Save federal basic research
There's a trend among federal and military research and development officials to praise applied research and development at the expense of basic research.
Air Force science and technology spending has "been skewed a bit too much toward basic research in the last few years," said Steven Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering, during a recent congressional hearing.
Daniel Gerstein, Homeland Security Department deputy undersecretary for science and technology, similarly told a House hearing that his focus is on getting "products to the homeland security enterprise."
The Army, meanwhile, has so pushed research efforts to produce a final product that it's created an overly prescriptive culture in need of revamping, according to a panel of experts conveyed by the Rand Corp at the Army's request.
This trend is understandable in a context of falling budgets and fears of additional cuts--as well as, in the military, in a context of the desire for innovations that can be immediately carried to the battlefield. When lives are at stake, it's normal to want better technology to rollout like clockwork.
Unfortunately, no matter the motivation, the current approach the government is taking to fund research and development is short-sighted, as the Rand panel notes.
Science and technology "is often not a simple sequential process whereby an idea is started in basic research, migrates to applied research, and then transitions to technology demonstration," a panel report states.
And the best ideas often require lateral thinking not always permissible in a conveyor-belt approach, as well as space and time to mature in possibly unexpected directions.
This isn't an argument for a lack of discipline in the federal scientific community. Rather, it's important that federal officials and their congressional appropriations recognize the simple fact that innovation requires creativity and creativity doesn't always adhere to a schedule. To keep basic research decently funded and apart from the rigors of a constant need for pragmatic application isn't to cosset academics in an ivory tower, it's to keep the pool of innovation active so that future pipelines may be full. Federal S&T officials should at least begin by standing up for basic research the next time they go before a congressional hearing. - Dave