For a nation that prides itself on "firsts," America's 2011 is shaping up pretty poorly. Two American firsts will experience their lasts this year: the space shuttles, the first and only reusable space vehicles of their kind, will retire this week, and Fermilab's Tevatron--once the world's most powerful particle collider--will cease smashing in September. While all good things must come to an end, neither of these world-beating technologies has a homegrown successor to pick up where its predecessor left off. With regularity, the "firsts" are happening elsewhere these days.
For those of us who grew up on Big Science--where big projects regularly hit big milestones that were a big deal--these are strange days. I want to see Americans build the first fusion reactor. Actually, I want to see American robots build it, and I want them do it on the moon.
Or maybe Mars. Whichever the robots prefer, really.
As a popular science writer, I'm naturally inclined toward this kind of Big Science. I like things that are superlative, that are preceded by descriptors like "most powerful," "first ever," and "biggest" (and possibly followed by the nouns "laser" or "stealth" or "rocketship/rocketsled/rocketbike"). These things are important not only because they are inherently awesome, but because they inspire the brightest minds in the world to rally around them, they inspire our own young people to engage with science and engineering, and they sometimes spawn entirely new industries. They even "create jobs."
So where is the Big Science in America in 2011? For all the lip service paid to "Sputnik moments" this year, our new decade still has no Project Mercury. Are we really going to let a relatively routine budget crisis and bureaucratic indifference temper our collective zeal for pursuing big things? Can we afford to sit back and watch Big Science go elsewhere?
I don't think we can. I'm not writing this out of some uber-patriotic desire for the USA to be the biggest and baddest at all things science and technology. I'm a realist. America can't do everything, and in fact I think international collaboration is vital to doing truly big things (remember that time we built an international space station?). And I understand that we're strapped for loose cash.
But if the current spate of regulatory foot-dragging and budgetary politicking persists in conjunction with a painfully slow economic recovery, we could end this decade in the same place we started it while the rest of the world catches up--and then goes screaming past.
So, levity aside, I've got a bone to pick with President Obama. This ain't political. In fact I think Obama started 2011 with the right message, acknowledging in his State of the Union Address that America needs to get seriously invested in research and development, in infrastructure, and in education. He invoked Sputnik and John Kennedy. He sounded serious.
But half a year has gone by, and there's little to show for this big talk about Big Science. Moreover, those researchers that really want to do big things are finding a bureaucracy that is slow to engage them, less likely to fund them, and often a hindrance to rather than an expediter of development.
Take genetic research. Just last year a two-decade-old University of California project developing transgenic goats that produce inherently anti-diarrheal milk (among the world's poorer populations, diarrhea is a significant killer of young children) began shifting its technology to Brazil. In the U.S., the research had languished under a politically driven Food and Drug Administration reluctant to make decisions on how best to regulate biotech science (it took them 10 years to issue guidance on the matter), and was scraping by on meager federal grants. Brazil, eager to establish a robust biotech sector, offered them $3.5 million and room to breathe.
This kind of technological exodus isn't new and happens for a variety of reasons, but it tends to happen most when leaders take the short view. When oil prices soared in the 1970s, the U.S. poured resources into various technologies that might reduce its dependency on OPEC, one of which was batteries. But when gas prices returned to normal, the federal dollars evaporated and scientists abandoned their research. However, the Japanese saw the long-term value and plucked that existing research from the trash heap, building upon it over the years. Now Japan (and other East Asian nations) own the global lithium-ion industry. America scrambles to catch up.
Bureaucratic foot-dragging and budgetary short-sightedness will send our best minds (and their badass genetically modified goats) packing for greener pastures. But Big Science--be it the moon landing or a smart grid or a whole new kind of battery--does the opposite. It ignites our creative engine, generating positive educational and economic feedback loops that fuel it.
It also concentrates intellectual capital. Just look at the Large Hadron Collider: When Tevatron shuts down, the LHC will be a science experiment without any real peers, the sole contender to discover (or disprove) the Higgs Boson and the standard model of physics and who knows what else. Physicists all over the world who want to do Big Particle Physics--including Americans--will go to Geneva to do so.
So what's America's next big thing? After the last "Sputnik moment" (the real one) the path forward was clearly defined by the President: go to space and win. We lack that kind of focus these days, but there are any number of Big Science challenges that need to be hacked, problems whose solutions will seriously impact life on this planet. We could even labor to solve one of these Big Problems before the decade is out, for tradition's sake.
