The US threatens to terminate scientific research because of a man-made “fiscal cliff.” We should intensify our support, not eliminate it.
The previous LastTechAge post brought up the issues that Americans are within days of potentially wiping out our unmatched base of scientific capability. Here we pick up with when and why should we should provide national support, when is the appropriate time.
We present part 2 of this issue which was started in An Open Letter to the DOE.
First, why national support of science research?
This is a topic that has been covered a number of times here, but never goes stale. The Ideological Right believes that if something is not done by private industry, it is not worth doing. Our focus is in the loss of fusion energy research, but the scope of the discussion is all research that is threatened.
On the contrary, corporate research must be done to support the goals of a company. And, companies are held to a 3 to 6 month timeline for their vision, as least in the USA. Development of new manufacturing techniques are appropriate if results can flow from the research group within this tight timeline. Longer term (a year or 18 months) are appropriate if the results lead to new products.
America has offshored much of its basic manufacturing, and research capability has been severely restricted to small startups, companies alive by the grace of venture capitalists. (VCs typically demand a 5× return on investment within 5 years, with promises that, if this is not met, they will tear the startup apart and sell components for what they can get. Sort of a modern deal with the devil.) Nothing without a well defined end product with a net worth that an accountant can calculate can be considered.
Fusion energy research and most physical research tasks have a timeline such as transistor development. Certainly we would never have developed power reactors, if the government had not made them first for nuclear submarines. The HTGR was developed by a General Atomics (slightly different name in the 1970s, but it nearly went under when unforeseeable issues arose with its prototype HTGRs. This is the reactor design that provides true intrinsically safe operation). Too bad GA was private. Our power companies are still trying to implement intrinsically dangerous reactor technologies that have layers of complicated technology that all must work if it to be safe.
The consequences of much of physics research cannot be quantified at this time. What use was NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) research, or sold state band-gap physics? What possible use is superconductivity? Or even its high temperature forms that are behind much of research? Why mess with high-brow stuff like General Relativity? Or atomic force microscopes, or studies of avian habitats or of plant pathogens – why should I care about such things anyway? The list continues for all scientific endeavors.
You might be surprised at what all these pure research programs have done and could yet do, especially as times become ever harder. No single company would have supported such items without a product in mind, but such studies have provided the core of many products are either in use or will be within the next 20 years. The highly trained scientists understand, but no accountant would, not before a product is on the horizon.
Programs such as safe fusion power or safe gas cooled reactor design must be done by a government. This goes “in spades” for wind energy, solar power etc. U.S. firms without government subsidies cannot compete with those supported by governments such as China. We Americans must either support the effort or loose the ability to do the job.
So – Why do we have to it now, why not wait a while?
Question 1: When is the best time to prepare for bad times that are as inevitable as a starvation following a drought? answer… During the relative good times, of course.
My personal bible-background makes me recall Joseph (Genesis 41:46 …) who interpreted a dream (now days “who analyzed data“) of 7 healthy cows followed by 7 starving ones. He decided that it meant years of good crops would be followed by terrible times of famine. So during the abundant years, he directed the government of Egypt to build huge granaries to store readily available crops. People knew he was an awful waster of money, certainly resources. But, we know the rest, of those next 7 bad years and of the granaries that saved people’s lives
Question 2: Why not wait until later, when it costs more resources to extract oil than to burn it? answer… We will no longer have the ready energy needed to save ourselves when the inevitable oil price sky-rocket launches across the globe.
If we are to survive as a technical free society, we must follow Joseph’s lead. Right now, the cows are in declining health, but relatively well.
Since the 1950’s at least, we have known that society would experience a CRUNCH in the mid-to-late 21st century when the word expensive will be defined by oil. This is not a 7 year issue with a few deaths that Joseph delt with, but one that will last forever on our planet. For fusion energy development, we should have continued the 1970s’ funding rise through the 1990s, at least. Times were “hard” then, but only if you looked at back with the eyes of “then.” Actually, those were the good days.
Question 3: We are facing a fiscal cliff, we cannot afford such spending now, so why not wait a decade, then start? answer… The US has passed across its cheap oil cliff and during the next decade, our experts will have evaporated away.
Most jobs are changing to the service economy with low wages. Single wage-earner families were the norm prior to the 1980s (see Fig 4, income inequality); but not now. Tech development will become ever more expensive, not easier.
Currently, it is nice that gasoline dropped back to $3.30/USgallon. Over the past 25 years, rich reactionary radio/TV right wingers (rich Rush Limbaugh for one) have been continuously stirring up anger over rising gasoline prices. Why not scream at the ocean because of hurricane damage?
30 years ago, when the price exceeded $1, it was taken as the end of the world — the fault of the lib-ruls. (Wish I could write using George H W Bush’s fake Texas accent!) 10 years from now we will recall today as the good ol’ days.
We may be within several weeks of permanently discarding of our key scientific resources (trained young professionals).
Now is the time to increase funding to technology not reduce it. Yes, it is hard, much more so than 2 generations ago (1980). But every year of delay in getting high energy density power sources makes it that much harder to start.
Everyone else in the world is building the ITER fusion test facility for their own national security. The US is an uncertain, unreliable partner in this, and even though we are currently contributing, the US is losing influence because our support is below what is expected (and needed). The world remembers that U.S. ITER support was an on-again/off-again thing during the Bush/Cheney years.
Question: if we destroy our home-based fusion research laboratories, and discard our home-based expertise, why bother with a thing like ITER?
Details in Twilight of the Gods.
End of Science
The threat looming over us in the next several weeks is not simply the end of fusion energy research. Currently most innovative technical programs are likely to be stomped from our country.
The US Department of Energy is facing an implosion of its budget. I wish I could be upbeat about the letter from the 63 fusion professionals, but the OFES is pretty helpless.
Its The Politics, Stupid!
Protecting our historic innovation might rest on whether we contact our Senators and Representatives. Such personal initiative might well help!
But … right now, Congress does not have much effective influence on the issues, I think. The final decisions will be achieved during sub rosa talks between Pres. Barack Obama and Rep. John Boehner. Boehner is a savvy old pol focused on the protection of the wealthiest families in the US. Obama has at least 2 strikes against him: (A) he has no gut feeling about the role of science and technology in society, and (B) based on his performance during his first 4 years, he is probably the worst negotiator (check out comments from Rbt Kuttner) of any leader over the past 100 years.
Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2012 Dec 21
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