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Global Viewpoint

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.

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In the US, industry participated uniquely in research and development, but this, too, has changed. One of the jewels of the research-oriented industrial entities was Bell Labs, where fundamental research was so advanced that it used to be said it was “the best university in America.” Bell Labs had some of the world’s leading scientists and engineers, and collectively they made pioneering contributions, from the invention of the transistor to the “Big Bang” origin of our universe.

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The broad-based, curiosity-driven structure of Bell Labs is no longer in existence, and other industrial labs have, for the most part, redirected their resources into research areas relevant to their market products.

From my experience in academia, I found that the majority of young people seeking research-oriented professions are driven by the excitement of their curiosity and the prospect of a decent job, but in the current market, Ph.D.-level scientists are holding temporary positions or are unemployed.

The average age that a principle investigator receives his/her first NIH-R01 award (National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant) has increased to 42 years, and experience from multiple postdoctoral positions is often necessary for advancement in academia. These drawbacks discourage younger generations from pursuing research careers.

What is clear is that progress in research requires the nurturing of creative scientists in an environment that encourages interactions between researchers and collaborations across different fields. But such interactions cannot and should not be orchestrated by weighty management, as creative minds and bureaucracies are inharmonious.

Today, officials in many developing countries are seeking mechanisms to reach the innovation level of the developed world, especially the US, but the core principles of innovation are often misunderstood. Regrettably, the same trend is creeping into developed countries.

One must then ask, is there a formula for “managing discovery making”? The answer is in the realization of and belief in the natural evolution of developments, from basic research to technology transfer, and then to societal benefits. For basic fundamental research to flourish, the nation must provide young people with a proper education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Additionally, a renewed vision for investment in fundamental, curiosity-driven research is needed. It is not in the best interest of the US to reduce R&D funding in the indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts of the national budget. Legislators must not impede the best minds from around the world from coming to America. But at the same time, and perhaps more important, they must make the necessary changes to reignite young Americans’ interest in science by exposure to it in the early years of schooling and through modern media.


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