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Shrinking Curiosity

Entry 161, on 2005-04-18 at 15:15:34 (Rating 2, Science)

This morning I read an article by Rick Weiss which comments on the lessening commitment in the US to fundamental research. The primary issue he was discussing was how NASA is being forced to terminate monitoring the Voyager spacecraft because of a substantial reduction in funding in that area.

The Voyagers were launched in 1977 to explore the outer Solar System, including Jupiter and Saturn. They are now at the outer limits of the Sun's influence, at a distance greater than any other man-made object. They are still returning valuable data on that area of space which isn't available through any other means.

The mission only costs a couple of million a year to run, a tiny fraction of the cost per day of running operations in Iraq, yet funding costs will probably force NASA to stop retrieving this data from a mission which initially cost hundreds of times more. Surely anyone can see that this is an obvious false economy?

Apparently not. The current administration in its blind pursuit of its military and economic objectives doesn't see basic research as a priority. Instead, it sees applied, practical research as more important. And doesn't it have a point? Is it not reasonable in times of trouble, such as we have now with the so-called war against terror, to concentrate on those things which provide an immediate benefit?

There are two reasons that basic research is important. First, it often returns benefits in ways we never imagined and often these benefits would not likely be gained through other, more focussed, types of research. And second, its important that not everything we do is designed to provide an immediate, concrete, or economically advantageous return. There is more to life than maximising the profits of big corporations, and winning wars against innocent groups who are currently unpopular.

Its not just NASA who are feeling the effects of the ignorant attitude in the current US government. High energy physics, geology, and other areas are also being cut. At the same time Bush's administration is waging a war against science by encouraging schools to question the truth of theories such as evolution. No doubt this is due to the demands of the crazy fundamentalist Christians the conservatives are backed by.

So maybe the US is doomed (a theme I have examined elsewhere in my blog) but there is still hope because Europe and other nations seem to be taking over where they have left off.


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