It seems to me…
“We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology.” ~ Carl Sagan.
It is difficult to determine which country is best in basic science. As of now, the U.S. publishes more research papers than any other[i] though China, currently ranked third, could surpass the U.S. by as early as next year. At a time when most countries are increasing their investment in science and technology, the U.S. is cutting its budget for Research and Development. U.S. funding for research and development declined as a percentage of gross domestic product by 54 percent in physical sciences and 51 percent in engineering from 1970 to 1995[ii]. This rate of decline has only increased – especially since the recent recession.
Universities, in addition to educating, have long been the cradle for basic research that resulted in spinoffs of the next generation of products, companies, and employment. Now, education institutions under increasing financial constraints are reducing funding for all activities, including research, which will severely curtail our future prospects in innovation, growth, and skilled future employees.
President Obama announced a new initiative proposal on 9 March 2012 focused on strengthening and ensuring long-term competitiveness and job-creating power of U.S. manufacturing. The $1 billion investment contained in the President’s budget for fiscal year 2013, known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)[iii], is explicitly modeled on Germany’s very successful Franuhofer Society and would build a network of up to 15 Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation serving as regional hubs of manufacturing excellence to help make U.S. manufacturers more competitive and encourage investment in the U.S. The President also launched a pilot institute for manufacturing innovation funded from $45 million of existing resources from the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce and the National Science Foundation, selected from a competitive application process.
NNMI is intended to leverage new investment from industry, state and local governments, and the research community and will be a collaboration among the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.
While a step in the right direction, funding is too little and only set to last for four years requiring researchers to concentrate more on obtaining additional project funding rather than on sustainability. We only can hope wisdom prevails and long-term funding is insured. Unfortunately, given Congressional historical precedence, we should not be overly optimistic.
America won the race to the moon – and then shortsighted politicians disbanded the greatest science and technology teams ever assembled. Politicians recently repeated that mistake when the Space Shuttle program was ended with lack of planning leaving the U.S. without a manned space program. Fortunately for the U.S. space program, what NASA was unable to achieve, private investors seem ready to accomplish.
NASA’s failure to have a successor space launch vehicle in place when the Shuttle program ended seems all-too-typical based on past history. After all, as previously stated, following the last manned trip to the moon which landed on 11 December 1972, Congress terminated funding for additional exploration rather than exploiting U.S. experience and establishing a permanent lunar base – a decision that set back that segment of space exploration by fifty years. Rather than having a successor to the shuttle ready, the U.S. became dependent upon the Russians to ferry supplies and replacement personnel to the International Space Station (ISS).
Fortunately, the private sector now appears ready to assume a large role in future space exploration. Space Exploration Technology (SpaceX) recently resupplied the ISS and plans to have a vehicle able to carry humans into space within the near future. Other companies, such as Orbital Sciences, also are preparing space vehicles supposedly freeing NASA to concentrate on missions to the moon, asteroids, and Mars.
Maybe it is time for the public-sector to get out of the hardware side of space exploration and turn all of it over to the private-sector. NASA should instead concentrate on funding development and exploration until space became financially sustainable.
What is true for space exploration, however, is not true for basic research in general. The success of private-sector companies in space comes only after years of otherwise unaffordable public-sector investment and currently remains viable only due to NASA contracts.
NNMIs currently represents one of the U.S.’s best hopes for the future. Hopefully normally shortsighted politicians will not take it upon themselves to once again sabotage it.
That’s what I think, what about you?
[i]The World’s Best Countries in Science, Scientific American, October 2012, pp44-45.
[ii]Zakaria, Fareed. How government funding of science rewards U.S. taxpayers, http://fareedzakaria.com/2012/06/20/how-government-funding-of-science-rewards-u-s-taxpayers/, 20 June 2012.