washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook

Our Incredible Shrinking Curiosity

By Rick Weiss
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B01

"Bones, there's a -- thing -- out there," Captain James T. Kirk says to starship physician Leonard McCoy in the 1979 film, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." That "thing," it turns out, is a huge cloud of intelligence with some kind of object at its core -- an object that calls itself "Veeger."

"Veeger" -- actually "V . . . ger" -- proves to be the spacecraft Voyager, launched from Earth some 300 years earlier. The letters "oya" have been obscured by space grime so that the computerized device has long ago forgotten its full name. But like the ultimate Timex watch, it is still ticking.

Sights of the unseen: Voyager 1, which has traveled farther than any other spacecraft, sent back pictures of the dark side of Saturn, top, and of an eruption of Loki, a volcano on Jupiter's moon Io, inset left. Voyager 2 has captured Neptune's moon Triton, inset right. The two probes have discovered 22 moons at four planets. Today, the Voyager mission has a full-time staff of 10. Voyager signals take 12 hours to reach Earth. (Nasa Images ) Corbis)

_____Trends in Basic Research_____
This chart shows the fiscal years 1975-2006, in billions of constant FY 2005 dollars.
The Post's opinion and commentary section runs every Sunday.

Outlook Section

For centuries, the spacecraft has been following its simple instructions: Observe and record everything you find. In the process it has become, in Mr. Spock's words, "a highly advanced mentality" that cannot stop "evolving, learning, searching."

I rented the movie again last week after learning that NASA was poised to pull the funding plug on the real Voyagers -- two VW Beetle-sized packages of instruments that have been sending streams of data back to Earth since 1977 and that are now at the outer reaches of our solar system. Corny as the movie is, it left me depressingly convinced that these 8 billion-mile-long extensions of human curiosity are indeed now smarter, or at least more enlightened, than the mortals who made them.

After all, can it be anything but foolish to turn a deaf ear to the most distant human-made objects in the universe -- devices that after nearly three decades of travel are now registering and describing for us the first ripples of interstellar space?

It would be less disheartening if the move to kill the Voyager program were an isolated example. But the 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. In discipline after discipline, the demand for specific products, profits or outcomes -- "deliverables," in the parlance of government -- has become the dominant force driving research agendas. Instead of being exploratory and expansive, science -- especially in the wake of 9/11 -- seems increasingly delimited and defensive.

Take, for example, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- arguably the nation's premier funder of unencumbered scientific exploration, whose early dabbling in computer network design gave rise to the Internet. Agency officials recently acknowledged to Congress that they were shifting their focus away from blue-sky research and toward goal-oriented and increasingly classified endeavors.

Similarly, in geology, scientists have for years sought funds to blanket the nation with thousands of sensors to create an enormous, networked listening device that might teach us something about how the earth is shifting beneath our feet. The system got so far as to be authorized by Congress for $170 million over five years, but only $16 million has been appropriated in the first three of those years and just 62 of an anticipated 7,000 sensors have been deployed. Only in fiscal 2006, thanks to the South Asian tsunami, is the program poised to get more fully funded -- out of a narrow desire to better predict the effects of such disasters here.

The Department of Energy in February announced it is killing 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. This field, once dominated by the United States, promises to discover in the next decade some of the most basic subatomic particles in the universe, including the first so-called supersymmetric particle -- a kind of stuff that seems to account for the vast majority of matter in the universe but which scientists have so far been unable to put their fingers on.

"We seem to have reached a point where people are so overwhelmed by the problems we face, we're not sure we really need more frontiers," said Kei Koizumi of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noting that the only segments of the nation's research and development budget enjoying real growth are defense and homeland security. The National Science Foundation in particular, the nation's premier supporter of physical sciences research and science education, has suffered repeated cuts in recent years and now demands that grantees spell out in unprecedented detail how and when their proposed work will pay off.

Why should we care about this demand for results before the research begins? Isn't exploration for exploration's sake a luxury? Money is tight. Terrorists are trying to kill us. And what's a supersymmetric particle going to do for me, anyway?

First, there are practical reasons to care. At least half of this nation's economic growth during the past half century has been the direct result of scientific innovation, according to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a coalition of two dozen organizations from industry and academia concerned about America's declining leadership in science and engineering.

Examples abound. 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.

John Bahcall, a professor of natural science at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, tells the story of Michael Faraday, the 19th-century scientist, who, when asked by skeptics about the value of his recent discovery of electricity, is said to have replied, "What is the value of a newly born baby?" Faraday "certainly had no anticipation of television or that you could send electrical signals on the Internet," Bahcall said. "But he knew that when you found something fundamental, it was going to be valuable fundamentally."

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company