Wednesday, April 13, 2005

U.S. Scientific Enterprise Fading Fast!

Our Incredible Shrinking Curiosity

By Rick Weiss

The Washington Post

     "Bones, there's a -- thing -- out there," Captain James T. Kirk says to starship physician Leonard McCoy in the 1979 film, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." That "thing," it turns out, is a huge cloud of intelligence with some kind of object at its core -- an object that calls itself "Veeger."

     "Veeger" -- actually "V . . . ger" -- proves to be the spacecraft Voyager, launched from Earth some 300 years earlier. The letters "oya" have been obscured by space grime so that the computerized device has long ago forgotten its full name. But like the ultimate Timex watch, it is still ticking.

     For centuries, the spacecraft has been following its simple instructions: Observe and record everything you find. In the process it has become, in Mr. Spock's words, "a highly advanced mentality" that cannot stop "evolving, learning, searching."

     I rented the movie again last week after learning that NASA was poised to pull the funding plug on the real Voyagers --    two VW Beetle-sized packages of instruments that have been sending streams of data back to Earth since 1977 and that are now at the outer reaches of our solar system. Corny as the movie is, it left me depressingly convinced that these 8 billion-mile-long extensions of human curiosity are indeed now smarter, or at least more enlightened, than the mortals who made them.

     After all, can it be anything but foolish to turn a deaf ear to the most distant human-made objects in the universe -- devices that after nearly three decades of travel are now registering and describing for us the first ripples of interstellar space?

     It would be less disheartening if the move to kill the Voyager program were an isolated example. But the U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research -- the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn't know exactly where it's going but so often leads to big payoffs. In discipline after discipline, the demand for specific products, profits or outcomes -- "deliverables," in the parlance of government -- has become the dominantforce driving research agendas. Instead of being exploratory and expansive, science -- especially in the wake of 9/11 -- seems increasingly delimited and defensive.

     Take, for example, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- arguably the nation's premier funder of unencumbered scientific exploration, whose early dabbling in computer network design gave rise to the Internet. Agency officials recently acknowledged to Congress that they were shifting their focus away from blue-sky research and toward goal-oriented and increasingly classified endeavors.

     Similarly, in geology, scientists have for years sought funds to blanket the nation with thousands of sensors to create an enormous, networked listening device that might teach us something about how the earth is shifting beneath our feet. The system got so far as to be authorized by Congress for $170 million over five years, but only $16 million has been appropriated in the first three of those years and just 62 of an anticipated 7,000 sensors have been deployed. Only in fiscal 2006, thanks to the South Asian tsunami, is the program poised to get more fully funded -- out of a narrow desire to better predict the effects of such disasters here.

     The Department of Energy in February announced it is killing the so-called BTeV project at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., one of the last labs in this country still supporting studies in high-energy physics. This field, once dominated by the United States, promises to discover in the next decade some of the most basic subatomic particles in the universe, including the first so-called supersymmetric particle -- a kind of stuff that seems to account for the vast majority of matter in the universe but which scientists have so far been unable to put their fingers on.

     "We seem to have reached a point where people are so overwhelmed by the problems we face, we're not sure we really need more frontiers," said Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noting that the only segments of the nation's research and development budget enjoying real growth are defense and homeland security. The National Science Foundation in particular, the nation's premier supporter of physical sciences research and science education, has suffered repeated cuts in recent years and now demands that grantees spell out in unprecedented detail how and when their proposed work will pay off.

     Why should we care about this demand for results before the research begins? Isn't exploration for exploration's sake a luxury? Money is tight. Terrorists are trying to kill us. And what's a supersymmetric particle going to do for me, anyway?

     First, there are practical reasons to care. At least half of this nation's economic growth during the past half century has been the direct result of scientific innovation, according to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a coalition of two dozen organizations from industry and academia concerned about America's declining leadership in science and engineering.

     Examples abound. Early research on DNA splicing in bacteria unexpectedly gave rise to the biotechnology industry, a huge economic engine that launched today's golden age of biology and medicine. Unfettered studies of electronics at places like the old Bell Laboratories gave the world transistors, lasers and the basic information theory that led to computer networking. Albert Einstein often said that his work on the general theory of relativity was too arcane to ever have any practical application. Yet without it we would not have the global positioning satellite system that today tells our cars -- and the military's "smart" bombs -- where they are and where they need to go.

     John Bahcall, a professor of natural science at Princeton's
Institute for Advanced Study, tells the story of Michael Faraday, the 19th-century
scientist, who, when asked by skeptics about the value of his recent discovery of electricity, is said to have replied, "What is the value of a newly born baby?" Faraday "certainly had no anticipation of television or that you could send electrical signals on the Internet," Bahcall said. "But he knew that when you found something fundamental, it was going to be valuable fundamentally."

     But what about Voyager 1 and 2, which scientists say can probably keep operating until 2020? What good are they? Sure, their instruments have sent back 5 trillion bits of data and 80,000 pictures, including spectacular close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and astonishing details from various moons -- 22 of which were previously undiscovered. Yes, they've been detecting the impacts of solar flares at the very edge of the sun'sinfluence and are sensing for the first time what the rest of the universe is made of. But how in the world are we going to take that to the bank?

     Well, maybe we won't. But that raises the second, less practical -- yet arguably more important -- reason to support such endeavors: Because our understanding of the world and our support of the quest for knowledge for knowledge's sake is a core measure of our success as a civilization. Our grasp, however tentative, of what we are and where we fit in the cosmos should be a source of pride to all of us. Our scientific achievements are a measure of ourselves that our children can honor and build upon.

     What happened to the unbridled and fearless thirst for knowledge that inspired us, as a species and as a nation, to hurl those Voyager probes free of the physical and psychological gravity of our little world? What happened to the trait that, according to Mr. Spock, was the driving force behind Veeger's immense accumulation of knowledge: "Insatiable curiosity."

     Crouched today in a defensive posture, we are suffering from a lack of confidence and a shriveled sense of the optimism that once urged us to reach boldly into the unknown. Equally important, we seem to have forgotten that many good things come just from being open to them, without a formed idea of what they are or how they should come out. We are losing, in short, one of the oldest traditions in science: to simply observe, almost monk-like, with an open mind and without a plan.

     Twenty years ago, I heard a recording of astronaut Rusty Schweickart that, more than anything I have since heard or read, brought this truth home to me. Schweickart described a spacewalk he once took while orbiting the Earth. He was clipped to a tether, floating in space, and his job was to take pictures. But the camera had malfunctioned, giving him a rare few minutes with nothing to do while Mission Control tried to figure out what was wrong. And so for the first time, he actually took in -- on a personal and emotional level -- the almost incomprehensible reality of where he was: in outer space, on the end of a rope, the farthest human being from Earth.

     At that moment he had an epiphany about what an immense
privilege it was for him to be there -- and what a huge responsibility he carried to report back to the world what he was seeing and feeling. So he looked. And he listened. He tried to understand. He gazed down on the brilliant green and blue marble that was home and appreciated that everything he had ever known -- all art, all history, all human emotion -- was just a tiny part of a greater universe yet to be known. He committed himself to inspiring others to cherish that planet and pursue that unknown.

     Today the Voyager spacecrafts are giving us an even longer view, sending us the first snapshots of our solar system from the outside in. Are we too busy, scared or broke to listen? Or will we look back at the universe with the humility that knows there is still something to learn, the curiosity to pursue it and the commitment to make some good of it?

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