the Antarctic Plateau, observatories are located in nice places to live. People from all over the world will want to visit. They spend money and become part of the culture and they take some of that culture back with them when they leave. Any US state is competing with other states and regions all over the world for attention - an observatory puts a location on the map, scientifically.

These five points speak volumes about a value to science that goes well beyond simple dollars and cents, not just in Arizona but in any location that wants to migrate from heavy industry to a cleaner economy.

Astronomy in Arizona is not dead yet. Arizona still has the largest solar telescope in the world - that is, until the new one being built in Hawaii goes into service - but as is the case in any business, it requires a lot more effort to get customers to return than to keep them in the first place.

If I were governor of Arizona, I would devote some of that $250 million to scientific awareness campaigns - and I would never again underestimate the public relations impact 200 squirrels can have if not managed properly.

The Economic Impact of Astronomy, Planetary and Space Science Research in Arizona, Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy (AASTA), January 15, 2008


[1] M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Long, Sad Saga of Mount Graham: Astronomers and environmentalists ought to be allies, but in Arizona they're at each other's throats; the story of how things got to this point is a lesson in how not to handle controversy, Science 22 June 1990: Vol. 248. no. 4962, pp. 1479 - 1481 DOI: 10.1126/science.248.4962.1479

[2] Mount Graham threatens science without humanity, Sraddha P. Helfrich, The Minnesota Daily, October 1, 2002