Why should we care about basic research?

— 12:05 PM on May 29, 2008

I was surprised to learn today that my former employer Fermilab (I worked there until about 12 years ago) was given a temporary reprieve this week from rounds of rolling furloughs and mandatory layoffs, when an anonymous donor gave them $5 million dollars. While I applaud private sector support of basic research, I find it sad that one of our premier research institutions is in effect reduced to living hand-to-mouth, off of the kindness of strangers.

Cutting-edge basic research is a big factor in attracting bright young minds to science, and it pays huge dividends even when there are no obvious direct applications of the basic principles being studied. Fermilab (and the field of high energy physics in general) has made significant contributions to many fields of science and technology. The construction of the Tevatron required breakthroughs in the fields of cryogenics, superconducting magnets, electronics, and other related fields. There is a nuclear medicine research facility on site, which conducts research into cancer treatments based on the use of high energy neutron beams. The group I worked with did leading-edge work in massively parallel computing and clustering, which have replaced traditional (and far more expensive) supercomputers in many applications. Fermilab even supports research on the restoration of native prairie habitat at their Batavia, IL site. And lest we forget, the very World Wide Web that you are using to read this article is a product of the high energy physics community, having been invented by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1990! (And that's just the stuff I could think of off the top of my head...)

By cutting back on basic research and not putting a greater emphasis on scientific literacy in our elementary and secondary schools, we are selling our future short. We are already at significant risk of ceding technological superiority to our foreign competitors. Most of our manufacturing has already been relocated to Asia. 20 years from now, will most of our R&D be outsourced as well? I am starting to think so. Even Bell Laboratories—for decades a symbol of technological prowess, and inventor of the transistor and the C/C++ programming languages, among other things—has fallen on hard times; the smoldering hulk of what's left of Bell Labs has been acquired by French telecommunications conglomerate Alcatel, and continues to shed employees at a rapid pace.

Allowing Fermilab—once one of the crown jewels of the US national laboratory system—deteriorate to the point where it is practically on life support is, quite frankly, a disgrace. This isn't just about some scientists working on esoteric research projects losing their jobs (which, while certainly tough for those being laid off, is no worse for them than what goes on in the corporate world every day). It is also a barometer of our collective attitude towards science and the pursuit of knowledge, and I believe it has broad and far-reaching implications for the future of Western society. Are we losing interest in asking the big questions, and (as a result) also losing the skills required to answer them? I believe our competitiveness in an increasingly global market, and ultimately our very way of life are at stake.

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