Scientific and technological innovation is the fuel in the engine of our economy. Everyone knows it, everyone says it, and still it gets taken for granted in Congress. The problem is that politicians (particularly on the right) like to pick on specific research projects as examples of “waste”. I always think of Sarah Palin’s comment about fruit fly research:
If you don’t know how ridiculous this particular comment is, please read the wikipedia page on fruit flies. I understand this political trick, because spending millions of dollars on research involving fruit flies can seem absurd to a lot of people. There are a lot of projects of this kind in science, and unfortunately, in the United States, just like in middle school and high school, the nerds are the easiest to pick on.
Research is much more complex than some process where you pay one guy for one thing that you need and you get that thing a year later. Research is the process of generating ideas, building on ideas, exchanging ideas, proving and disproving ideas, etc. For that you need A LOT of different talented and passionate minds working on a huge variety of projects. It’s a crazy mix of collaboration and competition. Out of this soup of ideas emerge technologies that immeasurably improve our lives from the iPhone to to the treatment of heart disease. Guess what that soup needs… lots and lots and lots of scientists with crazy ideas and the singular obsession to bring their ideas to life. Both the scientist and the ideas need financial support from companies, from government, from the people.
Take away fruit fly research, and we’ll all have to go back to using rotary phones. It’s all connected. You can’t cut little pieces of research here and there. Pay the nerds, and leave them alone. They will come back in a year with a time travel machine and a robot that can bring you a cold beer from the fridge whenever you like.