Molly K. Macauley


Movie, book, and fan club data show that Star Trek and Star Wars have over 30 million followers.  I’m not one of them.

And yet, I spend a lot of time thinking about “out there” – space.  I think of space as not just a place, but also a pretty important natural resource subject to scarcity, just like water, air, the oceans, and our forests.  Space also is increasingly experiencing the effects of congestion and pollution.  And, because it is an inherently global resource, these problems are international in their scope…

Resources for the Future (RFF) has enabled me to apply the concepts and practical solutions that it has pioneered in addressing scarcity, congestion, and pollution.  The issues confronting domestic and international space are fundamentally the same and can be addressed using RFF’s “toolkit.”

In keeping with RFF’s 50th anniversary year, it’s interesting to recall that RFF actually pioneered innovative research in the economics of space.  RFF-sponsored research in the early 1970s led to the publication of The Invisible Resource: Use and Regulation of the Radio Spectrum, by economics professor Harvey Levin.  In the foreword, Joseph Fisher, then president of RFF, wrote: “When it was suggested to RFF’s Board of Directors… that it approve a grant in support of research for the work that has now resulted in this book, one of the directors suggested that, while the matter was really quite ‘far out,’ it was proper for a nonprofit research organization to make ‘venture capital’ available for such a purpose.”

Levin concluded that market-like mechanisms, rather than administrative hearings, would better allocate the increasingly crowded electromagnetic spectrum, or airwaves, to their myriad uses (ranging from radio, TV, and everyday telecommunications to wildlife tracking, astronomy, garage door openers, and national defense).

Levin’s research paved the way for a change of heart at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which in early 1995 conducted its first auctions of portions of the spectrum.  By 1997, auctions had brought in more than $22 billion and, more important, according to the Economic Report of the President for that year, the auctions got spectrum “quickly into the hands of service providers” and “rapidly promoted the use of innovative, advanced telecommunication technologies throughout the country.”

Years later, RFF funded my research on the use of economic approaches to managing another space-related resource, the nation’s space transportation infrastructure, which consists of both government-owned resources (the space shuttle) and privately owned resources (conventional unmanned rockets).  The research pointed out the advantages of granting vouchers to space scientists involved in astronomy, astrophysics, and other disciplines to enable them to choose their most appropriately sized and cost-effective form of space transportation for their payloads, rather than have government bureaucrats make this decision for them.  In 1997, the U.S. Congress included a demonstration program for space transportation vouchers in its appropriations bill for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Much of the inspiration, as well as practical details in my work, were inspired by Levin’s research.

The field of space economics and policy has grown from one or two economists during Levin’s career to include scholars at Cal Tech, MIT, the Wharton School, and other institutions.  I deeply appreciate the home that RFF has given me for space research, and the rich research environment that RFF offers for learning about and applying its legacy of theoretical, empirical, and policy contributions to one of our relatively new frontiers.

Molly K. Macauley is a senior fellow at RFF.

Resources, Summer 2002 (Resources for the Future)