Jan 15, 2008
Oh, for the days of Big Science.
When nuclear weapons were peacekeepers and enemies were Soviet, the U.S. government trusted in science — and invested lavishly in it, too, said Michael Anastasio, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Funding for national laboratories such as Los Alamos has dwindled. Today the government invests half as much in science as it did 30 years ago, Anastasio said Jan. 15.
That’s when funding is measured in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, an Anastasio aide clarified.
“It’s time for rebuilding the partnership of government and the science and technology community,” Anastasio told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a government-funded policy think tank.
From the 1940s, when government-funded science invented the atomic bomb, to the ’60s, when it sent U.S. astronauts to the moon, and through the Cold War, science and scientists were warriors on the front line of U.S. national security. They built the United States into a superpower.
“Today’s expectations are more limited,” Anastasio said.
Big science programs have been largely abandoned. Government research focuses more on near-term results and less on long-term science that may — or may not — pay off years in the future.
To a greater extent, the U.S. government relies on the marketplace to perform research, Anastasio said. And the private sector has little interest in long-term research with a distant, maybe dubious return.
As the government’s commitment to science has waned, it has become increasingly difficult to attract the best students into fields such as math and engineering — and then into government laboratories, Anastasio said.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Government labs are well positioned to take on a variety of new national security challenges, from terrorism to energy availability, climate change to cybersecurity. The labs’ capability in large-scale computing, for example, could be harnessed to study and combat global warming.
Government labs could focus on finding ways to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Insights into superconductivity gleaned during plutonium research could be used to reduce energy losses when electricity is conducted over long distances.
The labs have already contributed technology that is at work in the war on terrorism, including monitors in use today to sample the air for weaponized pathogens in cities across the nation.
To reorient government science toward solving new problems, new goals should be set at the highest levels of government, Anastasio said.
New national science goals could be set by the incoming president and Congress in 2009, Anastasio said, much as the moon mission was set as a goal in 1961 by newly elected President John F. Kennedy to catch up with the Soviets in the space race.
“We need a vision,” Anastasio said. And “an investment strategy.”