A functioning fusion reactor sounds great (ITER, an international research consortium, is already planning to begin experimenting with a promising design by decade's end--in France) . So does overhauling the national grid with superconductive materials that presently only exist in laboratory conditions. The Russians have talked about mining helium-3 on the moon by 2020, and nothing stirs up the American competitive spirit like a good contest with the Russians.
What's important is that it's big and superlative and a source of international awe. We need to say we're going to do it, and then we need to follow through. This country needs something that restores our faith in American ingenuity, in our technology economy, and in our ability to do big things. President Obama is absolutely right when he says we're playing to "win the future," but it pays to remember that we're not the only team on the field. If we don't make the big plays, somebody else will.
I know... These days I am not very proud of my country. The defense budget is out of hand and the democrats want to waste money on social programs that are ridiculous (Like building free housing for homeless people in my neighborhood, I mean I'll pay for rehab programs and shelters but I am not paying my tax dollars to build houses for people that are, for the most part, not mentally capable of home ownership, teach them to be healthy and responsible so they can afford their own house PLEASE) and on the other hand Republicans are willing to cut education and research funding to the point where teaching science and art won't even be affordable by public schools.
Our government is focused on getting votes and wasting money on 'feel good' and party dogma legislation. If anyone had half a brain the major focus in this country would be education, smart development, and high tech industry because those are the only things that drive the economy in these modern times. Making 60k a year screwing the same bolt in all day in a factory is just not a reality anymore, we need to smarten up or expect to deteriorate economically and socially as a country. I don't like to talk politics but politics is killing advancement in this country and therefore killing it in general. Your example of Brasil's Biotech is a perfect example over how 'politics' and social paradigm is allowing our country to slowly waste away in a fast paced world.
The space race isn't dead yet. We are, what we are, what we are.
We got sidetracked by investing our time and money in the 100 billion dollar ISS and the X-33. We could have spent that money exploring space by traveling to Mars and back several times or going back to the moon with most of the Space Shuttle rocket system we now use.
On the future of spaceflight we are getting there, most every major adventure into new science was first costly government or military sponsored special events, some good some not so good. Even our governments development of the atomic bomb had it good points, electrical generation. We are now seeing a commercial leap into space that will take us to the next level. In fact here is an example of where the commercial sector is going.
“The first of these webinars will take place on July 14, 2011 at 1:00 p.m. EDT. Joe Cassady (Aerojet - Executive Director, Washington, DC Office) will be presenting Aerojet Heavy Lift Propulsion Technology Architecture for Human Exploration“ during which he will outline a new mission architecture proposal that Aerojet has designed that will not only enable us to land humans on Mars by the early 2030s, but will also reach several intermediate destinations such as a long-term orbital missions of the Moon, a mission to the surface of a Near Earth Object, and a surface mission to the Martian moon Phobos..."
It's may be a good thing to have the government bureaucracy cheering from the sidelines instead of calling all the shots...
I truly feel sad for the state of our country right now. The politician is Washington are more interested in thier pet projects or party projects than actually doing good for the country as a whole. Politician are tied to an older slower pace of progress that fails in our modern "fast as thought" world. They keep cutting money from projects and budgets to the point that either the program gets shelved due to lack of sufficent funding or fails for the same reason. Projects like the Tevatron are another tragic example, the kept getting budget cuts and yet were expected to get positive results on a smaller budget. What the politicians generally don't realize (or care about) is that Tevatron is an experiment where no result (or failure) is still a positive result.
The sub-title of this article talked about a sputnik moment, that moment will not be if or when FermiLabs finds proof of Higgs, or when the Japanese find conclusive proof of dark matter, or when the EU brings a fusion reactor online for power production. No it will be when China establishes a moon base in 20 years time. You may think that I am being a bit "optimistic" on that time line. Think of it this way, the have the workforce, thier leaders have the desire, money and the power to say do it without the need to concern themselves with the prior factors. Where does that leave us, well it leaves us in a sorry state, we are already being laughed at by other countries in this age of science and technology. In 3-5 years well will be on par with a developing country and if things stand by the time China establishes their lunar base we will be a third world country.
Let's be clear, it's not 1 acre plots and 2 story houses with white picket fences. It's apartments aimed at the most vulnerable homeless and several studies have shown that overall cost to care for the homeless is lower when they're provided housing. See the section entitled Evidence and outcomes here:
But since we're talking politics I'll say that it's ridiculous that the GOP is toying with our well-being hoping any failure will be attributed to Obama. Corporations are doing as well if not better in many cases than prior to the economic meltdown and yet they aren't hiring... and why do I pay more taxes than AT&T?
