“On Aug. 5, I was among those who witnessed the rover Curiosity landing on Mars in real time at NASA’s Caltech-managed Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The excitement was overwhelming: The one-ton Mars Science Laboratory broke through the Red Planet’s atmosphere, slowed its speed from 13,000 mph to almost zero and touched down. One glimpse of those first images from more than 100 million miles away demonstrated America’s leadership in innovation.
Curiosity — the rover and the concept — is what science is all about: the quest to reveal the unknown. America’s past investment in basic science and engineering, and its skill at nurturing the quest, is what led to the Mars triumph, and it is what undergirds U.S. leadership in today’s world. But now, decreases in science funding and increases in its bureaucracy threaten that leadership position.
After World War II, scientific research in the U.S. was well supported. In the 1960s, when I came to America, the sky was the limit, and this conducive atmosphere enabled many of us to pursue esoteric research that resulted in breakthroughs and Nobel prizes. American universities were magnets to young scientists and engineers from around the globe. The truth is that no one knew then what the effect of that research would be; no one could have predicted and promised all that resulted. After all, it is unpredictability that is the fabric of discovery.
In much of academia today, however, curiosity-driven research is no longer looked on favorably. Research proposals must specifically address the work’s “broad relevance to society” and provide “transformative solutions” even before research begins. Professors are writing more proposals chasing less research money, which reduces the time available for creative thinking. And with universities facing rising costs generally, professors are more and more involved in commercial enterprises, which may not always push basic research forward. Even faculty tenure may be driven less by how good one is at science than how good one is at fundraising.
These constraints and practices raise the question: Would a young Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman or Linus Pauling be attracted to science today? Would they be able to pursue their inquiries into fundamental questions?”