Sensors Mag

Fits and Starts

October 25, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors


E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

When I was little, I'd hang out with my father and ask him, "How can we do this?" and "Why does that happen?" These were not philosophical questions. They were about my observed world. If Dad didn't have a ready answer, he'd say the magic words: "Let's Find Out!" I wish our country would get (back) into discovery mode.

Science and Engineering in Fits and Starts

We tend to think of science and engineering as chugging along, day by day and year by year, building on what's happened or what's been discovered previously. Daily progress of a reliable sort. But there have been periods of near-quiescence, some as recently as the twentieth century. One of those ended quite suddenly in the 1930s. Think Germany. Think rocketry. Another slump lasted into the 1950s, when Sputnik caught a lot of people with their pants down. The Cold War kept the nuclear weapons business busy to be sure, but nothing approaching the enormous influence of the transistor came out of it. I cannot think of the luminous record of Bell Labs without becoming nostalgic for a time before mine. When Ma Bell was dismembered, more than an adjudged monopoly vanished.

The Next Semiconductor?

Think for a bit—what device born of engineering brilliance has knocked you down lately? Engineering is scientific theory made tangible. Are scientists and engineers growing lazy and dim? No, they are not. So where's the news coming from? Mostly from extremely cool applications of what's already out there. And wireless ways to communicate. But can those give us an everlasting buzz?

What's happening is two-pronged: There's less government funding (from the National Science Foundation, for example) for both pure science and engineering research that can't guarantee a specific outcome. And that's the second prong too. Moreover, that specific outcome has to agree with certain national priorities. DARPA's 2007 Grand Challenge, in which autonomous vehicles will have to navigate the streets of some yet-to-be-selected city, might not offer the $2 M prize awarded to this year's winners. The new defense spending budget has jeopardized that purse, but the winners are still assured of lovely parting gifts in the form of trophies presented by DARPA Director Tony Tether himself.

Who Has to Eat??

Short answer: We all do. If your job is to make a better pencil sharpener, then that's what you'll do. Here's where the picture gets darker, though. Let's look at a recent turnabout in our national space policy. In 1996 its first goal, as stated, was to "Enhance knowledge of the Earth, the solar system and the universe." Sounds like pure curiosity to me. But now that goal is to "further U.S. national security, homeland security and foreign policy objectives." The shift is not subtle.

And so we're focusing on who's trying to slip over our borders (including confused migrating wildlife) while canceling plans for Earth-orbiting satellites that would add to our knowledge of weather systems and their likely consequences, ways to predict earthquakes, the behavior of our deserts, global precipitation, Earth-emitted heat, and soil moisture patterns.

The 2007 budget currently offered to NASA is up by 3.2%; that new $16.8 billion sum will boost science funding by a miserable 1.5% next year and by 1% for each ensuing year until 2010. Finishing the International Space Station and sending shuttles up to tend it have already laid the long shadow of a $4 billion budgetary shortfall.

Universities and North Korea

As the grants shrink, recipient unversities—most of which predate the government-run research labs—have begun to snap up more and more of the dollars as "overhead expenses." The upshot is bound to be that the purpose of getting grants is to keep getting them. Keeping this flow active requires promises to the grantor that a particular result will be forthcoming within a particular time frame. Such acrobatics hardly encourage doing research just to see what you find out.

Help might be on the way, if you consider North Korea's entry into the nuclear nations. It could be another boot in the tail that could reactivate at least one dormant discipline, which would be ways to detect nuclear threats on their way over here and ways to respond to them. And engineering will lurch forward again, with a specified directive.

This country, in theory at least, can financially support both pure scientific investigation and the tinkering that some engineers, given open time at their desks, labs, or napkins would put to good use by devising something of universal good. Superconducting electric lines are a good place to begin.

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