Americas problem is that to many of our young bright minds go to financial sector jobs to engage in some form of financial trickery that somehow makes money without actually adding anything of value. That and a political system that's well and off the rails, for variou reasons that have been mentioned.
Thanks for writing the article.
I think that some of the blame lies in part with the propagation of information systems. Great innovations have always needed a great idea to start it, motivated people to stand behind it and work on it, and funding to get the idea through research and out of the lab. The great flood of information that we call the internet impacts the formation of well-thought-out ideas, peoples' motivation, and funding priorities. There is so much noise that we can't seem to think clearly.
I received a bachelors in chemistry back in 2009, right when the economy tanked, so I took a job as a lab technician for awhile before going back to school. My particular responsibilities as a lab technician starved me from new learning and big projects, and combined with a revelation of how to rise above the information noise on the internet, I felt that I could start over with a clear mind.
As a very audio/visual and entertainment-centered culture, I think that we, at a culture level, haven't learned how to filter out the noise of information surrounding us and focus on big projects. Some can, but most people, including many representatives and other governmental leaders, have not.
Those are my thoughts.
I love this article and agree with it. More research and develop and better education. I’m in the military and I still think we spend way too much on it.
I think the car insurance commercial sums it up perfectly. When the mother stated college was expensive so they taught the kid to dunk...then exclaimed “scholarship!"
I like sports, but when children strive for sports scholarships more the academic scholarships there is a problem, only to be compounded by colleges searching for that super rookie player, offering more in funding for sports education then academic.
Wake up USA! We are becoming a country of entertainment rather than being worthy of setting the bar other countries wish to emulate! Now that’s only in our history.
I know this seems bad but I applaud the "carpe diem" attitude of China, Japan, Brazil and other countries. We have stumbled and they are sizing the opportunity to grow/lead.
Make inventing and innovation cheaper and easier to do. Offer more grants for idea to be incubated and invented.
Instead of our defense budget being MORE THAN DOUBLE the budget of any other country. (China close to 150billion-USA close to 700billion) Sure fine I concede to needing to be the most well equipped military, but really 700billion? How about just double the current largest budget and add 100 billion. So 400 billion freed up. The rest should go to paying OFF our debt, infrastructure, education and R&D. Oh yeah and we could cap all politicians paycheck at 100,000 we all no they get all kinds of other perk. See more money freed up instead of cutting our spirit of exploration.
That’s my rant!
(Riddle me this, why does a gasket for an engine cost the military 50 bucks where you can but it at napa for 3?)
Great, great article. This is a topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about these days. I submit that perhaps we are having a crisis of confidence in this new age. As one commenter already mentioned, the explosion of the Internet and digital media has created a rather "noisy" environment in which it can be hard for us to sustain our interest in any subject for the time required to achieve meaningful understanding or accomplishment. Popular culture does not give young people many role models that send them into the government or into research and development. As another commenter mentioned, too many are going into the financial sector where there are huge amounts of money to be made from playing with money or the idea of money. Its reprehensible.
The fickle nature of our government, exacerbated by the media, means that our leaders can't get anything done. This gridlock along with our painfully slow economic recovery add to the aforementioned crisis of confidence. This is why we all collectively know that it will require some big, external event to galvanize us as a nation. When there is no such external stimuli, we founder. We become self-involved, and special interest groups begin to tear us apart. However, as American history will show, when some huge external event occurs, we band together to accomplish great things. Pearl Harbor and WWII are obvious examples, as is 9/11. Sputnik is another example, and one that had the lovely characteristic of being a relatively peaceful endeavour, even if it was competitive in nature.
I do get frustrated with the current state of our nation from time to time, and even sometimes think this might be the other end of the parabola--that we have ascended as high as we are going to and that we are now declining. But that type of pessimism does nothing to solve the problem, and we Americans are nothing if not good problem solvers. I think either enough dissatisfaction will accrue that the tide will turn in favor of reasserting ourselves, or some external influence will come along to galvanize our culture the way it has in the past. We'll see. Either way, the game is not over yet.
@Batqul Great points! I would note that one of the key differences between our military and the Chinese is that they have no real navy to speak of. Maintaining a full maritime force is hugely expensive, even for policing your coastlines, let alone sailing all the oceans of the world, all the time.
