Saturday, July 29, 2006

What happened to "Big Science"?

[Note: this essay is something I blurted out in reply to a Slashdot article. It is by no means a comprensive answer to the question I came up with as a title for this post; a question that seems to be roughly what I was trying to address when I wrote the following:]

What happened, as best I can tell, is that shortsighted corporate
executives forgot that (applied) R&D rarely produces new fundamental
knowledge about the universe while that is the main goal of pure
research. A lot of great research is done when true scientists are
given a budget that has already been written off by the bean counters,
as IBM and (the old AT&T's) Bell Labs demonstrated many times.

The problem is that such research tends to be very expensive and
non-geeks just aren't interested in results they can't understand.
The only reason we have nuclear power today is that the United States
was willing to spare no expense to develop a bigger and better bomb in
order to win WWII quickly an decisively. Nazi Germany sponsored a lot
of good science and then took some of the results with military
potential and did a tremendous amount of R&D to create amazing new
military technologies...tech that just happens to have had amazing
commercial potential. Jet aircraft and booster rockets come to mind.

You will hear NASA fans gripe because now that the Cold War is over,
NASA has to justify whatever it does to the drones in government who
get paid to eliminate government waste. NASA is no longer a great
source of new scientific and technical knowledge, but it probably
could be again. So could a lot of private enterprises if NASA and
other parts of the U.S. government didn't have a practical monopoly on
many interesting areas of research.

For major research projects to get significant funding now, they
either have to have tremendous (and fairly obvious) commercial
potential, or be extremely trendy, in a politically correct sort of
way. No expense (to the taxpayers) is spared protecting "endangered
species" that (AFAIK) have no real significance except that they are
about to succumb to Darwin's Law -- despite all the bleating of the
ecowackos, wasting money on the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is not going
to produce new knowledge or improve the chances of Man surviving
another century. Having plentiful, cheap sources of energy would.

But try to get money on the scale of the Manhattan Project for the
purpose of finally developing nuclear fusion power plants... That is
not by any means pure research, but the amount of pure research that
can only be done with the kind of energy a large fusion plant could
produce is staggering. But why stop with fusion? Total conversion
seems about as likely to be a practical source of energy now as
utilizing light pipes and orbital spacecraft as the backbone of a
worldwide communications network did during WWII.

Do you think the U.S. might have fusion power plants online and/or
total conversion reactors in the lab by now if such projects had
received oh, say $100 BILLION dollars in additional research funding
since WWII? That's a Big Pile O' Money! It also happens to be
roughly what the U.S. has wasted on handouts to Israel since that
nation was created by fiat in 1948. Why not just cut all foreign aid
for non-humanitarian purposes (Israel gets only about 1/3 of the
U.S.'s foreign aid largess, after all) and use the proceeds to fund a
pure research lab or ten that are operated by private sector
organizations that have track records of doing cutting edge research
and producing useful knowledge?

Stop real government waste and use the savings to fund hard science
research projects that short-sighted bean counters consider waste
because they know no better, ignorant touchy-feely nitwits in search
of warm fuzzies and/or vote generating pork-barrel projects that they
are.

[You can see my rant sort of fizzled out at the end -- I am constantly irked by the sort of lame but very PC research that gets government funding. I want to see more funding for the sort of research that expands human knowledge in new directions, regardless of whether or not it will result in anything that should be patentable (note the wording -- a lot of crap gets patented today that shouldn't be.) But I digress...]

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