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Will America kill the curiosity that sent the rover to Mars?

The landing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity on Mars marks a historic triumph for NASA, space exploration, and American innovation. But the endangered state of curiosity-driven basic research endangers America’s capacity for future innovations.

By Ahmed Zewail / August 20, 2012

NASA Mars Science Laboratory engineer Adam Steltzner reacts to the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars as first images came into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Aug 5. Today, Curiosity shot its first lasers at a rock called 'Coronation.' Op-ed contributor and Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail says America's 'leadership is now threatened by decreased funding and increased bureaucracy' for science and technology research.

Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP/File

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On Aug. 5, I was among a group of people who witnessed the rover landing on Mars in real time at NASA’s Caltech-managed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The excitement of this historic moment was overwhelming as we saw the one-ton, car-like Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) break through the Red Planet’s atmosphere and slow its speed from 13,000 mph to zero. One glimpse of those first images more than 100 million miles away demonstrates America’s leadership in innovation.

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Appropriately named Curiosity, the Mars rover will, over the next two years, explore mysteries of our nearby planet. That is what science is all about – revealing the unknown. America’s past investment in basic science and engineering is what led to such a triumph and undergirds its leadership in today’s world. But this leadership is now threatened by decreased funding and increased bureaucracy, and this change could transform America’s position, economically and politically.

After World War II, scientific research in the United States 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 America winning the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes. American universities were magnets for young scientists and engineers from around the globe. The truth is that neither did we then nor do we now know what the broad impact of research on society would be: Unpredictability is in the fabric of science discoveries.

In much of academia today, however, curiosity-driven research is no longer looked upon favorably. Research proposals must address “broad relevance to society” and provide “transformative solutions” even before research begins. Universities are increasingly pressured to raise funds for operational costs, and overhead is on the rise. Professors are writing more proposals, reducing the time available for creative thinking, and increasing numbers of academics are involved in commercial enterprises. Faculty tenure at many universities is driven by how much money the young faculty can raise.

These constraints and practices beg the question: Would a young Albert Einstein, Richard P. Feynman, or Linus Pauling be attracted to the profession today, and would he be able to pursue his inquiries into fundamental questions in today’s environment?

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