Thursday, February 17, 2005

 

War-related research booms, Ph.D.s recruited

A major trend is for the U.S. government to pour ever more billions of dollars into war and security related projects. Since 2001, defense research has climbed 57%, to a record $75 billion dollars per year. Many of these projects are conventional or mass destruction weapons, which have little to do with anti-terrorism. This has already been a boon for government contractors, from the aerospace to the consulting sectors, and it is drastically affecting the kind of research positions that are open for Science Ph.D.s. In the meantime, agencies pursuing basic research such as the National Science Foundation, have started to see their budgets drop. At my workplace, one of the postdocs failed to secure an assistant professorship after applying to more than 40 universities nationwide, which resulted in the postdoc leaving academia to work with a defense contractor on a secret project. Of course, this person never intended to work on war related projects, but it ended up being the only available career choice. I expect such cases to become more common. Another issue is that curtailing basic research could be self-defeating. Will a decline in civilian research end up affecting negatively our national security in the long-term? This depends on whether defense research is dedicated to basic Science as well, which ends up being pivotal for defense in the long term. For example, the pressure is on at NASA to severely curtail or cancel Space Science projects investigating the structure and evolution of the Universe, favoring short-sighted excursions to Mars. The Hubble space telescope cancellation appears to send a message like this: "sorry guys, you are not in charge. WE (the politicians) will tell YOU what to do." I predict NASA will be pouring more money into high risk projects such as high impulse rocketry, which is one of the technologies that could be pivotal for missile defense. Mars would be the excuse to develop such rockets.

In the meantime, many scientists that may have expected at the beginning of their careers to work on building public knowledge for humanity, will find themselves working for dangerous war projects, snooping technology, homeland security, or weapons of mass destruction. These technologies are already making it easier to curtail freedoms at home, under the excuse of security. They have already produced deadly new weapons that madmen can use (i.e. the anthrax cases are now known to have originated form a U.S. government laboratory). The further effect of these policies is to detract many foreign students from enrolling in U.S. graduate schools, therefore reducing the pool of talent in the U.S.

I personally believe that it is mistaken to blindly assume that technology can help resolve a problem that is inherently political, like terrorism. Furthermore, the creation of new, terrible weapons, does not bode well for humanity, as it will create more problems than it solves. Case in point: remember Hiroshima. That was arguably a short-term "solution", but it created much larger, long-term problems. It is very self-serving for scientists and contractors to trumpet their technology as a solution to the nation's security problems. Profit from government contracts is given more importance than common sense. It is a delusion to believe that pouring money into a problem like terrorism will make it go away, thanks to technology.

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