Saturday, April 09, 2005

Our Incredible Shrinking Curiosity

An op-ed about the US turn away from basic science by Rick Weiss in the Washington Post makes depressing reading, but its points are important.

"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 dominant force 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..."

"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..."

"[T]the second, less practical -- yet arguably more important -- reason to support such endeavors [is] 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..."

"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."

See also Peter Harsha's comments in the CRA policy blog.



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