But I agree that our defense budget is one big area where much of this money needs to come from. We need to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and return to a posture of vigilance rather than open war. Boots on the ground costs millions a day. Give the CIA, NSA, etc enough funding to maintain HUMINT and SIGINT capabilities (and we need to upgrade our aging satellites by the way) and let the Navy and Marine Corps patrol the oceans responding in American interest as need be, as it was prior to 9/11. Maintain the Army and Air Force in their forward positions along NATO and other treaty zones, and let's put the difference in money we save towards innovation, improving our infrastructure, travel, smart grid, etc, and give NASA the funding it needs to move the flag beyond low Earth orbit and back out to and beyond our previous beachhead on the Moon. Let's go, America! We got this!!!
Or how about that Congressionally mandated launch platform designed by congress using parts manufactured in member districts.
They're stripping NASA budgets for real space exploration to pump money into this boondoggle which has no mission and no destination.
Robert1234: It's to late, people. America is officially a Fascist nation now, under the control of the Corporations. Nothing will change that now except a new revolution and that's not happening as long as the bread and circus format remains intact. With the approaching "doom" of climate change, the wealthy are prepared to survive and the middle class and poor better be prepared to die in large numbers. Think about it. 40,000 people died from the heat wave in Europe last year and literally nothing happened about it. More and more will be dying this year and nothing will still happen. It's to late, people, get used to it.
A big contributor, I fear, is that parents and educators these days mollycoddle students into believing mediocre is acceptable. They sometimes hesitate in pushing great young minds for fear of punishment for leaving the average behind. Ask most scientists who their favorite teacher was and I bet they'll think for a second, smile, and then tell you a story that will inspire the most cynical among us. "No child left behind" is a noble thought, but not at the expense of failing to push them along the way.
America is dragging "foot" because nobody will hire me. how am I supposed to have funding to develop the limitless power source that fits in your pocket? what is the world supposed to do with a dual-core android device with no physical keyboard?
caradoc01: I feel the exact same way as you do. This article really struck a chord with me and my way of thinking, and I couldn't be more displeased with our idiot congressmen and president. We need some major change and it has to start in Washington unfortunately.
I really found the comments on the internet and electronic media interesting. I certainly don't think that is the entire problem but that was an aspect I had never really thought about.
I also agree with the comments on here about there eventually being enough dissatisfied people like us that government policy will have to change, but again that is slow and we will have a lot of ground to make up for when that change comes. I don't agree with comments like Robert's however (assuming it wasn't satire), humanity is not doomed to utter destruction, in general life on this planet continues improving for both humans and the rest of the environment. There will always be challenges humanity collectively faces, whether or not the United States remains a role model and at the forefront of meeting these challenges is another story. I would like it to be, I am still patriotic and haven't given up on my country yet.
OK, so when did we start looking to our government to provide the big and exciting innovations in our society. Because that is when we started failing.
Ben Franklin, Tom Edison, Dupont, Ford, Kodak, Gates, Jobs etc... We are still inovating. We are still an exceptional country. We are creating things today that will make our childhoods seem prehistoric.
What can a bunch of lawyers in DC do that we can't? Get your lips off your mommas T and start living!
The thing that is killing Big Science now is an enormous load of DEBT that will tie up investments for a long time. Add to that a Big Government that only listens to itself or to the experts it appoints. And add to that the destruction of creativity that occurs in our public schools.
We don't need Big Science nearly as much as most of us think we do. Witness the inexpensive methods of destroying radioactive waste that have been around for decades. I commented on such methods to the Blue Ribbon Committe on America's Nuclear future. (see www.brc.gov/index.php?q=generalcomment/investigate-internet-reports-spending-billions-dollars ) Do you think the Government or Big Science is going to listen? Let alone DO SOMETHING about it? Instead, it just blew $100 billion on a hole in the ground at Yucca Mountain--something that most of us did not want in the first place.
Money like that should have been spent helping the little guy develop the thought provoking issues that I mention at scripturalphysics.org/qm/issues.html These could have great economic impact. If the United States does not take the lead, other countries will.
It`s sad to see the US decline. And i say this as a European. The US represent much of our Western image to the rest of the world. And they have enough potential. But the wrong leaders it seems. Spending 700 Billion on the Military including keeping troops in Rich Nations like Germany and Japan doesn`t make any sense. Stop policing the world when you can achieve so many things globally using smart foreign diplomacy at a fraction of the cost. Not always yes. But often it can.
