[Updated] In the face of budget cuts, and a presidential mandate for manned programs to the Moon and to Mars, NASA is contemplating cutting a number of unmanned programs, including the Voyagers, which are still sending data as they approach the edge of the solar system. This only makes sense, though, for the Bush Administration, which either ignores research or twists it to suit its own ideological purposes.
Whether the evangelicals who have captured our government understand it or not, Rick Weiss argues in the Washington Post that we need to care about basic research. “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.” Weiss cites the Internet as a project DARPA might not fund today and the Department of Energy decision to kill 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.” It hasn’t always been this way.
Early research on DNA splicing in bacteria unexpectedly gave rise to the biotechnology industry, a huge economic engine that launched today’s golden age of biology and medicine. Unfettered studies of electronics at places like the old Bell Laboratories gave the world transistors, lasers and the basic information theory that led to computer networking. Albert Einstein often said that his work on the general theory of relativity was too arcane to ever have any practical application. Yet without it we would not have the global positioning satellite system that today tells our cars — and the military’s “smart” bombs — where they are and where they need to go.