Washington Post science and technology writer Rick Weiss riffs off of the recent news that NASA plans to pull the plug on the Voyager missions to demonstrate that the U.S. support for research has become too mundane — too evolutionary rather than revolutionary, too focused on short-term gains versus long-term results. The two Voyager probes, three decades after being launched on their tour of the outer planets, are now tickling the edge of interstellar space and still sending back data. NASA’s FY 2006 budget request eliminates funding for the Voyager program and a suite of other space probes (total cost savings = $23 million in FY 06) as part of the agency’s effort to refocus on the President’s Moon/Mars initiative — an initiative that has led to significant cuts elsewhere in the agency as well. Unfortunately, the problems aren’t just limited to NASA:
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.
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.