But i`m just really pleased that Europe is greatly advancing in science leadership. We have the ITER fusion reactor hosted by the EU build in the EU. We have the LHC by our European CERN. We have the European Very large Telescope arguable the best observatory on the planet. And we have the now to be build European 42 Meter telescope begin construction in the coming 2 years. We have a future linear Collider likely to be build in Europe as well. We now also have things like the Largest Passenger plane the A380, the largest Plane company Airbus and the Largest Helicopter company Eurocopter. We now have Volkswagen about to become the largest Car company on the planet and we have countless other Massive science projects coming online or about to begin construction. Projects like the European Spallation Source. The Italian Factory B. The Einstein Telescope. The massive European LOFAR array. Possible Laser fusion projects like Hyper. The European ATV about to become the largest Spacecraft in operation after the SS retires. The European Highs speed Rails. The Laser Megjoule in France. The massive European XFEL. The Soon to be launched European Galileo Navigation system. World leadership by FAR in total renewable energy installation like Solar and Wind power if you look at Europe as a whole. And this is just a tiny spectrum of world leading projects Europe is pursuing. Makes me really proud these days. It`s a shame a tiny Country like Greece is putting a damp on Europe`s image right now. European cooperation is great. The Euro currency was a bit to much perhaps since we don`t have on United State as in one Nation. Non the less Europe has much potential for the future. If we keep pushing for the coming projects i just mentioned it will make Europe the number 1 on so many fields it is bound to have bigger impacts.
I agree entirely with the article, in principle. As a nation we have forgotten what it takes to take those big strides in science and technology that stir the emotions of . . . all of us.
I disagree, however, regarding the cause and, perhaps, the solution. Remember when NASA made headlines? It was hardly more than a fledgling agency, stumbling its way through new technologies and the politics and finances to accomplish its goal. Of course, it had the vision that JFK gave to drive it to reach that goal. Today, though, NASA is a bloated bureaucratic . . . mess. I'm sorry the shuttle is being discontinued, but, unfortunately, after the first few missions it was never much more than a bus to orbit; it was never program with a greater goal. No . . . vision.
Even the Mars rovers, memorable though they were, became so less because of the mission than for the fact that they performed so spectacularly beyond expectations. I give credit for that to the development teams and the manufacturer(s).
For me, most of the memorable accomplishments in recent decades have come from more independent projects like those by people like Burt Rutan.
Yes, if we a lucky to have political leaders with any measure of vision for science and technology, I would hope they could inspire the way JFK did . . . then get government out of the way instead of allowing bureaucracy to squeeze the innovation and energy (and money) out of it.
the only way any of this will change is when real campaign finance reform is implemented, very little private money should be allowed to finance political campaigns, i would prefer none, as long as the rich own our politicians nothing will change because the status quo is what got them rich, they will drag the rest of us down in the gutters as long as the rich get richer, don't think for a minute there is a diference between the two parties, they are bought and paid for by the same people so it doesn't matter who wins, why do you think obabma basically has done nothing except give money to the rich and increase the # of customers the health insurance companies have...he owned both houses of congress, so if you don't believe me, why did nothing change?
Having given away all our jobs and shipped all our industry overseas, there is no one left in this country to DO the Big Science. Ideas worthy of that title don't happen at burger joints and super-centers, the only jobs left to those who were 'outsized' when their employers all headed for fatter profits operating abroad. Plus, the end of the Cold War seems to have lessened our hard-driving interests in the caliber of the grand scientific advancements of the space program.
If it were not for "service sector" jobs (in which it is reported 80% of US jobs currently reside) there would be no employment left in this country. It's hard to pursue brilliant Big Science ideas when you can barely feed your family.
My favorite superlative, "the most expensive" such as ITER and the Space Shuttle program and the Supercollider - all boondoggles. Let's get back to something that works called Capitalism.
@demej00...ITER has become more expensive but the payoff in research and developnent far outway the cost, the only way to develope fusion is to actually try to do it, other fusion projects should also be pushed forward, the shuttle program and the LHC have been very expensive but have and will add greatly to our understanding of the universe, the reality is the fact that research costs money and needs to continue even in tough times
Although the big improvements in scientific research aren't in our backyard, a lot of American based companies and products are doing great things overseas.
Did you hear about how CERN was using National Instruments products in trying to find the Higgs Boson particle? http://bit.ly/JzaL7m
It may not be us doing all the work, but at least we're involved :)
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