ew Scientist

 

 

The War on Science: US science cuts pay for war – and we all suffer

 

New Scientist—July 23, 2011 

 

Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but the horrendous cost of pursuing the war

on terror will give his followers cause for celebration, says Lawrence Krauss

 

 

When Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, many commentators saw it as a turning point in the war on terror.  However, a host of measures suggest that bin LadenÕs goal – to strike a long-lasting blow to the system of government of the US  and to the health and well-being of itÕs citizens – may have been achieved.

 

Last month, the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a report entitled ÒCosts of WarÓ, which estimates the cumulative cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be up to $4 trillion.

 

What has this vast amount of money achieved? Both Iraq and Afghanistan continue to rank low in political freedom, warlords continue to control much of Afghanistan, and gender and ethnic segregation in Iraq are now worse than they were before 2001. At the same time, the US economy is in trouble.  Unless the countryÕs debt ceiling is raised by 2 August, the US will default on several of itÕs major financial commitments.  Many of the key programmes that contribute to the quality of the life of most americanÕs are under threat.

 

From a scientific perspective, the appropriations bills now before congress suggest that the USÕs dire fiscal straits will inflict long- term damage to its technical leadership.  The House of RepresentativesÕs Committee on Science, Space and Technology has recommended cancelling the James Webb space Telescope, the successor to the fabulously successful Hubble space Telescope, because the cost overrun of $1.6 billion.  If this project is cancelled, once Hubble reaches the end of its working life in 2014 we will lose our chance to witness the first moment in cosmic history when the sky lit up with stars, less than one billion years after the big bang.

 

Beyond the direct loss to science, we need to ask what what the next generation of bright minds will lose.

The remarkable images captured by Hubble have inspired a generation of people to dream about the universe and it myriad possibilities, and have doubtless inspired youngsters to consider a career in science.

 

For those of a more practical bent, funding for energy efficiency and renewableÕs could be cut by a whopping 27.3 per cent.  It is hard to imagine an applied research programme that is more relevant and important to the health and security of our society.  

 

Cutting that funding is likely to have economic consequences too.  In this highly competitive world, the country that leads the research and development in these areas will gain a huge advantage.  One only has to consider the fraction of the USÕs gross domestic product that resulted from R&D a generation or two ago into technologies ranging from the transistor to the microchip.

 

If, as a consequence of a decade of unprecedented military spending, we are prepared to give up our grandest intellectual dreams while at the same time cutting efforts to solve the chief technological challenges we face, have we not lost far more than we have won?

 

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Lawrence Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His most recent book, Quantum Man: Richard FeynmanÕs Life in Science was published in March (W. W. Norton & Co)